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.


  1. Hannah I agree with you. It seems less astronomy jobs are available and with more applicants than jobs, where will early career scientists go?

  2. I'm still fairly early in grad school, so I have a different outlook (still pretty bitter, I suppose). But I got to choose, given the information about the job market in astrophysics, whether I should stay and get my PhD. I decided that I would, and I AM planning to go into an alternative career. I know that lots of grad students and postdocs have their hearts set on doing science, but what's the big stigma against going into policy, writing, education, non-profits...? That's the sort of vitriol I usually only hear from faculty. Many of those jobs are beneficial to society also, and a PhD can be useful. It doesn't fix the broken system, but it puts trained people's talents to use and employs them.

  3. Historiclly astronomers have done pretty well employment wise, staying in the field as well. Remember that most astronomy related jobs are *not*
    faculty jobs at research universites and a large number of them are very rewarding (think staff member at StScI or NRAO) as well as scientifically challenging.

  4. I'm going to disagree that it's offensive to suggest that PhD astronomers can effectively use their educations in careers outside of research astronomy (here I'm including institutions like the national observatories etc). As EZ mentions, there are many jobs ranging from industry to science policy to NASA management that aren't research jobs appearing on the Rumor Mill. This isn't to say there isn't a problem in that the ratio of soft money, temporary post-doctoral positions to permanent research positions isn't horribly skewed. And repercussions from the spate of canceled job searches in the wake of the economic downturn will continue to reverberate for a while.

    But I recall that when I started grad school, fewer than half of PhD's were working in astronomy. And I wouldn't be surprised if that fraction isn't lower now. My point is that it's important to enter any educational program with your eyes wide open about the career opportunities that await you. I think many grad programs do a disservice to their students by not providing the resources to inform them...but there is nothing to prevent students from finding that information (which is much more readily available now than ever before) themselves. Hannah, I think you're doing a great job of informing people about some of the issues in the astronomy job market. I think that it's important that people start considering their options as early as possible. Not just b/c they might "not succeed"...but b/c there are many other exciting careers that frankly pay better, contribute to society in different ways, and offer flexibility that may not be available in academia. I doubt that basic astronomy research will turn out to be the most fulfilling career option available to every person who gets a PhD in astronomy.

  5. Right now 70% of American high school physics classes are taught by someone with neither a major nor a minor in physics or astrophysics. There's a great need right there for talented scientists who get satisfaction from teaching.

    At Colorado 7 years ago Dick McCray found that students were getting poor advice and training about what teaching entails. This is true of many graduate students as well as undergraduates. (Hint - it's not standing up and showing power points anymore.) The challenge of excellent teaching can be as significant and rewarding as conventional astronomical research. I hope a majority of graduate students get the chance to see that. The number of high school physics teachers trained at CU has tripled during these 7 years. The students didn't change; our program did.

  6. I wonder, would the posters pointing to alternative jobs such as teaching physics to high school students be happy to have put in so much effort getting a Ph.D. and then switching to a completely different field be happy with that situation? Particularly, the idea of becoming a high school physics teacher after a Ph.D. does seem a bit offensive, considering that a much more effective path would be a B.S. in physics/astronomy and an M.S. in education. As graduate students, we are expected to work much more than 40 hrs a week with pretty much horrendous pay for many more years than it would take to complete a masters degree. We are also offered very little more than vague suggestions for alternative careers with no real network to turn to at the end of our Ph.D. process. This is particularly irresponsible on the part of graduate programs.

  7. To the previous commenter: I think the important thing, as has been mentioned, is to introduce students to the reality of the job market early in their graduate careers (or, ideally, before!) so that they have time to decide whether they want to continue and then to tailor their education to some field besides career science. I'm starting to organize panels and online resources to help students find out what's out there. It would be great if the departments would take on this task, but I don't see that happening yet.

    If you (i.e., general "you") see grad school as a necessary time-suck that will lead to a job in academia, rather than an opportunity to learn and do science, then you are likely to feel like that time was wasted if you don't get a faculty job, and you should probably do something else. But if you enjoy grad school, then you should stick with it and explore your options. As I've said, a PhD will help one be a better high school teacher (not to mention teachers with a PhD make much better wages than those with a BS - quite decent in my state). A PhD really helps, from people I've talked to, with pretty much any career you want to pursue. It makes you more independent, driven, organized, confident, etc., which are not skills tied uniquely to research.

  8. EZ, I agree that students should be made more aware of their options, but it appears that this is a difficult undertaking. Basically, the best source of information tends to be the advisor or more generally the faculty - however, most of the faculty have never had any experience outside of academia and therefore just don't know how to advise their students beyond the academic track.

    As for becoming a physics teacher, I disagree that a Ph.D. would help with teaching (beyond a higher salary). A masters in education should be much more useful, since it focuses on learning to teach, something that isn't taught in a Ph.D. program. Ph.D. students can get some experience teaching as TAs, but it doesn't really teach you to teach. Most students are encouraged to spend more time on classwork or research than on teaching duties.

    After your masters degree, you aren't really learning much besides becoming specialized in a very narrow subfield. Therefore, if you switch fields, the skills you've learned in that extra 2+ years are not necessarily more helpful than what you have already learned, particularly if you had a major research project completed for your masters degree. So, in a sense, the only useful part of the Ph.D. is the piece of paper itself which really doesn't make you more qualified for a field outside of astronomy than an M.S. or even, in some cases, a B.S..

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  10. I agree that its not as easy as one might wish to find sources of information about alternative careers. But the information is out there and the basics of the job-hunting game are not too dissimilar from other fields or careers. Talk to people who have jobs that look interesting to you and network like crazy. And when you are in graduate school, older graduate students and especially postdocs in your department are an invaluable resource as they are on the front lines of the job hunt.

    I feel very lucky that an older grad student grounded me early on by telling me jobs weren't guaranteed, to enjoy the opportunity I had to study astronomy, and then sell the skills I picked up to get a job I'd like. I chose an alternative career path after deciding a research career wasn't for me and having a PhD has definitely opened doors.

  11. Thanks for summarizing this, Hannah.

    One aspect that concerns me is the resistance from senior faculty to the idea of educating graduate students about the difficulty of the job market, and the need to consider alternate paths. I have encountered strong resistance to the idea of sitting down with grad students and discussing plots like figure 1 of the Seth et al. whitepaper (