The Astronomy Career Problem – it starts with the PhD

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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46 Responses to “The Astronomy Career Problem – it starts with the PhD”

  1. Iain steele Says:

    Lecturer is not the only destination that requires a PhD. Don’t forget all the people working at observatories etc.

  2. Thanks for this very insightful post. Same thing’s happening in the Life Sciences, though I anecdotally think the PhDs:Jobs ratio is closer to 60:1 than 30:1. We’ve really made a mess.

  3. “The others (nine out of ten, according to my conservative estimate) above must either leave the field or the country to find permanent employment.”

    Of course, going abroad is not the solution since most other countries have similar problems.

    As you note, the problem is obvious. The fact is that the slim chance of getting a permanent job is what motivates many people to work hard for little pay and with little security. While it won’t solve the problem, and alleviating it slightly is just a side-effect, I think one should also consider putting less money into doctoral students and more into permanent positions below the professorial level. Of course, the funding agencies will be against it since it looks like it will cost more and requires a long-term commitment. On the other hand, someone with a permanent job is probably more efficient on average than someone fraught with all the problems being a doctoral student brings with it.

    One problem with your idea, at least in the UK, might be the fact that, IIRC, lower degrees are sometimes given as consolation prizes to those who quit a higher degree before they finish. That stigma doesn’t look good on one’s CV. In countries where there is a clear order of degrees and only one path (the length of which can vary, of course), then this is not possible.

    If being a doctoral student is inefficient training for jobs in industry and business, a post-doc is even more so. In almost all cases it is obvious after the first degree who should have a career in research and who shouldn’t, so one should hire these people while they are still available (some good people, due to various reasons, can’t survive on soft money until they get a permanent job in research) and not make any false promises to the rest. The only argument against this is that the possibility to linger on for a while gives some people a chance who might not have had a fair shake earlier on and are able to catch up. In other words, one has to improve equal opportunity first.

    • I agree that productivity almost certainly goes up after completing the doctoral student phase. I also agree that there is non reason for every person with a permanent position to be at a professorial level.

  4. You’ve assumed that the number of permanent positions remains constant over the lifetime of an academic (~30 years). I don’t think this need be true, or at least not within a particular sub-discipline. For instance, astroparticle physics could grow in importance and take away jobs from other areas of astrophysics, or even other areas of physics. Similarly, the number of cosmology positions has surely grown at the expense of, say, the declining number of nuclear physicists over the last few decades.

    But your general point is probably still valid even if the numbers perhaps aren’t quite as bad as you indicated.

  5. Well at least some people are having a genuine go at doing something about this problem:

    http://scienceisvital.org.uk/2011/10/06/careering-out-of-control-a-crisis-in-the-uk-science-profession/

    I particularly like this quote, which I think is very apt:

    “Scientific career structures are too pyramidal. We need lots of PhD students and postdocs to do the research, but we don’t have PI jobs for them to go on to. This wouldn’t be a problem if there were non-PI, staff scientist jobs, but there aren’t. This means that anyone who ultimately lacks the skill set and sheer luck to make it to PI is wasting their time, even though they may be an excellent bench scientist. It also means that skills and experience are constantly leaching out of science as people fall off the pyramid, which is mad considering that the taxpayer has spent a fortune enabling people
    to acquire those skills and experience. Imagine if teaching had a career structure where you either made it to head-teacher by 40 or you left the profession, and as a result almost [all] teaching was make it to head. ”

    A major part of the problem is we train far too many PhD students (I heard STFC doubled numbers in recent years – but where are the extra jobs for them?) in my opinion. I think we should reduce this and redirect that funding into more permanent research positions to solve the career problems of current postdocs. And then in future with reduced PhD numbers the whole system is far more sustainable, and will have a lot less disgruntled younger scientists unable to find employment.

  6. And one other thing I think it was mentioned post-docs don’t prepare people for industry – nevertheless in particle physics I know plenty of people who have given up hope of a permanent academic job in early to mid 30’s and not had any major problem securing a well paid job in industry. Perhaps that very specific to particle physics people due to their skill set, and not true in general – interesting if others (not just astronomers) can comment on their fields.

    • I can comment. 😐 The problem is not finding a job elsewhere; the problem is the cost to the taxpayer. The typical postdoc who goes into industry would do just as well had he left research after the master’s degree (probably better, since his starting pay wouldn’t be much less, if at all, and he would later have more pay, assuming normal pay rises, since he started earlier). Some (most?) play the game as long as they can and are then forced to leave. These folks don’t see it as wasted time, since it was fun while it lasted. So, here, there is a trade-off between wasted taxpayer money and having eager young people doing the work. On the other hand, there are people who never intend to stay on in academia, and make no secret about this. It seems to me somehow wrong to give them a job, taking one away from someone else. (On the other hand, such people are not disgruntled when they have to leave—but they should leave earlier, after the master’s degree, not after the doctoral degree.)

      • How exactly is it a waste of tax payers’ money? They are doing research whilst they are doing PhDs and post-docs. Are you saying that doing research is a waste of tax payers’s money?

      • No, but I’m saying it could be done more efficiently. For the same amount of money, decrease the number of temporary positions and increase the number of permanent ones. There can be no doubt that this is more efficient, first since training is not wasted (i.e. the person learns the ropes, does a bit of work then leaves, with a younger person then to learn the same ropes) and second since the people doing the research don’t have to worry about a plan B, working on the side etc.

        One disadvantage is that one takes away the hope (but not a realistic chance) from many people. On the other hand, this is balanced by the happiness of more people with permanent jobs in research.

      • If one has a business which needs skilled labour, what should one do: hire people, train them for two years, let them work for two years then fire them; or hire them, train them well even if it takes a bit longer and keep them until they retire? Which model would the stockholders prefer? Probably the latter. For the same reason, tax-payers should prefer the latter model if they want the maximum amount of research benefits for their tax money.

  7. “Imagine if teaching had a career structure where you either made it to head-teacher by 40 or you left the profession, and as a result almost [all] teaching was make it to head.”

    Many consulting companies actually have such a policy: up or out. However, their fees are so high anyway than any inefficiency is hardly noticed.

  8. David Whitehouse Says:

    Interesting comments. I have questions that perhaps you could help me with?

    I was told that the number of astronomers in the UK has doubled over the past decade or so. Is this the case? If so, where are the jobs?

    And is there any measure of the appropriate number of astronomers the UK should have? I was once told that per capita we have more than the USA?

    Again I would appreciate it if anyone has accurate figures?

  9. When I entered a large U.S. university in 1971 at age 18, my intent was to major in Astrophysics. In my sophomore (2nd) year, I finally got around to talking to the department’s advisor for students. He truthfully told me that they usually could place their top PhD graduate in a post-Doc position, and in a good year, two of them, but that was about it. That really opened my eyes. I needed a job that paid real money when I got out — there was nobody to fund me for fun. I ended up switching majors to engineering (who were anxious for students in those years) and have had a very good industrial career. However, I always wondered what my life would have been like had I followed my passion in Astronomy as a career. Still, if I am honest with myself, my passion was likely not as great as many who stayed with it.

  10. John Peacock Says:

    The recent RAS demographic survey has the relevant data: http://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/ras_pdfs/Demographic_Survey_2010_-_final_report.pdf

    A few key numbers, comparing 2010 with 1993:

    1993 Permanent research staff: 817 total.
    293 academics; 169 non-academic; 355 in establishments

    2010 Permanent research staff: 700 total.
    499 academics; 120 non-academic; 81 in establishments

    How shall we summarise this? Total number of permanent research positions (broadly defined, and not full-time: academics teach, and observatory staff have organisational responsibilities) has declined by 14% (mainly due to blood-letting in the establishment area, presumably reflecting the RGO closure). But the number of academics has gone up by 70%.

    These trends aggravate the problems Peter mentions. In 1993, they were not as bad as he states: academics were 36% of the total, but only they train PhDs – so a typical academic could have expected to have three students who “got a job in astronomy” over a career. But now, the non-academic jobs have declined to the point where academics are 71% of the total. Moreover, the rise in academic appointments may reflect a period of enthusiasm in hiring astronomers via the creation of new astro groups, so that the age profile of academics is skewed to young ages: see Fig. 4 of the RAS report, which shows the median age to be 42. That means that (even leaving aside economic bad times), universities are unlikely to be hiring in astronomy at the mean replacement rate in the near future.

    The conclusion seems to be that prospects for young people seeking permanent jobs in astronomy are indeed very bad. To an extent, we have been here before. I got my PhD in 1981, and at that stage there was about one academic job in astronomy in the UK every couple of years. By those standards, the recent flood of university recruitments in the subject seems nothing short of a miracle. Most of my generation left the UK; I was able to stay thanks to a research position in the ROE – an option that no longer exists. The 1980s academic job crisis was addressed directly by creating a national “new blood lectureship” scheme (possibly sponsored jointly by SERC and the Royal Society – I forget the details). If the UK is to avoid losing many of the world-class researchers presently on short-term fellowships, something similar will be needed. But as Peter points out, this can’t sustain the historical rate of hiring: it’s just a measure to reduce the pain of the transition to a steady state.

    • i think many will agree that STFC ET&C’s current policy of not supporting junior fellowships is not a good one…

      beyond that the question of what is a steady-state, supportable level for training post-PhD’s – is more complex. reducing the number of PhD’s only makes sense in a situation where we _expect_ most of our students to go onto academia. whether those people would be better served by an MSc or a PhD…. i don’t know – my impression (in the UK) is that the MSc is for those who really aren’t sure – where-as the PhD includes those who are sure (but might not be up to a faculty post).

      …in reply to one of the earlier posts. i agree (from personal experience) that productivity improves after a PhD – but that is usually in response to the job-market pressures… offering permanent positions will just kill this.

      given the current situation – i’d keep the PhD levels as they are, increase that for immediate-post-PhD researchers, and put pressure on the down-stream posts (this is of course how you reduce gradients – by suppressing the steps between the different stages).

  11. Of course, there is a similar problem in economics where success is possible only through growth. The ghost of Mr Malthus reminds me that this is not sustainable.

    Of course, it is fine to increase the number of astronomers for other reasons, but it cannot be a general remedy for over-production (in fact, it probably makes the problem worse down the road).

    • Stretching my analogy even further, there is a problem that many people don’t have enough to eat. Increasing the amount of food, or redistributing it, can help in the short term, but as Malthus reminds us it can’t help in the long term, and in some sense makes the problem even worse. Just as couples cannot produce more than 2 children on average indefinitely, neither can professors produce more than 1 academic on average and expect all of them to get jobs in academia.

  12. It works EXACTLY the same in every scientific field, from mathematics to chemistry, in the United States as well as in the UK. Computer science may fare a bit better, but in most fields, it’s just too depressing.

    There is a lot written about this in the Web, if you just look. This is one of the oldest articles I saw on this subject:

    http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html

    The core problem in most fields, I think, is that the skills taught by the graduate school are completely disconnected from the skills needed in the private sector, and no one makes any effort to fix things.

    In astronomy, it’s even worse, because there’s simply no such thing as private demand for college-educated astronomers. A well-designed system would have a large class of taxpayer funded “research scientists”, who work full-time on fundamental problems without any teaching (or, perhaps, while teaching undergraduate or high-school astronomy.) 90% of all astronomy PhD’s would be routed into such positions, rather than back into academia.

  13. I certainly agree with Peter’s analysis here and with Bolognastyle MScs being a possible solution. I suggested such an approach in an appendix to the report on careers tat te RAS produced back in 2005:

    http://www.ras.org.uk/news-and-press/89-news2005/849-careers-in-astronomy

    Needless to say this wasn’t an scheme tat found favour with te ret of the report team since it was rather radical. Maybe it’s an idea whose time has come again…

  14. Phil Uttley Says:

    I completely agree with Peter’s thoughts on this. I’d also like to add another problem, which is that the overall increase in PhD numbers has made it harder to find top research students for many research groups in the UK. This is because most finishing undergrads who are looking for PhDs do not really have much idea of what they want to work on and more importantly, where are the top groups to work on that topic. They naturally then go with the hierarchy of quality that they assume for undergrad degrees, when in fact it would be more appropriate to consider the excellence of the group/advisor in the specific research field that they are considering.

    The upshot of this is that in recent years of PhD recruiting at my former institution, we often lost our top applicants to Oxford or Cambridge, whereas in the past (with fewer PhD places available) we would have had a shot at getting them, due to there being greater competition for places at Oxford and Cambridge too. Nowadays if you want an excellent PhD student you have to either hope to get someone who is really clued up about the research they want to do and know that your place is one of the best places to do it in (often a home-grown student who had a good final project experience – that was my own route to PhD); or get someone great who really wants to live where you are based (also often a home-grown undergrad with existing ties); or just get lucky and find someone who wouldn’t make the Oxbridge cut but turn out to be a great researcher. In my current limited experience (one PhD out of the door), I was lucky to get the latter.

    This would be less of a problem if STFC studentships were open to people from abroad, but also I think that if the UK required PhD students to have a research Masters degree, the problem would largely go away as those students would be much more clued up about what research they want to do and would have had plenty of opportunities to discover which are the best places to do that research.

    • As someone who has just about finished a PhD, I can’t agree with you more! A bit of proper research experience before starting, and a better idea of which university was best would, with hindsight, have been very useful indeed. As it is, I feel as though I have been playing catch-up for the last few years.

    • i think you are underestimating some undergrads. there are a fair fraction who come to interview at durham who have a very sceptical outlook on the benefits of “oxbridge” (although i admit that may be a selection bias). equally there are students who go and then realise it was a mistake (mostly due to the quality of supervision or “oversold” thesis projects).

      my impression is that, if you can get good students to apply and come for interview, then as long as you are selling them exciting science and a good working environment, there are still sufficient to fill the available PhD places – and most of the best ones go onto postdoc positions.

      …but i absolutely agree that being able to offer full studentships to european students would improve the situation radically. i still don’t understand how STFC can get away with limiting the support we can offer for PhDs to non-UK-resident EU nationals.

      • Phil Uttley Says:

        I think that may also be a ‘Durham thing’ – Durham definitely gains kudos for being a collegiate sort of place that is not the same as Oxford or Cambridge (not least for being in the North, so you attract a lot of people locally too). But also, I think it is well known that Durham is a top place in cosmology/structure formation, more so than other places are known for their specialties. In the UK, cosmology/structure formation is pretty dominant, and people tend to go down that path because they know that is a major field of research. Sadly, that is one of the reasons why I left the UK – not very balanced in terms of research, which for a population of 60 million is odd.

      • Phil Uttley Says:

        I should add that I still find exgal research wonderful, but I think that we have become imbalanced in that regard – success breeds success, of course, but that is not always the best way to plan research. Sometimes we need to ask where the most questions are, not who can ask them the loudest.

      • i think ~10 years back you were right – there was “too much” cosmology… but now there’s a growing band of exoplanet types out there – so the focus might have shifted once again.

      • Phil Uttley Says:

        Yes, that’s true – there is definitely a shift towards exoplanets. Research in the UK does develop very organically, and that may be a strength as exciting new research areas can expand quickly, although it can lead to imbalances and it being hard for University departments to plan ahead. Where I am now, in the Netherlands, they seem to plan more carefully how they will split things, it’s definitely a more ‘managed’ environment, but perhaps this makes things a bit more stable in the long run (although tell that to the people in Utrecht…).

      • telescoper Says:

        I think the problem isn’t too much cosmology, it’s too much stamp collecting…

  15. Bryn Jones Says:

    It is very welcome that senior academics have expressed here the opinion that there are severe deficiencies in the career system in university science, and that the imbalance between the number of PhD studentships and long-term positions is an acute problem.

    My view is that the ratio of PhD studentships per year and the average number of appointments to long-term positions per year is a critically important statistic. I believe the figure is about 15:1 in British astronomy, broadly consistent with Peter’s estimate in his essay above.

    My view is that a research community with a ratio larger than 3:1 will be one with significant problems, and one worse than 4:1 will operate with a sense of crisis. The problems include a demoralised workforce, a waste of talent, a waste of resources, and a dependence on random factors such as luck and patronage to advance careers. Such a community will see individuals with certain characteristics – such as being white-skinned, male, middle-class or pushy – experience preferential advancement. There will be an assumption that talented young individuals will not establish careers, and with that assumption comes a lack of the support that should be granted to all students and employees as of right.

    However, I believe that the academic community in Britain is compromised by other factors as well, particularly a hierarchy that prevents talented non-tenured individuals from taking initiatives (unless actively encouraged by established academics). These factors together mean that university scientific research in Britain is barely functioning, apart from in a way that exploits people as cheap labour.

    The current system is unsustainable. It is failing.

    • “Such a community will see individuals with certain characteristics – such as being white-skinned, male, middle-class or pushy – experience preferential advancement.”

      Why is that? Prejudice exists even where the boundary conditions are not as brutal.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      The process that applies is one where people tend to understand better those people from similar backgrounds to their own, even if it is done only subconsciously. Academics will be more impressed by those people who behave in ways they expect and appreciate, and will find it less easy to interact with those people whose backgrounds are different to their own.

      It is those people who impress who will be given preferential career support. They will be supported in applying for fellowships. Care will be taken to ensure that travel funds are spent on people who impress, while giving conference talks can be critical in selling a younger individual to potential employers. Those people who impress are more likely to be listed on grant applications as individuals to appointed as the postdoc. Positive words will be said to potential employers about those people for whom academics have favourable impressions.

      There is unintentional, subconscious, accidental, preferential support for people who behave in ways that are similar to established academics. That support can be crucial in advancing the careers of certain individuals in an overly competitive career system.

      If the system were less competitive, patronage would be less important, and talent would stand out more easily.

      • “If the system were less competitive, patronage would be less important, and talent would stand out more easily.”

        I see your point, but I’m not so sure. “Competitive”, here, means that there are many more applicants than positions. As such, there are many applicants per position (but not as many as one might think, since many applicants apply for more than one position). This means that there are many applications to read through, so the idea is that most won’t be read in detail and patronage can be the deciding factor. Maybe, if one is corrupt. On the other hand, the sheer number of candidates can be an incentive to come up with more objective measures of quality. Also, if one is prejudiced, one might tend to make that one hire be someone who conforms to one’s idea of a “good” person (white, male etc in the example above) and could always use small-number statistics as an excuse, while this won’t work if there is a larger pool of applicants. If we look at really competitive things (many more would-be members than members) such as, say, premier-league football, then we find quite a bit of diversity. On the other hand, it looks like prejudice does play a role in determining membership to, say, a gentleman’s club, where there probably aren’t that many would-be members.

        I’m not saying the problem doesn’t exist, but I think it can go both ways, and certainly increasing influence of prejudice is not an automatic consequence of a more competitive selection process. (As mentioned here and elsewhere, I think there are many problems with the current systems, largely due to the large ratio of applicants to positions, but I don’t see competitiveness as the cause.)

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        What we have here in Britain is not just a competitive scientific careers system, but one where most people who start postdoctoral careers will have to leave academic science to find new careers, and where the structure is very hierarchical. Patronage from established academics is essential to developing an academic career.

        Short-term contracts mean, of course, that scientists on fixed-term contracts have to apply regularly for new positions. The quality of references from former employers and supervisors can be critical in this. Favouritism can be important.

        Here in Britain, researchers on fixed-term contracts generally require the support of a university department or institute to apply for fellowships. The Science and Technology Funding Council restricts the number of applications for fellowships from each university department through a quota: the number of applications from each department is restricted in any year. Each department chooses whom to put forward for fellowships, and getting a department’s formal nomination requires patronage.

        There are often restrictions on the ability of postdoctoral scientists to spend money from the grant that pays their salary. Active support from the grant holder is therefore needed for postdocs to go to conferences or pay journal page charges. Support is more likely to be given when the grant holder is more impressed by the postdoc because of a similar outlook. Admission into collaborations is done through a system of patronage.

        I believe that one reason I got on fairly badly with my PhD supervisor was because we came from very different backgrounds and had very different ideas about how gifted people might behave. Some people are intellectually showy, wanting to demonstrate when they know something. Others value diffidence and quiet competence. Somebody who is impressed by demonstrative behaviour will undervalue somebody who values diffidence.

        Patronage will be critical at each of a large number of occasions in the career of a scientist on fixed-term contracts. A slight favouritism towards certain types of individuals will multiply to select certain types of people.

      • “Patronage from established academics is essential to developing an academic career.”

        I agree with that, I’m just wondering if there is any evidence that there actually is “slight favouritism towards certain types of individuals” in the form of traditional prejudice as mentioned above.

        “Some people are intellectually showy, wanting to demonstrate when they know something. Others value diffidence and quiet competence.”

        This morning on the train, I was reading an article about George Harrison in the latest Mojo. The quiet one said “I just wanted to be successful; I didn’t want to be famous”. .-)

      • BTW, “agree with that” means I agree with your analysis, not necessarily that I agree that patronage should be necessary.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        No, I don’t know of any clear evidence of a subconscious bias acting in general to promote the careers of certain types of individuals. However, I have seen it happen in individual cases to promote some careers, and it may have been the reason why other people’s careers were not supported. And I have wondered whether it was factor behind why my career was often frustrated through a lack of support.

        It is clear that there are biases in the demographics of the research community. Women and ethnic minorities seem to be under-represented, as are people from a working-class background.

  16. […] preview post and you can also read the full tweet transcript of the meeting. Peter Coles has also written a good blog post about these issues, which is attracting some interesting […]

  17. One other argument I like to make is that the current “situation” is really a market solution to maximize people-years spent on science per $1 (£1) of taxpayer money.

    As it often happens with market solutions, you get a decent result on your primary variable and all sorts of externalities, like 35-year olds with their minds filled with useless information about string theory or stellar evolution models, etc, etc, kicked out of the world of academia and forced to start a new career in the private industry.

    It is an optimal solution, because it is much, much cheaper to import five thousand smart Chinese, Indian and Eastern European students every year, pay them $15,000/year for five years while they are working on their degrees, pay them $40,000/year for five to eight years while they are working as post-docs, give them green cards (in the UK, I think, it’s called “indefinite leave to remain”), flush and start over, than it is to let a substantial share of PhD’s become permanent research staff with $100,000+/year salaries.

    • what kind of research staff earn 100k +? Lecturers starting salary is mid 30k’s. I suppose the argument still holds – get rid of people after 5 years of postdocs and train up a new cheaper phd student to replace them. Repeat ad infinitum.

      Cheapest? Yes – in the short term, but as someone else pointed out you pay more to the experienced guy because he can do more stuff in the same time as the brand new phd student, so its not obvious better economics.

      Someone else pointed out not giving people permanent jobs makes them work harder and be more productive – but in that case why are not moving permanent staff members to FTC then? Surely the same argument applies – it would make them hungrier for success and more productive too if they knew not producing the goods meant losing their career.

      • “what kind of research staff earn 100k +? Lecturers starting salary is mid 30k’s.”

        I am talking about the United States here, are you? Here, a postdoc makes 30-50k depending on circumstances, a high school physics teacher typically starts at 50k, and university professors make 100k and up (sometimes way up). I’ve just looked up salaries of the first three professors of astronomy at UCLA in alphabetical order. In 2010, they got $198k, $254k and $222k.

        “but in that case why are not moving permanent staff members to FTC then?”

        Existing permanent staff members can’t be moved (tenure!), but universities can and do allocate their budgets in such a way as to create new postdoc or non-tenure positions even if they can afford to hire new tenured faculty instead.

      • telescoper Says:

        Academic staff in the UK don’t have tenure any more than anyone working in the private sector does. We can be made redundant.

        Professorial salaries in the UK are indeed lower than in the USA, but with the pound currently = 1.5728 U.S. dollars, many professors will be earning well over $100K.

  18. […] of the primary problems with the academic career structure – as highlighted by telescoper is the overproduction of PhD students. We’ve convinced ourselves (and government) that PhD […]

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

  20. Shehzad Emritte Says:

    What I don’t understand is why the Universities are still advertising PhD positions when they know deep inside there is no prospect in the future these PhD. I guess they should stop. Students and Post-docs do all the research works and the Professors just get the credits. I strongly believe it is not anymore a good idea to pursue a career in Physics or maybe even in science anymore. It is better to be jobless without a degree (At least I know why I don’t have a job) than to not have a job with a degree in my hand.

    • It depends. It is indeed dishonest to imply that a doctorate is a ticket to a permanent academic position. This is not to say that such a degree won’t be of any help outside of academia, though personally those who print “Dr” on their business cards to impress people do the opposite with me. One can learn skills which are useful elsewhere.

      Old joke:

      Physicist: I’d like to apply for the job as taxi driver.
      Boss: Qualifications?
      Physicist: Master’s degree in physics!
      Boss: Sorry, all my drivers have a doctorate.

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