The Problem of the Steady State

Just as a quick postscript to my recent item about proposed changes to the method of funding PhD students by STFC, let me point out the following simple calculation.

Assume that the number of permanent academic positions in a given field (e.g. astronomy) remains constant over time. If that is the case, each retirement (or other form of departure) from a permanent position will be replaced by one, presumably junior, scientist.

This means that over an academic career, on average, each academic will produce just one PhD who will get a permanent job. This of course doesn’t count students coming in from abroad, or those getting faculty positions abroad but in the case of the UK these are probably relatively small corrections.

Under the present supply of PhD studentships an academic can expect to get a PhD student at least once every three years or so. At a minimum, therefore, over a 30 year career one can expect to have ten PhD students. A great many supervisors have more PhD students than this, but this just makes the odds worse. The expectation is that only one of these will get a permanent job in the UK. The others (nine out of ten, according to my conservative estimate) above must either leave the field or the country to find permanent employment.

The arithmetic of this situation is a simple fact of life, but I’m not sure how many prospective PhD students are aware of it.

13 Responses to “The Problem of the Steady State”

  1. Of course, one should remember that most academics work in non-PhD-granting departments, and most permanent jobs in most fields are not in academia at all. I think what you really mean to say is that faculty at research universities must, in steady state, produce on average during their careers one PhD student who gets a permanent faculty job in a PhD-granting department. But to suggest flatly that the others must leave the field or country to get permanent employment is to take a very gloomy view of the value of the PhD. It is perhaps understandable that a large fraction of those seeking a PhD are hoping for a career in a major research university, and so your point about the realism of incoming students is a fair one. It is however disappointing that there are faculty and departments who believe that is all that their PhD programs are training scientists to do, and that is the only path that should be regarded as “success.”

  2. telescoper Says:

    Perhaps I was being parochial, but I was actually talking about the UK. Virtually all academics (i.e. those in higher education) here DO work in PhD-granting departments; there aren’t many physics or astronomy departments that don’t award PhDs. In fact, I can’t think of any.

    One of the main arguments for increasing the number of funded PhDs was that the skills acquired would find their way back into the general economy in the way you suggest. I think that’s fine and it is a success if such a person chooses to ply their trade outside academia of their own volition. I’m just arguing that people should be told the facts about their prospects of continuing academic research before they start.

  3. Peter – you are assuming that teacher-at-a-university is the only kind of astronomy job. That ignores everybody at a lab, or running our telescopes, and the kind of effectively indefinite research staff that exist in at least the bigger groups – certainly there are people like this in Cardiff. My guess would be there are twice as many such people as permanent academics. Finally, of that rate of one student every three years, probably half are from overseas; but of course only some of these end up with jobs as well. Overall my guesstimate would be that 1/3 apprentices end up with an astronomy job, rather than 1/10.

  4. telescoper Says:


    No I am not assuming that is the only sort of job in astronomy, but I was referring to specifically permanent academic positions (first sentence of my post). Including the positions you mentioned changes the number a bit but I doubt if it’s as much as you think and it wasn’t my point anyway.

    Nowhere near half the PhDs in astronomy are from overseas either. Moreover, as Bryn pointed out in his comment on the previous item, my numbers were intentionally conservative.


  5. I agree with Peter’s analysis.

    While there are some longer-term posts in astronomy in Britain, these are rather limited in number or character. There are essentially no non-university research institutes left in British astronomy (although some satellite-based research is carried out at the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory). Observatory support jobs are, apart from those at Jodrell Bank, all outside of Britain, even if they are funded (rightly) from British money. This leaves positions on open-ended contracts funded out of rolling grants in some university departments, and only a proportion of posts funded out of rolling grants are operated in this way (as opposed to conventional three-years-and-out postdoctoral assistantships funded out of the rolling grant).

    I do not notice longer-term research/support positions in the U.K. being advertised in the same numbers as permanent academic positions. Adverts for permanent lectureships do appear from time to time, on average one every couple of months or so (hence my figure of 8 astronomy academic posts per year in my other posting). The number of longer-term non-academic research posts is small. I know this because I am somebody who has been looking for such vacancies for much of the past fifteen years, and I have not seem them in any number: they are far fewer in Britain than the limited number of academic positions (at least ones that are advertised).

    I have worked in a number of British university departments over my career, and none of these had any number of longer-term research or support positions in astronomy at the times that I worked in them, the majority had only computing system management posts and nothing else.

    It is possible that a few British astronomy research groups have rolling grants and choose to use them to support open-ended contracts. However, these are limited, and we should be careful not to use this small number to distract us from the severe situation regarding careers in astronomy in Britain.

    When I think of those people I know who started PhD studies in astronomy in British universities, only a very small number were still working in astronomy ten years after being awarding their doctorates. A large majority have left the field. This experience, though anecdotal, is totally inconsistent with 1 in 3 people who start PhDs in astronomy remaining in the field in the long term. It may be consistent with Peter’s estimate of 1 in 10.

  6. […] this investment worth while ? Over at the PeterBlog, Professor C worries that we are over producing students, because only one in ten can become an […]

  7. Thanks Bryn for redirecting me to this thread. I just started reading this
    blog a few days ago, via Cosmic Variance. (I think it would be more
    efficient if all blogs were newsgroups: much easier to notice new ones,
    much easier to notice new posts and read only new posts, much easier to
    hide threads one isn’t interested in. But that’s another debate.)

    Of course there are positions for academics in the non-academic world.
    However, let’s focus on the academic world. It’s obvious that, in a steady
    state, each person is replaced by one other person, so to first order each
    professor will have ONE student become a professor, out of the many they
    supervise. I think this shows a weakness in the present system. One out
    of 10 doctoral students gets a permanent job in academia; the other 9
    don’t. For a fixed amount of money, it would be put to better use to
    have fewer doctoral positions and more permanent non-professor
    “senior researcher” positions. Let’s face it: it’s usually obvious even when
    they apply which doctoral students are really good, so there is no big
    loss in having fewer. Having more permanent academic staff greatly
    increases the chances of getting an academic job: fewer candidates for
    more positions. Also, in many cases doctoral students do stuff which
    involves the day-to-day operation of longer-term projects. As such,
    much time is wasted training new ones every 2 or 3 years.

    The problem, of course, is that even if the funding is constant, the
    funding agencies can at least in principle decrease it or at least avoid
    making a long-term commitment. There seems to be a belief among
    some politicians that there is a pool of researchers waiting in the wings.
    When something worth funding comes along, they are employed for a
    few years, then go back to waiting when the money runs out. Of course,
    few people re-enter the field.

    An argument one often hears against permanent positions is that there
    is too much freedom, i.e. the funding agencies can’t decide what gets
    worked on, or even punish those (by not extending their contracts) who
    are unsatisfactory. I don’t think that’s valid in practice, but the following
    scheme would take the wind out of this argument’s sails. If I am
    correctly informed, it corresponds roughly to the system in Sweden.

    Universities hire people only to teach. All research is done at universities.
    Contradiction? No. Permanent teaching staff can apply for research
    grants, for, say, 50% of their salary plus various other expenses. They
    then tell the university that they are cutting their teaching in half. The
    university says “fine, we’ll cut your pay in half”. Their total salary remains
    the same. The university can then use the money to hire temporary
    teaching staff to fill in. Since they will be younger and on a lower
    payscale, more can be hired, each with less teaching load. This allows
    for a constant stream of revenue to pay young people to teach, allowing
    them to get experience before applying for permanent teaching jobs
    (e.g. professorships). It also avoids the dilemma (job security but no
    quality control) or (peer-reviewed quality control but no job security).
    The university employees all have permanent jobs, civil servants for
    life. Excellent job security. At the same time, 100% of their research
    funding is peer-reviewed. This is the best of both worlds. The university
    pays only for teaching, research is funded by research councils. Thus,
    each system can concentrate on its own priorities and there is no
    unhealthy competition. Also, some people are excellent teachers but
    crappy researchers (e.g. Isaac Asimov) while others are excellent
    researchers but crappy teachers (e.g. Albert Einstein). With this system,
    each person can decide himself how much teaching and how much
    research he wants to do (which might vary during his career), the only
    constraint being that he can’t do more research than he gets funding
    for. (Of course, the university teaching job might allow for a basic
    contingent of research time, i.e. teaching and preparation and exams etc
    taking up, say, 75% of the employee’s time.)

    Yes, just put me in charge of funding world astronomy, and things will
    be looking up (pun intended) again. 🙂 I think this “Swedish system”
    has a lot of things going for it. It does need to be combined, though,
    with some permanent research positions. First, it is good to have SOME
    people doing 100% research, especially those who aren’t good at teaching
    anyway but are good at research. Second, it allows for more
    flexibility. While it is still the case that each professor gets replaced by
    just one person, in practice this is a person who just happens to be at
    that stage of his career when he can become a professor. It would be
    better if it were the BEST person. With the option of a permanent
    non-professor position, good people can be hired early on, rather than
    staying on soft money until they are 45 or leaving the field and never
    coming back, and still be promoted to professor later. The lack of such
    positions is a huge problem in Germany, whereas some countries at least
    have tenure-track positions.

  8. How can I get an avatar to appear along with my comments, like some
    of you folks have, rather than the nameless silhouette?

  9. telescoper Says:

    I think the avatars are for people with wordpress accounts. That’s less of a problem than the strange format of your last comment, which I can’t be bothered to fix.

  10. What’s strange about the format?

  11. […] it gives me the excuse to rehash an argument I have presented before, which is that most analyses of the problems facing young postdoctoral researchers in astronomy are […]

  12. Here is an interesting take on the situation from Physics World, featuring yours truly quoting Dickens.

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