Solar physics enjoys the blessing/curse of being a small sub-field of in the physics and astronomy community. The Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) has roughly 600 registered members out of over 7,000 registered members of the AAS. For comparison, the Division of Condensed Matter of the American Physical Society has over 4,000 members. My point is the that is if the physics world is Europe, solar physics is like Latvia.
One of the advantages of being a small field is that it is possible to track almost all of the post-docs and potentially permanent positions without too much trouble. I have been doing this for the past few years using the AAS Job Register and positions listed in the Solar News. Generally I would like to know what sort of job market I'm going to be jumping into in a year or two, but I'm also interested to see the effect of the recent economic difficulties on the job market. So here are the results:
In the US there have been roughly equal numbers of post-docs and long-term positions, meaning that on average one should expect to hold one post-doc before getting something long term. Roughly 60% of the permanent positions, however, are either research positions at national labs or observatories, or support staff (e.g., programming, education/public outreach, etc.). The situation in the US is also exacerbated by the situation in Europe where there are nearly three times as many post-docs each year as long-term positions. This leads to a net migration of foreign post-docs into US permanent positions, for which I have only anecdotal evidence.
In looking at the graph, one doesn't see any clear indication of the current economic turmoil aside from the fact that 2010 looks like a less-than-stellar year in all categories. This may be the result of two factors: first, it may take several years to see the effect of the poor economy propagate through the state and federal governments and the larger university community before it hits physics departments directly; second, the $865 million Solar Dynamics Observatory was launched in February 2010, so there has been a build up of hiring in related research positions and post-docs over the past couple years, which may partially offset a recession-related dip in hiring.
The bottom line is that solar physics, like all fields of basic science, is a tough career choice. There are a lot of very smart people vying for few ideal permanent positions. But trying to get into the field is not the career Russian-roulette that is seen in some fields.