My Job Prospects

Well, this is depressing:

It’s easy to wish upon a star — but if you want to make a living studying them, things get quite a bit tougher.

Take a look at any astronomy-themed Web site, or tune in to a science television program, and you’re sure to be dazzled by the wonders of the universe. Black holes! Dark matter! Colliding galaxies!

What you won’t hear is what many graduate and post-doctoral students in astronomy today know all too well — permanent, tenure-track jobs in the field are rare.

Last year was a bad year for jobs. I know a number of top-notch people who got precisely zero offers. Not being a top-notch person myself, I didn’t even get short-listed. Were it not for the funds remaining on my HST grant, I would be out of astronomy right now. And I’m convinced that if I don’t land a big NSF grant, my astronomy career will be over by August.

This has been going on for a while — it’s the spooky music that underlies the beautiful images you see from Hubble. Astronomy programs have been graduating way more Ph.D.’s than there are permanent jobs.

I started doing astronomy in 1993 and have enjoyed it immensely. Graduate school was one of the poorest but best times of my life and the people I suffered with are still my best friends. If I leave the profession after 15 years, I won’t regret the time I’ve spent here.

But I do sometimes wish they’d be a little more realistic with incoming graduate students.

One Response to “My Job Prospects”

  1. rpl says:

    It’s not just astronomy. My wife has a PhD in history, and she is seeing the same phenomenon. The problem is that across the board academic fields aren’t growing fast enough to support all the new students departments are generating. How many PhD graduates does a typical professor produce over a career in academe? Perhaps five or so? For all of those graduates to get jobs the field would have to quintuple in size every 30 years or so, when in fact the number of available faculty positions has been relatively stagnant.

    The universities’ craze for using adjunct faculty isn’t helping matters either. According to the chronicle of higher education, 25% of university faculty nationwide are adjunct, which means that they are effectively part-time labor with no benefits.

    The situation is never going to improve until people start approaching graduate school with a more realistic attitude. Most students will not follow in the footsteps of their advisors to become professors. That can be ok as long as everyone understands that going into the arrangement. Students need to have some idea of what they might do with their degree after they graduate, and universities need to provide more help with placement and career counseling. As it stands, graduating grad students are trained for one specific career for a decade or so and then booted out the door with none of the skills or resources they need to find a paying job. That ain’t right.

    My advice to a prospective graduate student today would be categorically not to enroll in any program that expects you to pay your own way. The earning potential of a PhD is barely enough to recoup the opportunity costs of staying in school; you’ll never make back tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt. However, if you can get into a program (like most astronomy programs) that includes tuition waivers, getting a PhD does teach you a basket of skills in reasoning, research, and writing that are hard to get anywhere else, and those can serve you well out in the “real world”.

    Anyhow, Mike, I’m sorry to hear about your career woes. If you ever want to talk about life after astronomy, you know where to find me.

    -robert.