Friday, May 16, 2008

Good Old Bad Old Days

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.


cmb said...

An interesting note pointed out to me by Alan Hastings, a theoretical population ecologist, is that there are distinct age classes of professors resulting from things like the GI bill and the Baby Boom. After WWII, there were a ton of new professors hired to teach all the new college students who could attend because of the GI bill. Then, when the children of that generation needed to be taught, there was another spike, further spurred on by the fact that many of those who got tenure right after WWII were about ready to retire then. These generational affects have hung around as oscillations in the hiring patterns of many fields. Obviously, because of individual variation these oscillations tend to increase in period and dampen and a more consistent level of available tenure-track positions, but the good news is that in most fields, we're in an upswing right now.

Helen said...

One thing that I think is overwhelmingly better is the ways in which we access information. I certainly don't miss long hours of fishing journals out of the stacks and more hours hanging over a photocopier. I don't even want to think about the days of paper card catalogs.

Anonymous said...

Today, it is much more competitive for academic jobs. Postdocs have to have a substantial number of publications to get interviews. Postdocs on the job market are submitting research proposals that look like NSF grants. They also have degrees from Ivy League schools. I had many profs tell me that they could not compete in today's job market. It is much more competititve today, but that does not deter me.

Mister Troll said...

Hrm - I wonder if you get the same journal I do...

Anyway, the difficult-er (<-- good word) question is whether there are more grad students/post-docs, relatively speaking, for the increased opportunities that are available.

pablo said...

In biology, you can find numbers here

In 40 years, the number of PhD is x3, the number of post doc is x 3, the number of tenure-track is stable. The percentage of PhD in post-doc positions 3-4 years after their defense went from 10% to 30% between 1973 and now (so the absolute number is ~x9).

There is a clear shift in the age distribution of the PI financed by the NIH, as you can see here
(you can probably find the original graphics in Science)

So you're probably too young but many of our Professors did their PhD in the 60s and there is no doubt that they had an easier career.

According to the British House of Commons, academia is the sector where you have the second higher rate of short term contract... and this is not good for the scientists and for academia

I summarized these number in a french post

PhysioProf said...

Well, in the biomedical sciences, funding is at its worst level in at least 30 years. Accordingly, the vast majority of universities are scaling back their faculty hiring, and independent PI positions are harder to obtain than ever. Grad students and post-docs are aware of this, and are this completely fucking demoralized.

ARL said...

Nobel-prize winner Steve Weinberg wrote an interesting article in Physics Today not long ago about this. According to him, it is as difficult (or as easy) as it was then. I will get the reference and post it later.

I think the main difference is that if one now goes to work in the industry, chances are (s)he won't be doing interesting research, somehow, I think that was not the case a few years ago.

Doctor Pion said...

All quite true. I put a detailed look at the PhD production data in physics on my blog last summer. Chemistry was probably similar, but I suspect bio-med research areas (which seems to have exploded more recently) will be heading into 1970-like period soon.

There was a very real event that took place when it went from 80 to 90% of every class getting a faculty position in physics (that is where mediocre older profs came from) to 5% or less getting an academic job, circa 1969.

The figure is now a bit out of date (as are some of the links) now that the AIP has updated its survey data, as are my estimates of the demand side in the following article, but the historic analysis should be instructive to those unaware of why those statements were made in the 80s and 90s.

alh said...

I can't comment on the shift in every field, but as one who is in the post-doc/starting a career phase I have seen one noticeable differene which was not the case among grad students I had as TA's 8-10 years ago. A post-doc is now REQUIRED, where before it was a possibility depending on the individuals goals, etc. In fact, it seems as MORE THAN ONE post-doc is required/expected, as I was turned down from multiple jobs and told, off the record, "if you only had x more years of post-doc experience you would have been first choice".

I don't have any actual data to back it up other than personal experience, but I've seen a shift in that mentality from when I started grad school to when I got on the job market, but maybe I just hit a downward trend in my field.

Whitney said...

Recently a colleague and I concluded that our advisor and his generation didn't really have things harder than we do (will), or that at least the picture is mosaic.

Information is instantaneous and accessible, but that increases expectations regarding the complexity of our work. There's no way I could get away with publishing what my advisor did for his thesis, because in terms of today's technology it's facile.

My advisor likes to talk about the OLD days, when science was done the REAL way (starch agarose gels, manual sequencing, etc). I haven't disagreed yet because I don't want to whine--and because I want to gather evidence.

Among other things, the national economy getting worse, meaning it'll be harder for me--even armed with solid credentials and a PhD--to do things like *buy a house* and *maintain my parents' standard of living*, things that would have been easier in an earlier decade.

Nicole said...

I'm not sure what is meant by "opportunities in many fields of physical science". If this means permanent jobs, I disagree. If this means paid temporary positions, I agree. I don't consider the latter to be an "opportunity", as that implies something positive, and I don't think the proliferation of 6-10 years of paid temporary positions while searching for a permanent position is positive.

In certain fields there are nominally more permanent positions now than in the late-80s/early 90s. However, the record for the number of applicants for each position is being set every year. I would be surprised, FSP, if this is not also happening at your department. But there are always exceptions to the general trend.
The ratio of job-seekers to permanent jobs is at a historically high levels.

About the issue of women, I agree that 30 years ago the discrimination situation was worse. But I am much less sure about 20 years ago (1988), you did mention the 1980's as a benchmark period. As you often point out in your blog, discrimination is alive and well. I am skeptical that it was significantly worse in the 80's.

The impression I got from your post is that for women, the situation is better now because even if there are few jobs and it takes a long time to get one, if you're even going to get one, this is still better than no jobs, which is what women had before.

chall said...

I do agree on the fact that it might be easier (better/agreeable) to do a PhD today, and also as a woman.

After that? Not so sure... Like someone pointed out in the comments, the number of PhDs and post docs have increased but the amount of t-t-professorships etc is stable. To me, the whole thing seem to have shifted from "being very hard to get accepted as a PhD student" to "very hard to get a postion after a PhD/post doc".

Not sure I think it is better but at the same time, there are probably more options for PhDs than a few decades ago... but it doesn't mean it is good.

Personally I am still finding it hard to accept that it is so hard for a PhDperson to get accepted into doing "other types of jobs" i.e. not acknowledged skills that you get when doing PhD and post doc, but rather than the limited view of what you can do. (if this makes sense?) I will try and write a blog post about it soon. Have been busy writing about XX and XY in context of career choices.

Kim said...

I haven't been on a hiring committee in my field for seven years now, so I still have a 90's-era perspective. (And a 90's-era perspective isn't pretty.) But I know that non-academic employment in my field is exploding, and that should reduce the competition for academic jobs.

I still advise undergrads not to get a PhD unless they are so passionate about research that nothing else will make them happy, though. The non-academic job market is very boom-and-bust in my field... and my research passion is in a sub-field in which jobs are disappearing. I'm glad the opportunities are improving for current grad students, but I'm glad that I'm not in a position where I need to advise PhD students - I don't think I would be able to handle training students for unemployment.

Anonymous said...

"There was a very real event that took place when it went from 80 to 90% of every class getting a faculty position in physics (that is where mediocre older profs came from) to 5% or less getting an academic job, circa 1969."

We're blessed, in that our "mediocre old professors" are all fantastic. I sometimes have moments of angst comparing myself to them. And, the people I'm talking about are not nobel laureates. They're solid, good researchers, who arrived at fairly "new" departments to begin their careers.

I think that one has to be careful in extrapolating quality from the proportion of people who succeeded -- the top 90% of Ph.Ds in 1960 could have been just as good as the top 10% are now. (Well, I'll admit that I'm more likely to think that the top 50% were just as good as the top 30% today, or something like that.

I think the problem in judging competitiveness, is similar to something that's been discussed about grants elsewhere (and applies to picking folks for faculty positions, and for admission to selective schools). I think we can fairly well rank people in 20th percentiles, based on the qualifications we're looking for, but that when we're trying to pick the .01% from the .02% we're pretty much at a loss, and that creates great unhappiness, a lot of work, with no particular useful gain.

Female Science Professor said...

By "opportunities" I mostly meant tenure-track positions, although there are also more permanent non-academic jobs that require a science Ph.D.

Re. postdocs: In recent years, postdocs are more commonly required for faculty positions at research universities in my field as well, but there are also more postdoc opportunities than there used to be. Departments are willing to hire people who are almost-but-not-quite done with their Ph.D., but then it is common to delay the start of the faculty position until the new hire has done a postdoc for 12-18 months. It makes a big difference in terms of starting a research program as an assistant professor if the person has first had a year or so as a non-student to focus entirely on research, but without the administrative and teaching responsibilities of a faculty position.

Our recent hires have no more publications (in fact, some have fewer) than I did when I was hired in the last millenium. Hiring committees read applicant's papers and look for interesting/creative science, not number of publications -- although zero publications is a problem.

Discrimination against women in science was significantly worse in the 1980's. I am no doubt influenced by my own experiences and those of the few other female grad students I knew at the time (I didn't have any female professors, ever), but it would take a lot to convince me that the situation was not significantly worse in the 1980's.

Anonymous said...

I know this question is not related at all.
But I don't know who to ask for advice.

I am a phD grad student doing research. I have generated very interesting hypothesis and produced significant data by doing experiments for about a year. Now My professor is writing a grant on my idea apparently not giving me enough credit. How could I approach this problem or should I? I feel like someone is trying to steal my glory.
What i want to know is can I student be a co-investigator?
your suggestion is very much appreciated.

Ms.PhD said...

Great post, great discussion.

I agree, in terms of quality of work-life, I do not miss the pre-internet, xeroxing-required days of research. I don't mind the library, but I do not miss the paper cuts. Or the dot-matrix printers. Or running sequencing gels. Don't miss those things at all.

In terms of job prospects, Pablo made the points most relevant to me- there are about 10x more applicants now in the bio-sciences, while the number of positions has flatlined.

So for us it could be said things are worse now than they were before the big boom in biomedical PhD programs.

And I went to grad school in the 90s. NOBODY told me there were no jobs. And I'll freely admit I was too stupid to consider that could possibly be the case. It never even crossed my mind.

And I'm with Kim- I'm terrified of having to train students to become unemployed.

FSP's point about better/worse re: sexism is an important one. I'm sure it was worse. I don't think I would be in science at the PhD+ level if I had been in school back then.

But I do wonder if we're not currently in a new period of back-room backlash.

I have met a lot of male postdocs who are annoyed by (what they don't realize are only a few token) women-only fellowships, for which they cannot apply.

And I frequently see, especially on science blogs, griping from male applicants that women are getting faculty positions.

The implication is that women don't deserve the jobs or funding, and only ever get it because of pressure for diversity.

If not denial or just cluelessness, I often see a lack of sympathy from male faculty and male peers. These are my co-workers and the men who are supposed to be writing my recommendation letters or hiring me.

In a couple of cases, I have tried to present the statistics showing that it is just plain harder for women.

But about half the time, this kind of information is met with defensiveness, irritation, and what I can only describe as backlash.

So I guess that approach doesn't work, at least not coming from me. It's certainly not a risk I can afford to take at this point in my career.

science cog said...

This is probably a generational thing with every generation thinking they have it hardest.

I must confess to thinking it is harder now than before in at least one particular way. Research expectations are rising everywhere even in teaching focused schools. But teaching loads aren't going down, instead they are going up. I've heard many older professors say they would never get tenure and promotion if they were subjected to today's criteria.

It is rare to find the kind of job security the baby-boomers and earlier generations had where they worked for just one company and retired. That sort of stability is long gone in all sectors of the economy.

PS my computer crashed just as I was uploading my comment so there may be two (probably slightly different) copies. :)

Female Science Professor said...

anonymous 6:33 - Students can't be co-investigators (officially), but can of course participate in proposal writing. When my students participate in writing a proposal that is funded, I mention this in letters of reference and encourage them to mention it in job applications. And, unless the student is about to graduate, the proposals they help write will fund their Ph.D. research. I assume you will be first author on publications resulting from this work, and possibly will be funded by the grant. If you are about to graduate and wish to continue working on this research idea, possibly writing your own proposals, then you need to have a serious talk with your advisor about how to proceed.

There is only one case in which I specifically did not involve a student in proposal writing on research related to his thesis topic, but I can already tell from what you wrote that this was a very different situation from yours (i.e., you have generated ideas and data).

Anonymous said...

A previous posted already noted the Weinberg article in Physics Today, but even more interesting was the letter in response to that article that appears in the latest issue (it includes a response from Weinberg). Personally, I am on a hiring committee for two tenure-track positions and we have had more than one post-doc turn down an offer of a job (and I can't fathom why since we're not a bad place to work for).

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP:
This comment is off topic, but I have been a long time reader of your blog and I thought you might be able to help me. I am a fourth year graduate student in engineering sciences and I was told by my adviser that I need to improve my writing skills. Now I am looking for possible resources (i.e. books, articles)to refine this skill. Any suggestions?
I find it quite difficult to bring this up with my adviser but I am a second language speaker and I think my writing deficiency is a more stylistic issue than grammatical, however any pointers on this subject would be greatly appreciated.

plam said...

I do think the mid-90s were worse, especially in Canada, where there were a lot of budget cuts.

In Computer Science, there was a lot of expansion in the dot-com boom. I feel pretty lucky about having a job; I think I was a bit past the tail of the expansion. (Sudden doubling of department size + undergrad enrollment drops = bad news).

I did do a government-funded postdoc, and it was useful---mostly so that I'd be paid while looking for a job---but people still get jobs without postdocs in some areas of CS. It certainly helped me "turbocharge" the start of my faculty job. (The necessity for a postdoc may change, due to the above).

Re: libraries: my advisor laughed at me when I said "Oh no! This article is not on the Internet!"

sylow said...

Since it is not possible to increase the tenure track positions in the short run, the only way to reduce the applicant pool seems to be to put an age limit for postdoc positions. It would be much better to drop out of academia at the age of 30 rather than 35 before your age starts becoming a handicap for nonacademic jobs since only around 15% of postdocs ever get a tenure track position in physical sciences.

Doctor Pion said...

I am a baby boomer, and the career comment above does not apply to me or my Greatest Generation parents. My brother fits it in that he has worked in the same aerospace operation for his entire career, although he has officially been employed by three or four different companies. My father had 4 different jobs as an engineer, and I have had several.

I know kids from my high school who managed to get 30 years in at an auto plant and retire (before age 50) before they were laid off. That retirement is not so secure right now. Others have been all over the country seeking the next job. Some of my grad school friends got right into an operation like Bell Labs with a career like that of my brother (same job, different owner) while others have changed careers several times.

BTW - the moderation delay kept me from seeing what "cmb" wrote about the damped oscillation, but that is exactly what you see in the physics data I linked to (where PhD production is again on an upswing).

As for quality issues, if your university managed to hire only high quality people back in the early 60s when you didn't even need to take a postdoc, it was a lucky one. Ours had a prof who insisted that Work was never negative!

Female Science Professor said...

anon 7:42 - There are probably quite a few things you could try and see what works best for you: on-campus resources (writing tutors, workshops, editing services); books on writing (though I don't have any particular one to recommend -- if you do a search, try using the keywords 'scientific writing' instead of 'science writing', as the latter typically refers to writing about science for newspapers, magazines etc.); and fellow grad students who might be willing to read your drafts and make constructive comments. If you just need to improve your writing style, chances are that practice and some constructive criticism will help you improve a lot.

Nicole said...

I'm still skeptical about discrimination being so much worse in the 1980's. I went to grad school in the 1990's, and there were definitely incidents. I've seen incidents in the last few years as well, it seems about the same level. It's hard to imagine this big drop-off within 10 years, and then a steady level after that.

And in my physical science field, job prospects are definitely worse for everyone, although if you want to say >0 is better than ~0 for women specifically, yes, things are better than 30-40 years ago. There's something that bothers me about putting it this way, but I'm not able to articulate it. Two of my former advisors told me they would not have had this career if they had to do it today. And no one ever says things are better for students now, they instead acknowledge how difficult the current situation is. Since everyone has a tendency to perceive what they went through as harder than what others went through, this is very telling.

Ms.PhD said...

sylow, there is an age limit in France, with time off for having babies.

Most French scientists will tell you that it's arbitrary and doesn't help (although I don't know from firsthand experience).

In the US we're trying to set official limits on the length of postdoc (say 3 years or 5 years, although some place allow as much as 7 years). Unfortunately there are reasons for exceptions and ways around these rules.

But I agree, we are dragging the whole thing out too long and putting off the decision makes it worse for the postdoc.

But it's hard to see from a PI's point of view why anything should change. They get lots of cheap labor out of us while we're here, and the longer we believe there's still a carrot, the more likely we are to keep reaching for it.

Biology right now is going through the same thing CS went through after the dot-com boom ended. Undergraduate enrollment is still up, but biotech stocks and jobs are down and the PhD market is flooded.

Too bad CS didn't really come up with a creative solution to this problem that we could just follow as a matter of protocol.

Biology wasn't thinking "Gee, that could happen to us! Let's avoid it!"

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that more professors departments are using graduate students as cheap technicians. Because of the accelerated pace of research (esp in biomedical science) you can't publish a paper where only one person does all the wet bench work - there's simply too much to do in too short a time if you want to beat the other guy to press.

This leads to a degredation in the quality of education students get because they are treated like technicians... and it also leads to a job market saturated with PhD's that will probably never get to be professors. I think the problem is less bad in very basic science (ie not bio-medical or engineering).

Anonymous said...

My experience supports altogether the notion that things may have gotten slightly better over the past decade. It has been certainly much easier for my PhD graduates to find employment/postdoctoral positions than it was for me 15 yrs ago (granted, they may simply be smarter than me but I think that they also found more opportunities).
In terms of faculty positions it is difficult to make an assessment because my field as a whole, condensed matter physics, has overall shrunk significantly (especially on the theoretical side) over the past ten years, and I am afraid it will continue to do so. But other subfields have been thriving (e.g., nano-bio-info etc ) and I think it is easier now to find a job.

sylow said...

I also think that the postdocs need to get career counseling in a serious way and have to gain skills that will be useful to them after they drop out of academia. Given the fact that less than 10% of postdocs end up staying in academia in many fields, this is imperative. However, the current practice is entirely different. It operates as a contracted worker program.
Ms. PhD, age limit for postdocs was recently imposed in germany as well. You have 6 years after you gain your PhD to find a faculty position. If you still don't have one after 6 years, you will never get one. I think it is quite reasonable. The postdoc process must be streamlined in USA too since the tenure track positions are at best flat.

Anonymous said...

Sylow, time limits on postdocs may indeed be a good way to go, but age limits are ludicrous in my opinion. I have (successful) colleagues who are a bit older for many reasons that have nothing to do with family. Some took time out to do non-academic work after undergrad or after grad school, some changed careers, etc. Not everyone follows the same path.