The Academic Physics Job Market, Part 2

It's job-hunting season in academia, which also means it's talking-about-the-job-market season. After writing the previous post, I noticed a post on the same topic by Steve Hsu, who was interviewed for a Chronicle of Higher Education article (temporary free link, look quickly!) about the lousy job market in science. Steve has most of the relevant bits in his post, including this graph about the job situation in physics:


Of course, being a contrary sort, I'd like to quibble a bit with the graph and its presentation in the article.

The article makes a point of noting that:

In physics nearly 70 percent of newly minted Ph.D.'s go into temporary postdoctoral positions, whereas only 43 percent did so in 2000.

Well, yes, it looks really bad if you choose to compare the situation now with the second-best year of the last two decades. I went on the market in the fall of 2000, and I can confirm that it was a great time to be looking for a job-- every college and university in America had made a bundle in the stock market during the dotcom boom, and they were all hiring new faculty. But you've got to go back to 1985 before you find a similar fraction of new Ph.D.'s taking potentially permanent positions as during the 1996-2001 boom. Looking over the full thirty-year span of the graph, the current situation is not all that far out of line. Yes, it's at the high end of the historical range, but this isn't some IPCC hockey-stick kind of graph, where we're orders of magntiude above the previous average.

The other thing that bugs me about this graph is that the dramatic swoops and dives create something of a false impression. Looking at this, you would think that the number of permanent jobs doubled between 1993 and 1995, and then was cut in half between 2000 and 2004.

What you're looking at isn't the number of jobs in a given category, though, it's the percentage of people who got Ph.D.'s in a given year who took jobs in a given category. That means it's a ratio of two numbers, and neither of those numbers is terribly large. And, in fact, if you look at the number of degrees awarded over time, you'll notice an interesting correlation: that high point in permanent jobs from 1996-2000 corresponds to the recent minimum in the number of Ph.D.'s produced, while the historical low point in 1993 lines up with the all-time high in the number of Ph.D.'s produced.

In other words, I think that you could reproduce most of the variation in the graph from the Chronicle article by keeping the total number of permanent positions constant, and letting the number of Ph.D.'s vary. What the graph shows isn't so much a change in the supply of jobs, as it is a change in the demand for those jobs.

Which is not to say that the job market doesn't suck. But I don't think that graph is an accurate representation of the actual suckitude of the job market in physics.

More like this

Care to put on your Alan Greenspan hat and forecast the market in 3-4 years (when i'll be defending)?

One thing we have going on in a discussion of biomedical job seeking is a thought that while the supply may be hundreds of potential candidates or actual applicants for a given job, most of these just aren't even vaguely in the running.

I think you've talked about recruiting issues before so when your department gets applications, how many of these really could be legitimately in the hunt? What fraction are so clearly unqualified or inappropriate as to can them right away?

By BikeMonkey (not verified) on 21 Sep 2007 #permalink

Speaking as someone who got a physics Ph.D. in 1990, the first thing I thought when I saw that graph was "I had no idea the market for new Ph.D. was so good in 2000!"

Also, in reading the article I was amused that it highlighted a particle physicist whose students were having trouble getting academic jobs. Two points: (1) Duh! When I started grad school in 1983, the first thing the advanced theory students said to the first years was "Don't do particle physics! There are no jobs and everyone is going into finance." (2) As if particle theory is all there is to physics!

By Chris Goedde (not verified) on 21 Sep 2007 #permalink

The thing the graph most resembles is a square wave.

Surely the plot reflects the equilibrium of supply and demand. If demand for physicists had been higher during the 1993 peak supply year, more graduates would have taken permanent track positions, or is there something I am missing?

It would have been nice if the chart had shown the PhD supply for each year, but it still looks like PhD candidates should be rooting for a Democrat in the White House. If nothing else, Democratic presidents either provide more permanent track jobs or they discourage potential PhD candidates thus decreasing competition for those jobs.

I'm old enough to tell you that the reason 55% of the jobs in the early 80s were "potentially permanent" was quite simple: There were few faculty jobs on the horizon, so most new PhD grads took potentially permanent jobs in industry. It is a major error to assume that the red line from the AIP data always refers to faculty positions.

It is also an error to assume (as I did at one time in the past) that Physics Today contains every physics faculty job advertisement. Not even close. You can expect to find the R1 jobs there, but not the ones from the larger group of non-PhD institutions. Include the Chronicle in any search if you don't mind a job like Chad has.

I will unabashedly duplicate a link to the second part of four (five when I get a Round Tuit) part series developed following some earlier articles you wrote. The 2nd part is probably the best entry point for the issues you raise in your two articles today and specifically addresses the question Stephen asks.

I don't explicitly mention it there, but if you chase some of the links in the articles you can find from the one I mention below, you will find faculty demographic data showing an age gap corresponding to the collapse that occurred circa 1969. There may be a hiring slump when that group would have retired, in the next 10 years or so.

As a side remark, the situation in the biomed area was, is, and will likely remain awful. The figure of merit for t-t faculty jobs at an R1 is the number of PhD degrees granted by your adviser over a lifetime. It is not good, but you can always do your best to get (and keep) that job. I suspect that many of the suggestions in later parts of my series apply to that area as well as physics.

Having been an Adjunct Professor in both colleges and universities, I can at least agree with the extreme volatility of the numbers of openings. There are years when I got lots of interviews, and years when I got almost no interviews, with essentially the identical CV.

In good years, I'd be a finalist for Department Chairman. In bad years, schools would neglect even sending the "there were many qualified candidates for the opening" postcards of doom.

This is part of why I am, for the first time in 34 years, a grad student again, getting fully credentialed to teach Physics, Mathematics, and English Literature in California public secondary schools.

My wife has teaching experience in 4 countries, and has been in her current professorship for 7 years. She agrees with the volatility, and has criticized me for not having starting my community college search before the previous boom year. Had I listened to her at the time, I'd be close to tenure at a CC, which can pay better and have other advantages over non-tenure at a higher-ranked university.

In schools where teaching is valorized, I've actually been criticized for prolific research and publication. I'd emphasized the extreme heterogeneity of American colleges and universities, in space, time, salary, quality, and other dimensions.