AAS President’s Column: Job search process in astronomy

President’s Column
Wednesday, February 27, 2013 – 13:14

by David J. Helfand

For a significant fraction of our membership, February is probably not their favorite month. Despite being the calendrical midget with the smallest number of days, for those on the job market it probably produces the largest amount of anxiety. Indeed, the entire job search process seems to consume a larger number of months, a larger expenditure of resources, a larger amount of time, and a larger quantity of emotional energy than it did the last time I applied for a job 36 years ago. Should we reduce this burden? And, if so, how do we go about doing that? I certainly don’t know the answer(s), but I think it is time to start asking the question(s).


Finally, it must be admitted that, with 200-300 applications per faculty job this year, there is large random element in the search process; even if one is clearly in the top 5% and applies for 15 positions, one could end up with no position in any given year. This begs the question that many do not want asked: is birth control required here? I have always (well, at least in my more mature years) argued against artificially limiting graduate student positions since, both personally, and as a department, my experience is that we are far from perfect in picking winners from among the undergraduate applications we receive. Restricted access often means restricted diversity — in gender, ethnicity, and intellectual proclivities. Departments should, of course, make admissions decisions with sufficient foresight to assure they will be able to support each admitted student through to the PhD, and in times of shrinking funding, this requires brutal honesty and collective will. But openness to those with a passion for our discipline — and openness to a variety of career paths through which to pursue it (look for upcoming resources from our Employment Committee on this point) — still seem to me the right policy for graduate programs.

Where, then, should constrictions be imposed? The American Chemical Society has recently issued a very thoughtful report on the state of their graduate education which asks a number of hard questions that I find relevant to our discipline as well.

Several of the main conclusions in the Executive Summary offer trenchant commentary:

  • Current educational opportunities for graduate students, viewed on balance as a system, do not provide sufficient preparation for their careers after graduate school.
  • The system for the financial support of graduate students, as currently operated by private, institutional, state, and federal funds, is no longer optimal for national needs.
  • Departments should give thoughtful attention to maintaining a sustainable relationship between the availability of new graduates at all degree levels and genuine opportunities for them. Replication in excess is wasteful of resources and does injustice to the investment made by students and society.

While the state of our discipline is not exactly analogous that in chemistry, I believe that many of the issues their report raises are worthy of our consideration and, subsequently, of our action. This is a conversation I hope to advance in the coming year.


[read full post here]


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