Sunday, July 6, 2008

How poor are they that have not patience

"Thou know'st we work by wit, and not by witchcraft;
And wit depends on dilatory time."

3 days ago I got a skype job interview. It went very well. At the end, I was offered my dream job. It is not a professor position. Not anymore.
5 months ago, I lost patience. The following lines are a free translation of a post I wrote (in French) during this period on my own blog. I believe they are still relevant.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a PhD allowed you to become a professor. Then, a well intended person invented the post-doctoral appointment. Great invention! Right after 5 years of PhD, made to prove yourself in research, and just before 5-6 years as an assistant professor, where you can prove yourself before being tenured, here comes the post-doctoral appointment, meant to prove yourself. The post-doctoral status is so weird that I have to explain what it is every time I talk with people outside academia. It is so weird that my employer gave me... a student ID. Sure, I will enjoy some rebates. But that tells a lot about how the administration sees us.

I trully believe that one more article would improve my CV. As well as one more class taught, or one more grant obtained. But it's an endless race. And the reasons are pretty simple. The number of PhDs and post-docs keeps growing on while the number of professor positions is stable. The competition becomes harder and harder. You need more papers than your neighbor. One more post-doctoral year makes you more competitive. But your neighbor does the same calculus. And both of you spend one more year, and one more, and one more until one is lucky... or renounces.

Here are some data to support this claim. Through a Nature article (in Aug 2007), I found these figures on the FASEB's website. The numbers are for biomedical sciences only but certainly apply to other disciplines.

First, let's have a look at the number of PhDs per year in the last decades:

In a 30 years period, the number of PhDs more than doubled (blame the women's liberation ;-)

Whereas the number of post-docs...

tripled in the last 25 years (because of women and foreigners... god damn liberals!!)
Note that I am not quite sure of the absolute number: the FASEB cites this reference where the above numbers correspond to the total number of post-docs in all disciplines, of which biomedical sciences are a half. But the argument remains the same.

On the other hand, as I said, the number of tenured and tenure-track professor positions remained stable.

Consequence #1: what do the PhDs do? More and more are moving to industry.

Consequence #2: the competition for professor position increases as well as the duration of post-doctoral periods. The following graph shows the percentage of PhD holders being post-docs 1-2 years after their PhD defense.

And this one is the percentage of post-docs 3-4 years after the defense.

From 1973 to 1980, the proportion of post-docs 1-2 years after the PhD doubles and stabilizes around 50% (hence the absolute number increases continuously).
From 1973 to 1997, the proportion of post-docs 3-4 years after the PhD quadruples (!!) and then decreases. Note that this decrease is relative, the absolute number of post-docs after 3-4 years remains stable around 5000 in these last 6 years (compare to 500 in 1973).

En 1973, out of the 75% of PhDs that were not post-docs, a good number were professors.
In 2003, out of the 50% of PhDs that were not post-docs, most went to the private sector.

I don't know the number of post-docs 4 years after the PhD defense. But the table 8 of this document indicates that 15% of the post-docs got their PhD more than 6 years before. The absolute number is around 1900.

With 42000 tenured and 12000 tenure-track professors (NSF numbers), we can evaluate the number of open positions to be somewhere between 2000 and 2500 each year.

Patience is therefore a key factor to land a professor position. The brightest and luckiest will go faster but, for everybody, the delay increases.

And for those who believe that this is a good thing for Science, I let you read this report written by a committee of Lords of the House of Commons. The abstract is pretty explicit:
"For many researchers there is no career structure and little hope of obtaining a permanent position. The research in our universities suffers in such a climate. Many researchers are either new in position or searching for their next contract. Research is left unfinished or unpublished. [...] Universities have deflected the [financial] risk onto the researchers; this bad management has added to the plight of contract researchers. In this respect, universities have failed their research workforce and the UK's science base. "


Science Cog said...

Yes, the increase in tenure-track positions has not kept pace with the increase in Ph.Ds. So more Ph.Ds have to look at other types of positions or spend more years doing postdocs.

Someone once told me that patience is key - you have to hang in there longer than the next person. It can be difficult though.

Mad Hatter said...

Nice analysis of the FASEB data. I'm curious, though--you say you "lost patience" 5 months ago with the professorial pipeline, but was offered your non-professor dream job 3 days ago. So did losing patience result in your looking into alternatives and thus finding your dream job?

I think it can be difficult to determine how long one should be patient, and when one should cut one's losses and move on.

Pablo Achard said...

"did losing patience result in your looking into alternatives and thus finding your dream job? " > exactly! But patience was not the only issue, there were several things that, more and more, were annoying me (teaching a new language to my kids every 2 years, the IF race, the lack of team work, etc.)

I promise I'll develop more in another post (this one was long enough...)

The Mad Chemist said...

You mentioned in your post about receiving a student ID as a postdoc.

It isn't uncommon. One of the biggest problems I ran into as a postdoc was how the university saw me and categorized me. Was I a student? Academic staff? Faculty?

Most schools end up putting you where they find it convenient. And that can change based on the situation.

Mad Hatter said...

At the institution where I did my postdoc, we were considered neither students nor employees. Which really sucked because we couldn't use some campus services and get discounts that students were entitled to, nor could we get the benefits packages that employees got. The worst of both worlds, really.

Anonymous said...

First postdoc: university employee with benefits
Second postdoc: fly-by-night, no benefit, essentially paid hourly, had to buy my own health insurance (10K deductible). That was in the mid 90s.
An arrangement of the second type these days would be, I would venture to say, impossible, at least at a research university in America and in my field (physics). The university would simply not allow it. I am quite sure that this is the norm now.
Sometimes there are special situations where a person simply "falls through the cracks" (e.g., someone coming from another country with a fellowship that only offers partial coverage).

Anonymous said...

The link in this post is prone to breaking. Look at the FASEB web site,, under the policy section, for training and education data and you'll find a version of these figures updated annually.