Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Astrophysics as a Career: PhD Production and Jobs

My undergraduate adviser, Dr. David Neilsen, gave me a great piece of advice when I was trying to decide where to attend graduate school. He said “take the position that will most help you get your next position”. The more I have thought about it the more I realize the wisdom in that phrase. All too many undergraduates apply for grad school or grad students apply for post-docs without thinking about what they will do afterward. As much as possible one should plan his or her career in the opposite direction - chose an objective and then figure out how to get there in reverse order.

For 74% of all grad students that objective is to become a tenured professor at a large research institution or national lab. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t that many positions available. In 2006 there were over 1,400 physics PhDs granted and less than 300 new faculty hires at PhD granting institutions and 150 hires at national labs in the US. Obviously many of us are not going to do what we think we’re going to do. What happens to those who don’t get tenure-track positions at large research universities?

To answer that I turn to an outstanding paper by Travis Metcalfe entitled “The Production Rate and Employment of Ph.D. Astronomers”. I would generally recommend reading the paper - it’s concise and contains some valuable and interesting information - but let me highlight what I find to be the most important finding, shown in this figure:By comparing the number of jobs advertised per new PhD in astronomy, Metcalfe has essentially calculated the rough probability that a new PhD will hold each of these jobs. The take home message is that in astronomy, every new PhD can expect to hold 1.5 post-docs, which at 3 years for the average post-docs means 4 to 5 years on average, and then roughly half will end up in research positions while the other half will end up as faculty. However if we look at those numbers over time, the story gets less optimistic. In 1990, for example, there was only 1 faculty job for every 6 new PhDs, making the competition much steeper. However the AIP’s projection of the number of physics PhDs through 2012 is roughly constant, so hopefully we can avoid a repeat of the bad-old-days of the early 90’s where production was high and jobs were scarce.

The Astrophysics as a Career Posts:


  1. Is there any corruption factor in order to have the PhD that you want : relationship... ?

  2. P.-S. : And after in order to have the job that you want?

  3. Can it be a problem to be a Mormon?

  4. Cartesian,

    I haven't seen any sort of negative bias against me due to my religious or political views. I have heard some claims that in the social sciences and humanities there can be unfair biases against people with conservative political views, but I've never seen any of that personally. I can say that I am clearly in the minority in my political views. Fortunately physics is a pretty apolitical.


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