Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Part-Time Scientist

Today's guest bloggers are Catherine Neish and David Choi.

As funding rates decrease, and the number of PhDs increase, establishing a fully funded career in planetary science and astronomy is going to be increasingly difficult to achieve.  This trend is already obvious in the grant statistics for NASA, the primary funding source for planetary scientists, and a major funding source for astronomers (Figure 1).  So the question becomes: are scientists willing to work part-time, or will this decrease in selection rates force scientists to leave the field?

Figure 1: Selection rates for NASA ROSES programs (solid line) in the Planetary Science Division (PSD) and Astrophysics Division (APD) have been decreasing with time, as the number of proposals increases (dashed line).  Charts from

Of course, if you are a faculty member, you generally don’t need to bring in 100% of your salary through grant funding.  However, a recent survey of the planetary science workforce ( found that there are only 230 planetary faculty out of 1200 planetary scientists, with a yearly hiring rate of ~12 positions for ~65 newly minted PhDs. This leaves ~80% of the planetary workforce in effectively ‘soft money’ positions, largely reliant on grant funding.

This means the vast majority of the workforce is going to be impacted by the present downturn in selection rates. But just how difficult can we expect it to get? To quantify the effect of decreased selection rates on a scientist’s average funding levels, we created a simple model for scientists whose primary salary support is from grants. A decrease from a 33% selection rate to a 20% selection rate reduces the average full-time equivalent (FTE) an individual can expect over their career from 0.85 to 0.65, and cuts the average percentage of years at full funding by nearly one-half (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Results from a simple model examining expected funding levels at various proposal selection rates. This model runs 100,000 simulations over a 25-year career assuming a constant selection rate. For simplicity, this model assumes that a scientist submits 4 proposals every year (as PI or Co-I) at 0.333 FTE, unless that scientist is fully funded that year.

The essential dilemma for young scientists is thus: (1) Continue your scientific career part-time, or (2) accept a full-time position outside of your specialization. As PhDs, the odds of finding a job in industry seem to be quite high. In 2008, the NSF found that of the 752,000 individuals in the United States with PhDs in science, engineering, or health, the unemployment rate was only 1.7%, compared to 6.6% for the general population (

So how do you decide?  We have drafted a list of the benefits of both options below.

Pros of half-time academia:

1.  Allows one to pursue new ideas not developed enough to win grant funding, and strengthen any future proposals.
2.  Keeps you 'in the game,' and may provide more opportunities to achieve a fully funded position a few years down the line, when funding rates may have increased.
3.  Allows more time for "non-work" activities, including raising a family and leisure activities.

Pros of full-time non-academia:

1.  Provides a stable paycheck, and in most cases, a larger one.  Stable employment also reduces the stress associated with constant proposal writing.
2.  Provides a feeling of self-worth.  Generally, PhDs are smart, hard-working people and it’s encouraging to be recognized for those qualities.
3.  Allows one to explore a new field outside of the narrowly focused area in which we received our PhDs.

This, of course, is a very personal decision that many scientists have to make, but is not often mentioned in graduate school.  One solution might be to expose students to a broader range of career options before they graduate, through seminars or mentoring (such as the Career Paths Seminar at the University of Maryland  It’s also important to stress to students that these options do not constitute a failure in any sense, but rather a logical consequence of the waxing and waning of the funding cycle.

The authors reflect on our own thoughts below, and we welcome your feedback in the comments.

Catherine: In considering these two options, I think I find the second option more rational.  But in the end, I love this job too much to give it up.  I simply can't imagine myself doing anything else. If that requires me to work part time for some or all of the rest of my career, I will do so as long as I can afford to.

David: Finding a stable career is highest priority for me. Given the current state of academia and the economic outlook, it is no longer rational to narrowly pursue options solely within planetary science in pursuit of that goal. However, having a PhD is a tremendous asset, and I am very confident that my colleagues and I will be just fine in whatever career path we choose.


  1. Great post Catherine and David. It worries all of us that planetary science selections are so low, but I didn't realize they were low even compared to astronomy/astrophysics. I would be curious to see the other two divisions of NASA as well.

  2. Given the dismal funding situation, I am wondering what will happen a few years down the road to people who have a tenure-track position. How many will get their tenure denied because they do not bring enough grant money. Not because they are bad scientists but simply because the oversubscription is such that getting a grant is more akin to lotto.

  3. Kelsi, the plots for all four divisions in NASA SMD can be found here: Earth Science and Astronomy have selections rates near 33%, while Heliophysics and Planetary Science have selection rates near 20%.

  4. I think part-time by choice is obviously better than part-time due to lack of funding.

    For 2004-2009, I did a part-time (3/4 time no-summer) postdoctoral position at a federal lab. First it was lab money via a contractor, then via NSF funding.

    While it was unusual to request part-time, all entities-- the lab, the contractor, and NSF's program office-- were very accommodating. They didn't disagree with doing it, we just how to figure out how.

    Advice I was given prior and during if you want to do part-time is that it's all about networking. If someone gets a grant that has 25% FTE or 50% FTE funding, they usually don't advertise the position until they get other grants to bring it up to 100%. But the money exists.

    By stating to professional colleagues that you are interested in part-time, you can find that 'hidden money'. Being non-traditional, though, it is a harder route.

    But it does free up time to write books :)

    Sandy Antunes
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    now at