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.]