Thursday, January 17, 2008

How Hard is it to Get a Job?

When I was applying to grad schools, Dr. Neilsen (my undergraduate adviser) told me that I always needed to think about where I'd go after I got done at wherever I was applying. So when I applied to grad schools, I did so thinking about what I'd do after graduating from that school. Most graduates from the programs I looked at seemed happy and successful, but there were always a few horror stories. We all have seen examples of people working long and hard for a PhD in physics only to end up bouncing around in temporary positions and finally ending up somewhere they really don't want to be. For example, I know of one case where someone in numerical relativity ended up doing post-docs for 11 years before finally taking a job teaching at a community college. Maybe endless post-docs that lead to a low-paying job teaching Newton's laws sound like fun to somebody, but that somebody certainly isn't me.

So how hard is it really to find a job? The American Institute of Physics reports a very low unemployment rate for physics and astronomy PhD's (1.7% for 2004), so people must be getting jobs, but what kind of jobs and how many years of post-docs do they have to endure to get to them? The American Institute of Physics (who have some great statistics on the physics job/education market which can be found here) reports "The median annual salary for respondents with PhDs rose to $90,000 in 2004 from $87,000 in 2002", with a median age of 48. I sure wouldn't mind making $90,000 a year in 20 years or so.

But how many people get the average rosy future and how many end up at teaching 12 classes per semester at Southwestern Montana Institute of Bovine Technology? Travis Metcalfe at the National Center for Atmospheric Research here in Boulder has figured some of that out, at least for us astrophysicists. In his paper "The Production Rate and Employment of Ph.D. Astronomers", he concludes that:
  1. Ph.D. production in the U.S. correlates well with federal funding 4 years prior (when most grad students were finishing classes and looking for a research position) and that every $100 million in federal funding will produce ~50 Ph.D.'s 4 years later.
  2. For every astronomy Ph.D. produced in the past several years, that same year there were about 0.5 faculty jobs open, 0.5 research jobs open, and 1.5 post-doc jobs open. That means that only about 50% of astrophysics Ph.D.'s will get a job in academia, but, on average, nearly all will get either a faculty job or a permanent research position. However, it also means that, on average, you have to hold 1.5 post-doc positions before you get there. If the average post-doc is 2-3 years, that means that, on average, it takes ~4 years to get a permanent position.
While I'd rather have a plum faculty position waiting for me when I graduate, 4 years of post-docs and the possibility of ending up at a national lab or research facility doesn't sound so bad. So at least from Dr. Metcalfe's point of view, our futures look pretty manageable.


  1. By the way, Travis Metcalfe also has a great paper on astro-ph about how posting papers on astro-ph leads to more citations. It's titled "The Rise and Citation Impact of astro-ph in Major Journals" and you can find it at

  2. Interesting statistics Nick. I wonder how many people who graduate with PhDs in astronomy want to go into academia and how many want to go into research right away.

    I think it is very smart to have a plan b. However, I, like you Nick, wouldn't mind working at a National Lab. You make more money for one thing. :)

    The average PhD physicist at Los Alamos makes ~$125,000 and if you are willing to do nuclear research it is closer to ~$150,000. I could deal with that cash. :)

  3. By the way, if Homer would move to Los Alamos he would be rich.

  4. Responding to Joe's quesion about how many incoming astronomy grad students want to work in academia, that depends on how you phrase the question. If students must choose between being a professor, working as a researcher, or the private sector, 86% choose academia (I would as well, as that is my top choice), 8% choose researcher, and 5% choose private sector. This is how the AIP asks the question.

    If, on the other hand, you ask people if they'd like to do each of those 3 things seperately, 91% say they'd like to work in academia, 44% say they'd like to work in a research position, and 23% say they'd like to work in the private sector. These numbers come from a survey done by the American Astronomical Society.

    My conclusion is that most students are like me in that academia is their first choice, but many of them think a research or even private sector position wouldn't be bad, which is good because about half of us will never be universiy professors.


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