Do grad students and postdocs have a more difficult time these days than their professors did?
There's no one correct answer to that question, of course: some do and some don't. The general answer depends on the specific discipline; the decade in which the professors were students/postdocs; and the gender of the people being compared.
When I was a grad student, my fellow grad students spent a lot of time bemoaning how unlucky we were (compared to our professors) to be getting Ph.D.s at the worst time in history. I didn't participate much in those conversations because I wasn't as convinced as the other (male) students that I would get a faculty position if only there were the opportunities.
My impression is that there are more opportunities today in many fields of the physical sciences than there were in the 1980's and 1990's -- not in every sub-field, of course, but in many. Also, there are many new opportunities in new sub-fields, including those involving interdisciplinary research between basic science and engineering and between the physical sciences and life sciences.
If I consider my field of science in the most general way, there are more career opportunities, including academic positions, now than there were > 10 years ago. If I consider my particular sub-field in its most narrow definition, however, things were better back in the day, though unfortunately for many of my grad school friends, "the day" was already over by the time we were in the job market.
In some fields in the 80's and 90's, academic jobs were few. There was much written, particularly in the 1990's, about grad school being "a road to nowhere". Many dropped out or many spent years doing postdoc after postdoc (± adjunct teaching positions). I know several people from that time who did at least 6 short-term positions at different institutions in different parts of the country/world (I think the record was 8). Some professors stopped advising Ph.D. students, though the ones I know have all resumed owing to the improved opportunities for Ph.D.'s.
My students have more opportunities than my generation did when we were students, so from my perspective, things are better now. But again, this depends on how you define the sub-disciplines being considered. The field I was originally trained in, in its strictest sense, is heading for extinction, and you would be committing career suicide to focus Ph.D. research on it today. However, it's alive and well in a new incarnation. My students' training reflects the interesting new directions this field is taking, so they have more opportunities.
In some ways, female grad students today have it 'easier' than my generation did as students, and we had it easier than the generations that came before us. Some of the things I dealt with in graduate school as a matter of course would be unimaginable to the female students in my department today. There are more women students, there are more women faculty, and there is a greater awareness that it might be a good thing if more women were encouraged to become scientists. All is not wonderful, of course, but if you ask me to compare the situation for women grad students today vs. 30 years ago, there's no question whatsoever that the academic environment -- in a general, comparative sense -- is better today.
6 years ago