Monday, March 9, 2009

Something I Would Like to See the Decadal Report Address But Am Afraid It Won't

The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey is assesing the "State of the Profession" in addition to science topics for the next decade. The study groups include Computation, Simulation, and Data Handling; Demographics; Facilities, Funding and Programs; International and Private Partnership; Education and Public Outreach; and Astronomy and Public Policy. The deadline for white papers is March 15.

The trouble is, the topic I want to talk about here doesn't fit neatly into any of the above categories. You see, when I think about "State of the Profession," I start thinking about "State of My Career Path" and then I start thinking about life as a postdoc and the glum job prospects in the face of a sinking economy.

Over the years, I have heard numerous young faculty speak nostalgically of their post-doc years, those halcyon days when all they had to do was their own research, but now they are bogged down with teaching and committee work and writing grant proposals, etc etc. Considering how I feel about being a postdoc right now, I'm not really looking forward to the future, if this is as good as it gets.

Here's the thing: astronomy PhDs spend on average 6-7 years as postdocs before they land faculty positions (source). That's about 2-3 three-year postdocs. This means that you are moving every three years (or more frequently) from the time you graduate, because more often than not, the job chooses you, rather than the other ways around. In other words, you are spending your late twenties and early thirties flitting across the country just to stay employed. The USA is a big country, so it's likely that you'll end up living in a region of the country you hate. Also, three years is just enough time to settle into a community and start to feel at home, and just at that time you have to up and move again.

You're still applying for jobs practically every year. That's a big blow to your productivity right there. Add in some depression and stress about the low number of available jobs and a pile of rejection letters right about when seasonal affective disorder sets it, and it's a wonder that much astronomy gets done in the winter.

Sure, you might have the most amount of intellectual freedom that you ever will in your career, but what about the rest of your life? If you've got a spouse, you have the two-body problem to deal with. If you've got kids, you have an N-body problem, which is well-known to yield chaos. If you're single, you're probably looking for a partner who's willing to follow you in your crazy lifestyle. If you're a woman, throw in some negative cultural attitudes about working mothers or arguments about who has to be the trailing spouse, not to mention ringing biological clocks and rapidly declining fertility.

If I get talking with any of my fellow postdocs in astronomy, we're all worried about our futures. We wonder if it's worth our sanity and personal lives to continue in astronomy, given the nomadic lifestyle and limited number of permanent jobs. Sometimes I think that the ones who get the jobs are the ones who are stubborn enough to just keep applying rather than the ones who are the best scientists.

The thing is, I'm not sure that there are any easy solutions to this mess.

One solution would be to simply provide adequate funding through government agencies and universities to provide employment opportunities for everyone. However, given the state of the economy (stimulus packages notwithstanding) I don't think that will happen any time soon, particularly with regard to permanent positions.

Another solution would be to simply decrease the number of PhDs being produced to match the number of jobs. And now I hear all the department chairs out there laughing. Given that the number of students a department attracts is a measure of its success, I don't see that happening any time soon.

Still another solution would be to teach astronomers job skills that are useful outside astronomy. Part of the problem is that there's no significant "industry" component to astronomy as there is in say, chemistry or solid state physics. Just take a look at the Job Register: the bulk of the permanent positions (well, at least before all the hiring freezes) are at colleges and universities. It's the tenure-track or the highway, or at least that's how we're trained. Now I hear all the professors grumbling, "why should we bother investing our time and energy to train graduate students in astronomy if they aren't going to continue in astronomy?" To which I can only say, "why are you training them for jobs that don't exist?"

At any rate, I fear that any real solutions will come to late for me and many of my peers. I think this country is on the verge of losing an entire generation of astronomers because of the lack of jobs.

[Edited to add: I wrote this post before seeing Joan's below. She's got a different (and less bitter) perspective on a similar issue.]


Mrs. CH said...

"why should we bother investing our time and energy to train graduate students in astronomy if they aren't going to continue in astronomy?"

This attitude really bothers me - especially since there isn't nearly enough jobs out there for the number of PhD students being cranked out.

Loved this post - it sums up all my worries about staying in academia, which is looking less and less likely as each day passes. It seems like it's a whole lot of sacrifice for little return.

Kelly said...

Wow, Hannah, this post sums up my feelings exactly. I finished my BS in astronomy a little over a year ago and got into some good PhD programs, but the lack of jobs post-grad school scared me straight into the software industry (where, by the way, I make as much as most post-docs, with just a BS to my name). Most faculty I've talked with are dismissive of concerns like these, but of course they speak from the security of a tenure track job. Chalk up another one to the leaky pipeline.

Karen said...

Hannah - what about getting a wiki white paper going - similar to the efforts of the Low Energy Astrophysics group. This was an offshoot of the Facebook discussion group on Astro 2010 - so that would also be a good place to bring this up. Except as I write this comment I see you already have, and a couple of people are also working on whitepapers as well. That's great.... Seems like enough people are worried about it that maybe something will start happening...

As the previous commenters have said, this is a big worry of mine too. In fact I was at a UK event this week for young scientists to raise issues important to them to the government committee involved in science here, and I asked a similar question - about if the government had any plans to encourage a change of the career path which is so detrimental to keeping the best people in science (instead of just the most flexible or stubborn). I didn't think they'd pick up the question (submitted in writing), but they did - twice! Both to the main committee and to the main minister for science here! So that was great. To my surprise most of them said they hadn't thought about it before! Especially the disproportionate impact on women who tend to have partners also in science. Doubtful anything will happen, but at least they thought it was important.

Astronomum said...

I couldn't have put it better myself. Great post.

sarah said...

Well put, Hannah. I, too, get particularly frustrated with dismissive (tenured) professors that can't imagine that a student would consider being anything but just like them. I don't doubt they sacrificed much to get where they are, but I feel that many are out of touch with how much more quickly the number of students in astronomy has grown compared to the money to do it.

Thank you for putting words to this very valid concern for astronomers, young and old. Best wishes!

Maryam said...

Thanks for the post Hannah -- well put! If people are interested, a group of us has put together a white paper for the "state of the profession" specifically mentioning some of the issues Hannah raised:

If anybody is interested, they can join the co-author list by tomorrow, Saturday March 14, by emailing

John Parejko said...

Great post. This is something I've been worrying about a lot lately as well. It's a big concern of both women and men in astronomy.

I think you did a great job framing the discussion: the field is not getting the best astronomers, but rather the people who are most stubborn about applying for jobs. There is no guarantee that those are the same thing.

The post was well timed, too: my institution had a "big name" visiting lecturer this Thursday, and I got a chance to ask him about exactly this, because I read your post. Fortunately, he agreed that it was a big problem that he does think about. But he doesn't know what the solution is.

So, thanks for your post.

Arti said...

Thanks Hannah for so eloquently writing what many of us are thinking. I can't agree with you more how frustrating it is when faculty convey the attitude that anyone who chooses a non-academic career is somehow a wasted effort while simultaneously propagating the notion that the arduous path to tenure is necessary to only select the "best" scientists. So anyone who is unable to beat the odds is somehow worthless?

From one perspective it's terrible for young scientists that there are so many more post doc positions than permanent ones b/c it prolongs the period of uncertainty. But post-docs can also use that time to really examine whether a faculty or observatory position is what they want, and also build the skills to follow another career path if they decide to do so. I think so many post-docs get caught in the demoralizing cycle of constantly applying for jobs that they lose sight of whether they really want to be doing it...and so if they leave the field after 3 post docs they really do feel like they've failed and have very little idea of where to go next.

Perhaps we can try to build up some sort of network to share ideas about career paths (both in and out of "astronomy")? One of the things I find is many astronomers have very little idea of where to even begin looking for other types of jobs...or how applicable their skills might be in other fields. It would be great for people to have a forum to share their findings...and for people who've found success in other arenas to share their experiences.