Wednesday, March 10, 2010

AAS Employment Session

I am writing this on my way to Philadelphia, where I will be attending the Summit on Gender and the Postdoctorate, hosted by the National Postdoctoral Association. I'll post a report on the meeting next week, but for now I'll (finally!) post a summary of the Employment session at the AAS Meeting.

On Monday morning of the AAS Meeting, I went to the special session on Employment, organized by Anil Seth. (Full disclosure: I am a co-author on Anil's decadal white paper on Employment & Funding in Astronomy.  There were four speakers on the Panel, Beryl Benderly, a writer for ScienceCareers at Science Magazine; Rachel Ivie, a statistician from the American Institute of Physics, well-known for her studies on women in physics and astronomy; Jim Ulvestad from the Employment Committee at the AAS; and Steve Beckwith, chair of Research for the U of C schools.

From the point of view of someone in the thick of applying for jobs, what they had to say was not terribly encouraging. Benderly started out by noting that the employment trends in astronomy are tracking those of biomedicine from 10 years ago. I believe she characterized that system as "catastrophic." The upshot is that that too many PhDs are produced for the number of jobs available and that young scientists suffer for it. From the perspective of both the government and established researchers, it is cost effective and produces good science. So those who have the power to change the system have no incentive to do so. She also expressed little hope for change, since the system is so entrenched. She has also recently written an article for Scientific American about this, which I recommend you read, too. (hat tip: Young Female Scientist via Canadian GirlPostdoc. See also a rebuttal here.)

And in fact, the remaining speakers backed up the picture with numbers. Rachel Ivie presented some numbers of postdocs and faculty positions, but also noted that it's extremely hard to count the number of postdocs, plus astronomers sometimes get counted as physicists, muddying the waters further. Ulvestad estimated that the ratio of new PhDs to faculty openings was about 4:1, based on AAS membership data. If you counted non-university positions, it came up to closer to 2:1. Beckwith said that in steady state, the U of C system should be hiring about 7 astronomy faculty every year, but failed to mention anything about current and future hiring freezes until pressed during the question session.

Beckwith also had the audacity to tell a room full of young scientists, half of whom would likely leave astronomy, that our outlook is positive, that our PhDs would serve us well in jobs outside astronomy also. He gave an anecdote about his daughter who was an artist, and was waiting tables to make a living. To which one at least one person noted that she hadn't spend 12 years in school in order to wait tables.

Hardly any reference was made at all as to how the current economy is affecting jobs, at least until the question session. Given that the astronomers on the panel were essentially a couple of complacent old men with secure jobs, having them tell us not to worry about the job situation was not very effective.