Saturday, August 25, 2007

More doom and gloom

Interesting to see Nature jumping on the no job prospects for PhDs and postdocs bandwagon (via Pharyngula). (Disclaimer - I haven't yet read the Nature article - no access at home - but I'm assuming that it draws the same obvious conclusion from the statistics.) Not so long ago their "jobs editor" Paul Smaglik was having a go at some anonymous blogging post-doc for daring to suggest that anything was less than perfect in their work life. But it is of course blindingly obvious that if every tenured staff member mentors on average even a single PhD student at a time, them the overwhelming majority of these PhDs will not subsequently go on to get tenured positions in academia.

Of course one can legitimately argue that it is fine for the vast majority of PhDs to not get academic jobs (and for a large majority of postdocs to never land a tenured position) - so long as they are aware of the situation and walk into it with eyes open, that's OK. But that hardly justifies the sort of situation where people complain about (and are reported uncritically on) the "shortage" of qualified staff simply because they "only" get 30 applicants per post rather than 75!


Dr. Lemming said...

I think part of the problem is the strong selection bias caused by the fact that PhD students are insolated from former graduates who go into fields other than academia. A friend of mine who did Engineering and I are currently going through the "Oh my God, there's an entire world economy out here which actually respects our achievments" stage right now.

James Annan said...

Of course even people like me are in a sort of half-way house: the govt research lab. ISTM that open-ended positions are significantly easier to find here (not this specific lab but in general), and the terms and conditions are usually marginally better in some other ways. Plus, we don't have to teach. We do, OTOH, get told what to do to a certain extent.

David Eaton said...

I was a physics undergrad at first, and the inability of faculty to see anything outside academia was far worse (in my experience) than what I saw later as an undergrad, then PhD student in Chemistry. It was understood that most of us in grad school would end up in an industrial job.

I in fact do work in industry, and have no regrets. I get told what to do in broad terms, but have a lot of freedom to pursue this as I see fit. In talking to my friends in academia, I get the sense that the price for intellectual freedom can be a treadmill of grant-chasing and result-pimping that squeezes the time left to actually do science.

I was also surprised like Dr. Lemming when I found out how focal and appreciated my work could be to business.

DWPittelli said...

30 applicants per post is of course a lot fewer than 75. So the trend is real.

More to the point, getting 30 applicants per post does not necessarily mean there is a glut of people or a dearth of jobs, even if all the applicants are qualified.

Suppose there are an equal number of jobs and of qualified job applicants. If each job-seeker applies to 30 jobs, then each job will on average get 30 applicants, even though there is a "perfect" or 1-to-1 correlation of jobs and qualified job-seekers.

While job-seekers likely won't get accepted at most of the jobs they apply for, they are likely to get accepted at more than 1 out of 30. As with college admissions offices, employers often accept someone who ends up going elsewhere.

I suspect that many people seeking academic jobs are in fact applying to 30 positions. This of course will vary with field and location.

I recognize the hardship of all this; it does consume a lot of time, academics are often forced to move long distances to find work, and as with college admissions now facing a world where everyone is applying to more than 10 colleges, it's harder for the employers to figure out who really wants to go there, and who will accept if a job is offered.

James Annan said...

Of course in principle it's equally possible that the number of applications per person may be going down, and this would be expected if jobs are easier to get due to lower competition :-)

However I would find a success rate of 3% pretty discouraging - I don't think I've applied for as many as 30 jobs in my entire career to date.

By strange coincidence, I recently advertised a post and got about 30 applicants, of which I'm confident that at least 4 would have been good. The basic point I made earlier remains: if you want more and higher quality applicants, there is a well-known solution in a free market...