Archive for October 14, 2011

The Astronomy Career Problem – it starts with the PhD

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on October 14, 2011 by telescoper

Just time for a quickie today, as I’ve got to run an examples class before dashing off on the train to London to attend the annual George Darwin Lecture which, this year, is to be given by Michael Turner with the title From Quarks to the Cosmos. I expect it to be very enjoyable and may well write a report at the weekend.

Yesterday evening there was a discussion on twitter (#astrojc) about the astronomy careers problem. I didn’t take part – in fact I didn’t realise it was happening – as I was slaving over the Private Eye crossword at the time.

Anyway, 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 looking at the issue from the wrong end. I think the crisis is essentially caused by the overproduction of PhDs in this field. To understand the magnitude of the problem, consider the following.

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 in academia. 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. There is still a reasonable chance of getting a first postdoctoral position, but thereafter the odds are stacked against them.

The upshot of this is we have a field of understandably disgruntled young people with PhDs but no realistic prospect of ever earning a settled living working in the field they have prepared for. This problem has worsened considerably in recent  years as the number of postdoctoral positions has almost halved since 2006. New PhDs have to battle it out with existing postdoctoral researchers for the meagre supply of suitable jobs. It’s a terrible situation.

Now the powers that be – in this case the Science and Technology Facilities Council – have consistently argued that the excess PhDs go out into the wider world and contribute to the economy with the skills they have learned. That may be true in a few cases. However, my argument is that the PhD is not the right way to do this because it is ridiculously inefficient.

What we should have is a system wherein we produce more and better trained Masters level students  and fewer PhDs. This is the system that exists throughout most of Europe, in fact, and the UK is actually committed to adopt it through the Bologna process.  Not that this commitment seems to mean anything, as precisely nothing has been done to harmonize UK higher education with the 3+2+3 Bachelors+Masters+Doctorate system Bologna advocates.

The training provided in a proper two-year Masters programme will improve the skills pool for the world outside academia, and also better prepare the minority of students who go on to take a PhD. The quality of the  PhD will also improve, as only the very best and most highly motivated researchers will take that path. This used to be what happened, of course, but I don’t think it is any longer the case.

The main problem with this suggestion is that it requires big changes to the way both research and teaching are funded. The research councils turned away from funding Masters training many years ago, so I doubt if they can be persuaded to to a U-turn now.

This won’t solve the existing careers crisis, of course, but in order to make things better you first have to stop them getting worse.

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