Thoughts on the Academic Job Market in the Physical Sciences

I decided to add “Thoughts on…” at the beginning of the title to emphasize that, although I’ll present some facts, I’ll be expressing my personal opinions on the academic job market. These are my “2 cents”, and some people may disagree with them. And though there are some similar issues and concerns in the social sciences and humanities, most of my experience comes from the physical sciences, especially physics and astronomy, and I’ll focus on that. If you don’t have the time to read the whole post, my main (and obvious) point is this: for a number of reasons, the job market has been getting worse over the past decade or more, with detrimental effects to scientific research and education (and to scientists, educators, and students). This is just a brief intro to the issues involved, and I’m not sure what the best solutions might look like, but I’ll try to write about that more in another post.

Soft Money

For people with Ph.D.’s, in the past, they’d decide upon earning their degree (or earlier) whether to proceed with the “traditional” academic career or shift to another kind of career. Those who continue would consider moving to a tenure-track faculty or other long-term position at a college, university, or other institution. With the growth of “soft money, a euphemism for uncertain funding from external federal (e.g., National Science Foundation) or occasionally private sources, short-term postdoctoral positions and fellowships have proliferated. For various reasons, soft money has become a very important part of the funding landscape (see this article in Science in 2000 and this more recent article).

One consequence of this is that most people in astrophysics now need to work at two or three or even more postdoc/fellowship positions before potentially having a shot at a long-term or more secure position. In my case, I’ve already done two postdocs myself, at the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy in Heidelberg and at the University of Arizona, and now I’m a research scientist at UC San Diego and this and my previous position were funded by soft money. The job market for the tenure-track faculty positions has become increasingly worse, and it has worsened with the financial crisis. Note that there are other career options as well, such as those associated with particular projects or programs.

Another consequence is that every couple years people need to spend a considerable amount of time and effort applying for the next round of jobs. In addition, people spend a lot of time writing and submitting research grants—to try to obtain more soft money. As a result, grant acceptance rates are now very low (sometimes less than 10%) and senior positions are very competitive. All of these applications also take time away from research, outreach, and other activities, so one could argue that a lot of scientists’ time is thereby wasted in the current system.

Moreover, this system perpetuates inequalities in science, which I’ll describe more below. It also reinforces a workforce imbalance (as pointed out in this article by Casadevall & Fang) where the senior people are mostly well-known males and the larger number of people at the bottom of the hierarchy are more diverse. In addition, although it can be fun to travel and live in different places, for people in couples or with families, it becomes difficult to sustain an academic career. (See these posts for more on diversity and work-life balance issues.)

The Adjunct Crisis

The job market and economic situation at US colleges and universities has spawned the “adjunct crisis” in teaching and education. Much has been written about this subject—though maybe not enough, as it’s still a major problem. (There’s even a blog called “The Adjunct Crisis.”) The number and fraction of adjunctions continues to grow: the NY Times reported last year that 76% (and rising) of US university faculty are adjunct professors.

The problem is that adjuncts are like second-class faculty. Employers are able to exploit the “reserve army of labor” and create potentially temporary positions, but now adjuncts are relied upon much more heavily than before to serve as the majority of college instructors. According to this opinion piece on Al-Jazeera, most adjuncts teach at multiple universities while still not making enough to stay above the poverty line. Some adjuncts even depend on food stamps to get by. The plight of adjuncts received more media attention when Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct who taught French for 25 years at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, died broke and nearly homeless. Adjuncts clearly need better working conditions, rights, and a living wage.

Inequalities in Science

As I mentioned above, the current job market situation reinforces and exacerbates inequalities in science. The current issue of Science magazine has a special section on the “science of inequality,” which includes this very relevant article. The author writes that one source of inequality is what Robert Merton called the “Matthew effect,” such that the rich get richer: well-known scientists receive disproportionately greater recognition and rewards than lesser-known scientists for comparable contributions. As a result, a talented few can parlay early successes into resources for future successes, accumulating advantages over time. (If you’re interested, Robert Merton was a sociologist of science whose work is relevant to this post.) From the other side of things, we’re all busy, and it’s easy to hire, cite the work of, award funding to, etc. people who know are successful scientists, even though many lesser known scientists may be able to accomplish the same thing with that grant or position or may have published equally important work; but then more time needs to be spent to research all of the lesser known people, who can publish and still perish.

The author, Yu Xie, also points out that the inequality in academics’ salaries has intensified, some academic labor is being outsourced, and one can be effected down the road by one’s location in global collaborative networks. If one does not obtain a degree at a top-tier university, then this can be detrimental in the future regardless of how impressive one’s work and accomplishments are. We can attempt to get around this last point by spending the time to recognize those who aren’t the most well-known in a field or at the most well-known institutions but who have considerable achievements and produced important work.

“Love What You Do”

Finally, I’ll end by talking about the “Do what you love. Love what you do” (DWYL) nonsense. While this seems like good advice, since it’s great to try to follow your passions if you can, nonetheless it’s both elitist and denigrates work. (I recommend checking out this recent article in Jacobin magazine.) People are encouraged to identify with the work that they love, even if the working conditions and job insecurity shouldn’t be tolerated. The author argues that there are many factors that keep PhDs providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a PhD, but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL doctrine is embedded in academia. The DWYL ideology hides the fact that if we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time. These are things that every worker, including workers in academia, deserve.

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