Friday, April 9, 2010

Atrophysics as a Career: What's in a Name?

In my last post in this series, I claimed that there is roughly one faculty job and one long-term research job for every two PhDs in astrophysics earned each year. While that is currently true it’s also somewhat rare if you look back over the last twenty years. The average number of tenure-track faculty jobs per new PhD since 1990 is roughly a third. If you factor in that roughly half of those positions are at Masters- or Bachelors-granting institutions, that means that only one-sixth of us will end up as professors at large research universities. Furthermore only roughly 70% of PhD astrophysicists will remain actively publishing 5 years after graduation. While the 30% that are not publishing could include some faculty at Bachelors-granting departments, it is likely that a significant fraction of us will at some point leave the field.

That leads to the question who gets what positions? What separates the tenure-track faculty at prestigious schools from those that end up leaving the field or working as soft-money researchers? There are a number of ways to answer that but I’ll focus on two. The hardest and probably most accurate way is to track graduates of various programs and see where they end up. The easier way is to look at the faculty of various departments and track where they came from. I’ll talk about the former in this post and the later in a later one.

In 1999 Brad Gibson, Michelle Buxton, Emanuel Vassiliadis, Maartje N. Sevenster, D. Heath Jones, and Rebecca K. Thornberry put a paper called “On the Importance of PhD Institute in Establishing a Long-Term Research Career in Astronomy” on the arXiv. It’s a great paper if a bit dated. However I think the core of their work remains valid. So here are the big points:
  • Independent of where you got your PhD 60% to 75% of Americans with PhD’s in astrophysics remain active in research from 5 to 20 years after they get their degree. In graphical form:
  • Where you get your PhD does impact where you remain active in research. If you graduate from a prestigious program you tend to get permanent or tenure-track positions, while if you graduate from a less prestigious program you are more likely to end up in soft-money or other temporary positions. This is shown graphically by:

So here’s the take-home messages:
  1. If you want to be a professor at a research university it helps to go to a big name school, but not as much as you might think. Being in the top 25% of your PhD class in Wyoming means you are just as likely to get a permanent research position as if you are in the top 50% of your class at Harvard.
  2. If you want to keep doing research, it really doesn’t matter where you go as long as you are prepared to do that research in soft-money positions or other less glamorous appointments.

The Astrophysics as a Career Posts:

1 comment:

  1. There is as well the case of Descartes who did not have any appointment because of some religious problems, but who did pass almost all of his colleagues considering his mark in history. Otherwise a positive point about my work is that it is possible to have several PhDs, because you can have several equivalences.


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