Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Some Soul Searching

It has been a while since I last posted, so my apologies to any of you out there who might be reading this space on a semi-frequent basis. During these last two months, I've been busy doing a bit of soul searching about what it is that I am looking for with my job search. Those of us who set out on a PhD do so for different reasons, but for many we envision life after grad school as a professor. In fact, a former colleague of mine once confided that students who did not secure a research professorship at a university were a failure and a waste of valuable resources.

However, a quick check of the mathematics shows that it is impossible for every doctoral candidate to become a tenured research professor. If the field is neither declining nor expanding, then each research prof needs to train, on average, a total of one student over the course of their entire career.

Of course, this is an oversimplification. Just as the human replacement rate is in fact higher 2 children per woman, the replacement rate per professor is likely slightly higher then 1 student per career. Some profs, especially those at leading institutions, will have several students who go on to be other profs, while some will have none. However, we have all known a professor or two to be mentoring a group of up to ten or more graduate students at a time which implies a graduation rate of two students per year! It doesn't take a PhD to realize that not all of these students will become professors, no matter how good they are at what they do.

So what then are the alternatives to being a professor that still make use of the degree? In the analysis that follows, I am intentionally neglecting those who go on to work in other fields. For planetary science there are typically three alternate routes.

The first, and perhaps most popular route is to go independent and be a 'research scientist.' These are so-called soft money positions in which you only get paid if you are able to secure competitive grant money. Some of these positions are at Universities, but the high rate of overhead, (i.e. the portion of the money you earn that gets taken off the top by the university) and the extensive application process which may be nearly as stringent as for a professorship have led to the creation of new organizations.

Thus many research scientists find a home in in cooperative groups with many such researchers where the overhead costs are lower. The Planetary Science Institute, Southwest Research Institute and Space Science Institute are examples of these types of organizations. These organizations do cutting edge research and even direct missions, such as SwRI with New Horizons, arriving at Pluto in 2015.

The second option is to teach. Typically, exclusive teaching positions are not available at large research-oriented Universities (though there are exceptions). Also, while research is still encouraged, the time available for this activity is reduced compared to a Professor or Research Scientist. However, for those who enjoy working with and mentoring people, seek a better work-life balance and wish to explore their chosen subject matter outside of their comfort zone in a more relaxed setting, this can be a good option.

Thirdly there are positions in government and industry. While the Obama budget request for the coming year may shake things up a bit, ultimately, space missions are still run by governments and by defense contractors. Thus there are opportunities here to be a government research scientist, or to work on hardware, or to be part of the political process that creates the opportunities for research. Making these positions more attractive is the relative job security, benefits packages and highly attractive salary. On the downside, you may not be able to select your research, and your ability to conduct it will, in many cases, be even more restricted then with teaching.

So those are the options. But many come out of university intent on a professorship and nothing less. Can you blame them? Most have been high achievers all their life. Many have never known failure. As such, many new PhDs work in the relative purgatory of postdoctoral work. Postdoc'ing is neither here nor there as you are no longer a student, but are not yet in a professional post. You are paid better then a student, but in many cases are not doing work much different from one.

Further complicating matters is the fact that you may not be able to choose what research you do for a postdoc, especially in a depressed economy like one that exists now. Today, specialists are the only ones who need apply to positions. The fact that you have studied the atmosphere of Mars is no longer necessarily sufficient for you to get a job studying the atmosphere of Saturn. Thus, it is easy to run the risk of being pigeonholed to the work that you did in your PhD.

Also, you start to become aware that you have a best-before date hanging over your head. To be considered a viable candidate for an entry-level professorship, some postdoctoral seasoning is almost a prerequisite. However, postdoc too much, and employers start to wonder why you have not advanced your career. Generally speaking, in Planetary Science, the best before date is about 4 to 5 years out. Thus, this is a vulnerable time for a young researcher.

These are the lessons I've learned in just over a year of hunting. For now, I'm continuing with the postdoc route, but soon I may have to pick a way and go for it.

Feb 25 Update: more information on non-academic options for PhDs appears here: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/give-us-the-dirt-on-jobs.aspx

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