Recent reports and articles have generated a lot of buzz about the difficulty of finding employment in the sciences. These articles mirror the anxieties of the young astronomy community with whom I am most familiar. Scientists are not stupid and are pretty good with data, so they can look at the number of graduate students, the number of postdoctoral positions, and the number of faculty ads, and correctly assess that the odds of winding up with a long-term academic position are not good.
However, difficulty finding a “long term academic position” is not the same thing as difficulty finding a job. Buried in those same articles is the fact that the unemployment rate for physicists (which likely mirrors that of astronomers) is between 1-2%. In contrast, the lab-based biologists and chemists (which are the focus of the articles) are not finding employment at all, or if they do, it’s frequently in a position that makes no use of their technical skills.
To me, what this implies is that most of the skills mastered by PhD-level lab-based scientists are not readily transferable to other jobs, and are not easily generalized (or at least, are not perceived as generalizable by employers). The ability to work well in a lab setting is only valuable if the economy supports large numbers of labs. Industry used to host these, but the era of corporate research is largely over.
In contrast, a typical astronomy postdoc has experience with software development, image processing, filtering, large data volumes, experimental design, data visualization, project management, proposal preparation, and technical writing — all of which are generic skills that can be applied to a wide variety of technical positions outside of astronomy. Jobs that use these skills do not require large infrastructure overheads, and thus can be found in start-ups, and in almost any region of the country. Moreover, the typical astronomy or physics postdoc has had much more autonomy and freedom to lead projects, whereas lab-based biology appears to be far more pyramidal, giving postdocs far fewer venues in which to demonstrate their initiative and leadership.
In short, while few astronomy and physics PhD’s are explicitly educated for positions outside of academia, their training actually transfers quite well.
The problem in astronomy and physics is therefore not employment, but expectations. The fact remains that many PhD students do not fully understand that they are unlikely to ever have the equivalent of their advisor’s job, and leading to (completely understandable) fear and frustration when discovering that one’s goal is not likely to ever be achieved. This misconception is primarily a failure of mentoring and education. First, astronomy and physics have never had a 1-to-1 ratio between people earning PhDs and the number of faculty jobs, so while the ratio may be particularly unfavorable now, there was never a golden era. Second, there is no reason that the routine business of being a faculty member should be an appealing job description to every single person who is interested in astrophysics. As such, students should never be made to feel that they’re failures for not getting a particular flavor of academic position, and should instead always be encouraged to explore other avenues that could use their talents while bringing them greater day-to-day satisfaction. And based on the studies, I’m grateful that those options appear to exist for the physicists and astronomers who change their direction.