The current job market for professional astronomers is, for those of us trying to navigate it, absolutely terrifying. Finding jobs in astronomy is, in "normal" times, a highly uncertain and stressful process, and the Great Recession in the United States is having a profound impact on astronomy jobs, just like in most of the labor market. But perhaps the largest source of terror comes from within, from a foreboding among young astronomers that there are fundamental problems with the astronomy career path in the United States, and that a large fraction of us currently on the job market are not going to realize our dream of becoming lifelong professional astronomers.
The standard career path for the professional astronomer begins with four years of college to earn a bachelor's degree, followed by roughly 5 or 6 years of graduate school to earn a PhD. Next, usually, come one or more postdoctoral appointments (think "pure research"), each lasting three years on average. After this, the standard track has an astronomer being hired to a tenure-track position by a university (or sometimes a laboratory or observatory), earning tenure (effectively a guarantee of lifetime employment) 5 or 6 years later. There are alternate paths, but this path is what most aspiring astronomers try to follow. I myself have just finished my second postdoctoral position, and I'm searching for that tenure-track job.
One very important additional factor is the source of funding along the career path. Graduate students pay to attend school, though usually they earn a stipend and tuition scholarships by working as teaching assistants or research assistants for university professors. Postdoctoral positions are, in every sense of the word, "real jobs" (albeit with a time limit), with most salaries ultimately coming from the federal government. This money may come through fellowships sponsored by NASA or the National Science Foundation, or it may come from research grants awarded to the postdoc's supervisor (again, usually university faculty) by NASA or the National Science Foundation. There are a few other federal and non-federal sources as well. Astronomy faculty, though, more often tend to be hired either by public universities, which tend to get their money from state budgets, or by private universities or observatories, which rely heavily on endowments and tuition income. There are also quite a few professional astronomers, like those at NASA, whose paychecks come from the federal government, but a large fraction of tenure-track and tenured astronomers are not hired or paid salaries by the federal government.
Employment statistics in astronomy are not well-kept, but an attempt at a reasonably accurate trend of astronomy jobs through 2006 is shown in the graph at the top of the page. Let's focus on just a few of the lines.
- The solid black line is the number of PhDs awarded in astronomy in the United States each year. Over the past three decades, the annual number of astronomy PhDs has slowly increased, from about 100 in 1980 to about 170 in 2006.
- The dashed-dotted lines are the number of tenure-track astronomy faculty (blue) and (quasi-)permanent staff astronomers (green) hired each year. There is a lot of variation from year to year, but the number has been fairly flat at around 60 to 90 total positions.
- The dashed black line shows the number of postdoctoral hires each year. In the mid 1990s, that number was around 100, but it has tripled in the past ten years.
It doesn't take a PhD to see that only about 1 in 4 astronomers in a postdoctoral position will get a permanent job, whereas a decade ago nearly every postdoctoral astronomer could find a permanent job. This is a drastic shift in the job market in a very short amount of time, which means that even relatively new astronomy faculty may not realize the magnitude of the change.
You would think that our training in science should make astronomers valuable commodities in the high-tech industry. After all, we are trained in designing and running experiments, in complex statistical analyses, and in computer and instrumentation skills. So, shouldn't it be easy for those of us who don't get a permanent astronomy position to transition to careers in industry?
Sadly, the answer is no. Academic resumes do not fare well under scrutiny by most HR managers, even in good economic times. In times of high unemployment, like right now, there are many job applicants with a rich track record of success in industry, so it is even harder for an academic to get his or her foot in the door. There are other ways for academics to get recognized and hired by industry, but that leads me to the next point...
Our preparation as professional astronomers tends to omit building marketable skills. Most astronomers can write computer programs, but most of us use arcane programming languages. Most astronomers speak disdainfully of Microsoft products, yet much of the industrial world requires fluency in Windows and Office. We academics tend to view our research as an eternal and ongoing process, building on our past work, while much of industry operates on individual projects that both start AND end. These differences are not insurmountable, but they are significant enough to hinder the career of the former academic, and many of us are discouraged, implicitly if not actively, from spending time on developing skills marketable outside of astronomy.
Also, let's now consider those funding sources. Scientific research received a significant boost in funding from the stimulus package, and the current administration is amenable to increasing research funding. But remember, federal money does not create many permanent positions! Permanent jobs come from endowments, which were severely hit by the fall of the stock market, tuition, which has been increasing at an unsustainable rate, and state budgets, which are in crisis mode. There is not going to be a significant increase in the number of permanent astronomy jobs in the forseeable future.
All of this is compounded by one other factor: the passage of time. By the time an astronomer has completed two or three postdocs and come to the realization that there is no job for them in academia, he or she is in their mid- to late-30s, with little if any significant retirement savings and no easy path to another career. We've worked our entire lives toward a goal that we believed was attainable, that of becoming a professional astronomer. We've jumped through the hoops, we've been very successful throughout school and our early career, and now, all of a sudden, 3 out of 4 of us will have to leave the field altogether. Is it any wonder that many of us are sleep-deprived, nervous wrecks?
It is my opinion that the astronomical community needs to take a hard look at how we train and groom academic astronomers. Is the standard career path, the model that we've all been brought up with, really the best model? And what if, as some people suggest, this career path does lead us to accomplish the best science, but at the cost of creating a significant population of scientists who will not find jobs in academia yet who are considered overqualified for many jobs in industry and also lacking some crucial keys to success in a world outside of academia? How do we balance the demand for scientific progress with the needs of individuals?
These are very difficult questions, very complex issues, and I don't pretend to understand the questions fully, let alone have the answers. Yet there are several senior scientists (astronomers who I suspect and value their opinons) who look at those of us anxious about jobs and say, essentially, "suck it up and deal. I also had to walk to school, uphill, both ways, and apply for 100 jobs before getting one offer." This isn't just one senior person, nor a few. (And to my mentors and supervisors, it isn't you! Honest!) I appreciate their candor, and perhaps they are right and that the job market has always been this hard and frustrating. But there is a perception of a lack of sympathy, a lack of caring, and that perception is growing among the younger astronomers. That perception, whether correct or incorrect, only deepens the despair of those who are struggling to find a job, and that despair cannot be good for science!
Here are a few (of many) links to discussions about the current state of astronomy jobs, and science jobs in general:
- Employment & Funding in Astronomy, a "white paper" written for the 2010 decadal review of the science and career of astronomy
- One astronomer's summary of a panel discussion of astronomy employment at the 2010 winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society
- Career services webpages from the American Astronomical Society
- "Does the US Produce Too Many Scientists?" A draft article published on the Scientific American website
- A discussion of the Scientific American article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education
"Whatever model or models the nation chooses, many observers believe that the existing system of research by professors who constantly produce large numbers of scientists unlikely to achieve their career aspirations is near collapse. The real crisis in American science education is not young Americans’ inability to learn, or the schools’ inability to teach, but a distorted job market’s inability to provide them careers worthy of their abilities."