Friday, March 9, 2007

Astronomer Surplus

This week, as part of my work with the American Astronomical Society's Committee on Employment, I've been digging up statistics on the relative rates of training and employment of young astronomers. As in many sciences, the production rate of new Ph.D. astronomers by universities is completely decoupled from the global demand for trained scientists. This has created a huge surplus of young astronomers -- there are now about 3 new Ph.D. recipients annually for every new tenure-track job in astronomy.

The job market has responded by creating more and more temporary (2-3 year) "postdoctoral" positions -- a sort of holding pattern for young scientists who are seeking an academic or research career. In the long term, there appears to be no easy solution to the problem, since the incentive of the university system is to use as many graduate students as possible for cheap skilled labor, without regard to their long-term job prospects. Essentially, overproduction appears to be built into the system -- making the mathematical formulation of surplus production of astronomers similar to that for industrial pollution models, an unintended side-effect of the production process.

What I found in the numbers surprised me. Although the current situation is clearly unsustainable, it was much worse a decade ago -- with nearly 7 times as many Ph.D. recipients in 1995 than new tenure-track jobs. While the number of new "permanent" positions steadily increased throughout the late-1990's, the number of new Ph.D. astronomers gradually declined. After the turn of the century, something else happened. The number of new astronomers being produced by the system leveled off, but new postdoctoral positions grew dramatically. With fewer graduate students around, all of those new university professors had to hire postdocs to get the work done.

Of course this only tells part of the story. There has also been recent growth in the number of non-tenure-track lecturer, research, and support positions. This is just one example of the larger cultural shift to temporary employment that is happening throughout society -- it is not unique to astronomy. It may not be in the best interests of science, but there it is.

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