Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Employment in Astronomy

I've been promising a write-up of the Employment Special Session from the AAS Meeting, but honestly? I'm having trouble writing it because I'm having trouble detaching myself from the subject, since I'm on the job market myself. So, instead, I'm going to talk here about the Rumo(u)r Mill.

The rumour mill is a clearinghouse for gossip about who make shortlists, gets offers, and lands jobs in astrophysics, said jobs being almost exclusively in academia. On the one hand, it's the one weapon that we peons job hunters have against The Man. Knowledge is power and all that. On the other hand, it can also be a vortex of pain and suffering as you realize that the plum job you applied for has already drawn up its shortlist and you're not on it.

There's currently a raging debate in the revisions section on whether or not to post about people who leave astronomy. You can even answer a poll on the subject. (Currently, the ayes have it.) My own opinion is that it would be useful information to have. One of the reasons for the Longitudinal Survey, after all, is that there is little data on what happens to the people who leave astronomy. Do women preferentially leave academic astronomy? Why? I think the data would be great to have.

It is not unheard of, after all, to turn to the Rumo(u)r Mill as a source for data. Also, to only list academic jobs reinforces the snobbery that only university professorships count as successful careers in science.

As fascinating as the debate over whether non-academic jobs should be listed on the Rumo(u)r Mill is (it's like watching a train wreck, actually), I think the acrimony of the debate is a measure for just how bad the job market is this year. Not to mention that this isn't the first time that the comments have been less than civil (i.e. the kerfuffles over the Hubble and Einstein fellowships in particular). I think people are afraid that if they don't get academic jobs this year, they will be forgotten or be called failures. I also suspect that a lot of very good people will end up begin left out the cold this year, not because they aren't any good, but simply because there aren't enough jobs to go around. Seeing a list of those people might send a wake-up call to the community in that regard, because I would not at all be surprised if it isn't necessarily the quality of your work that determines your success, but your persistence and how much bull$#!+ you're willing to put up with.


Arti said...

I'm copying a post below that I just left on AstroBetter. I think this is an important topic, and I'm happy to help however I can.

I sympathize with the sentiment that it would be good to have a forum for providing information about non-research jobs (and job searches), but I don’t think the Rumor Mill is the place for that. I think it’s important to make a distinction between non-academic and non-research positions. Strictly speaking the Rumor Mill does include positions outside of academia (e.g. observatories, astrophysics positions at national labs).

What seems to be the issue is that many people are looking for (or turning to) alternative career paths that are not in research astronomy. And the desire to include those careers on the Rumor Wiki is driven by 1) not wanting these people to simply “drop out” of the astronomy community and 2) wanting a forum for other people to know about the opportunities available to astronomers. Both of these are great things, but they would both be served terribly by the Wiki…and expanding the purpose of the Wiki to include them would render it much less useful.

I agree that an alternative forum is the way to go. I tried to get one started last year, but my efforts sort of fizzled out (partially b/c I did not receive a lot of interested feedback, and partially b/c I got busy). I’m in a pretty different place now, but happy to be involved in trying again.

Alycia said...

Wow, another citation to my 2000 study of women on the rumor mill. I often fear that's my most widely read publication and it was unrefereed. Also, in 2001, when I was on the job market, I realized how horribly incomplete the rumor mill was and how it had detrimental effects for job seekers and hirers. Please, please if you read the rumor mill (and it seems like everyone does), keep in mind how incomplete it is!