Rumor Mill stats

It’s now the middle of July. It seems reasonable to assume that the university faculty hiring season in North America should be over by now, in physics as well as in other disciplines. Until not so long ago, the outcomes of the various searches would eventually be published in Lingua Franca, but after the demise of the magazine in 2001 there is no official source (that I know of) providing such information.
Thus, curious, er, inquiring minds have to rely on unofficial information, such as the one provided by “Jobs Rumor Mills”, of which the Condensed Matter Physics, Atomic Physics and Biophysics (CMBRM) is an example.

Over the few years of its existence, the CMBRM has come to enjoy a reputation for reasonable accuracy (my personal, non-statistical observation is that it gets it right over 90% of the time; I am not aware of any actual study aimed at assessing quantitatively its reliability). Assuming that the information advertised therein is reasonably accurate, I have spent some time studying this year’s hires, and researching the backgrounds (obviously, I am just talking mere Google searches) of those scientists who have (allegedly) received faculty job offers [0].
I have counted 119 positions altogether in North America, including both research universities as well as four-year colleges. Out of 57 job offers that were extended (counting all offers, i.e., also those made following the declination of the offer by the first choice candidate)
37 (64.9%) were accepted
10 (17.5%) were made to female scientists [1]
17 (29.8%) were made to scientists who obtained their doctoral degree outside the United States
28 (49.1%) were made to scientists who obtained their doctoral degree at a department ranked in the top twenty in the United States by US News and World Report [2].

The above numbers could prompt a number of observations, but the one that is most striking to me by far, and upon which several CMBRM visitors have commented, is the sheer fraction of positions which are still listed as unfilled, this late in the game. At this time, only 41 out of all advertised searches appear to have been successfully completed, i.e., an offer was extended to a candidate who has accepted it.
Granted, this could have a number of explanations; perhaps the administrators of the site have been pressed for time, and been unable to update the database timely and/or in full. Possibly, they are still in the process of assessing the reliability of some of the latest “intel” that they have received. Also, success of the institutions at ensuring secrecy, as well as difficult, protracting negotiations into which some of them may be engaged with their selected candidates, may account for the current state of flux.
I am afraid, however, that in the end the simplest explanation will turn out to be the most accurate, i.e., a large fraction of positions are going unfilled. It seems rather likely that, when the dust has settled, in at least one half of the cases (conservative estimate) “None of the Above” will be the box checked by most departments.

This fact has clearly some very worrisome implications, particularly if to that one adds that in almost one third of successful hires, chosen applicants did not receive their doctoral degrees in the United States. What does this state of affairs mean ?
Has the academic route, once touted as the most desirable professional outcome for a young American scientist inclined to pursue a career in research, now become a pariah ? Are the “best and brightest” leaving academic physics early on, to move to different, possibly greener pastures, as already suggested almost a decade ago by Nobel laureate Philip W. Anderson ? Or, is this rather a direct indictment of US universities, ostensibly failing in their mission of educating, among others, the next generation of American university professors and researchers ?
Based on my experience, I do not believe either scenario; I think that there is a third possibility, one that I discussed in a previous post, essentially a disconnect between aims and expectations of departments, and their perception of reality, and reality itself. I am indeed afraid that while so many positions remain unfilled, and physics departments continue to postpone replenishing their aging faculty rosters with much needed fresher blood (in many cases losing positions altogether, following repeated failures at hiring), waiting for the opportunity to hire who-knows-whom, a significant number of qualified scientists will abandon the field, disheartened by their failure of securing a tenure track position.
I know many of them in person, and am convinced that, while possibly not stellar (like just about 99.9% of all of us), most could nonetheless perform more than respectably as physics faculty, serving the important, greater good of ensuring continuity and vitality of the field. These persons are all too often discarded from considerations for reasons (i.e., their pedigrees) whose relevance to science is at best dubious.
If this pernicious trend were to continue, it will mean a serious loss for the discipline as a whole, in the long run.

Notes
[0] For the most part we are talking entry-level tenure-track assistant professorships. I am making no distinction here between those and possible offers that may have been made to senior scientists.
[1] This seems disappointingly low a number to me, as a quarter of all physics postdocs are women. Obviously, the numbers are small and a statistical fluctuation cannot be ruled out. Moreover, female representation in condensed matter physics may be lower than in other areas.
[2] Twelve offers (21%) were extended to candidates having obtained their PhD degrees in one of the top ten departments, based on the same rankings.

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15 Responses to “Rumor Mill stats”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    RE: [1] Are you sure 25% of physics postdocs are women? Women earn 18% of Physics PhDs – this is 2003 statistics, but it was also a record number at the time. So 17.5% academic job placement sounds amazingly representative of the fraction of women earning physics PhD degrees.

    How did you count people who got multiple offers?

    The rumor mill this year was clearly different from last – usually things begin finalizing in March and are basically done by end of May, with most positions filled. This year everything was very uncertain and many top candidates (Pasupathy – who I believe accepted at Columbia) took forever to finalize their decisions. My feeling is that uncertainties in funding and economy make some departments think twice. With 300 or more candidates per position, it’s outrageous that committees interview hand-picked 5 or 6 and still decide not to hire anyone.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Are you sure 25% of physics postdocs are women?

      Well, that is the number that I found in Table 5-19 of the NSF 2008 Science and Engineering Indicators, unless I am misreading it…
      Yes, I am misreading it, I am just realizing it. The number 25% pertains to physical sciences, not physics… my bad. Thank you for pointing this out. Then maybe 10 out of 57 is all right, after all…

      How did you count people who got multiple offers?

      I did not, I simply counted all those who did get at least one offer.

      My feeling is that uncertainties in funding and economy make some departments think twice.

      But the economic situation is not so much worse now than it was in September when many of these searches were approved. Moreover, there are departments that have been postponing hiring for years now … no, I think it’s unfortunately indicative of how many departments have become clueless, after years and years of isolation and stagnation.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Some thoughts:

    1. “Approved” search does not mean approved hire, some departments search just in case.
    2. Some of the positions listed as unfilled on the Rumor Mills (at least in CMT) are actually filled — at least a couple.
    3. Yes, the brightest are no longer going into physics, I thought it was obvious.
    4. No, universities are not anxious to replenish their aging tenure-track rosters — an almost uniform trend nowadays is towards more adjunct/temporary faculty. Mainly because of two reasons: bad prospects for basic research funding and search for more cost-effective teaching of students.

    Mark

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Hmm… searching is time consuming and pretty expensive, I doubt if many departments embark into such an endeavor without at least some hope that a hire will ensue. In any case, I think that the number of jobs to which your points 1 and 2 apply are relatively few.

      Yes, the brightest are no longer going into physics, I thought it was obvious.

      Actually, I don’t think it’s either obvious nor true, but it is not what I meant in any case. My point is not that bright young people do not get into physics, but rather that, of the ones who do get into physics, the “best and brightest” seem to shun the academic path. That’s different…

      Even your point 4 seems to me, while possibly correct, not related to the issue of why positions that were advertised and for which candidates were interviewed, did not get filled. I can’t imagine that many a dean would authorize a search, thinking that the position will eventually be taken away…

  3. Anonymous Says:

    how comes?

    Thanks for that post and the link to Anderson’s text.

    On the “top 10-top 20” issue. If I understand correctly, 16 positions were offered to people from the departments 11-20 while 12 were offered to people from the departments 1-10. What to conclude?

    On the core of this post. Why should departments hire non-stellar scientists? Most of the regular teaching and research is done by adjuncts / postdocs / graduate students that are less expensive… They only need to fill the “stellar positions” (and see themselves as stars). I’m a bit provocative here but I’m just trying to understand how this can happen given the huge number of people on the job market…

    PS: sorry to be anonymous but the signing options for comments are not very convenient…
    Pablo Achard

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Re: how comes?

      What to conclude?

      On this one, I am going to defer to the following remarkable post by an esteemed fellow blogger.

      Why should departments hire non-stellar scientists? … They only need to fill the “stellar positions”

      But it makes no sense to try to do that through a regular search at the tenure-track level, and interview a bunch of people whose “stardom” (or lack thereof) can easily be ascertained with a phone call or a Google search. And, while most of us physics faculty may be too dense to figure that out, deans and provosts know better…

      But honestly, do you really think that faculty at a department that is nowhere on the map (i.e., the vast majority thereof) truly believe that can compete to hire someone Harvard-bound ? I have been at one such department for five years and people understood that much. Problem is, you have idiotic tug-of-wars between those who favor someone in area X (which happens to be their own), or those who have not been active in research for 20 years (or, ever) who still want to impose their views, those who believe that the mission of the institution is teaching and therefore candidates with a foreign accent should be avoided…

      • Anonymous Says:

        Re: how comes?

        I also think that this year, the rumor mill has been updated less frequently than in past years. Perhaps less information was shared, or the operator(s) had less time this year. I do know that I declined an offer from a physics department (opening is on the list as unfilled right now) that I did not report.

        The position was filled, but neither my name nor the hired person is listed on the rumor mill. I can only assume that other people declined to self-report, and that is why so many positions look unfilled. I can’t be the only one who is paranoid about reporting things related to job searches…

      • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

        Re: how comes?

        What is your estimate of the fraction of positions currently listed as “unfilled” that have actually been filled ? Can it be more than 50% ? If it were 50% (and I really doubt if it is that high), that would mean that half of all positions are going unfilled, which is still enormous…

        I can’t be the only one who is paranoid about reporting things related to job searches…

        No, I am sure that many of you are… not sure why, if anything I’d think that you’d stand to gain from this type of exposure, especially in a community as sheepish as the physics one is proving to be… in fact, I am also quite sure that some people falsely report themselves as being on some short list, just to make themselves look good.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Re: how comes?

      PS: sorry to be anonymous but the signing options for comments are not very convenient…

      Hmm… can’t you just log in with your open id ?

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Okham, here how I think it comes about:

    The best students do not go into physics because the latter is not being considered as a very prestigious oppupation nowadays — after all the society is well aware of a
    relative stagnation of our science (at least compared with the golden times in XX
    century which are still remembered by the society). Each epoch calls for the service of the brightest and sends them to the true frontiers of the time, being it art, music, politics or science. Those who nevertheless go to science,
    inspired by the propaganda of B. Green and alike, quickly find themselves dissappointed
    when the daily life of a physicist does not live up to their expectations. So they
    leave for more lively occupations. After all why being paid peanuts, work
    long hours, worry about job market, tenure, grants, lunatic colleagues, etc.
    for something that is not bringing you the sense of entitlement?
    If one manages to survive well into postdoc years, one faces the sad reality
    of our profession — there are no ‘easy’ ways of making a name for a
    youngster at the present time. By this I mean solving a ‘simple’ but conceptually new problem and opening a new direction that the oldsters have not thought about before. Its been ‘same old’ for awhile now, even in CMT, with legions of people wandering between ‘new’ fields (zero-resistance states to spintronics to graphene to cold atom
    lattices), which are hardly conceptually new in fact.
    So in order to survive and to grab one of the few permanent positions
    available a beginning physicist has to embark on a number of technically
    challenging ‘incremental’ projects, after completion of which he/she is at
    the mercy of aging generation of ‘has been greats’ who are quite happy to be at the steering wheel and not been sunk by a new generation of paradigm-shakers, something that routinely happened to their predecessors.
    So when a youngster goes out on a job market (s)he relies on the
    connections, rather than actual achievements, to get better letters of
    recommendation, more invited talks, more papers in tabloids (which
    distinguished themselves by publishing the greatest crap ever occured in CM
    about a decade ago without seemingly damaging their reputation among
    the ‘sheepish’ community).
    When such a candidate arrives for a campus interview the overwhelming
    majority of voting faculty have never heard about him or his works. Apart
    from expecting a decent talk and suck up to their egos in private meetings
    they look at the fundability of a candidate, which again brings about the
    issue of connections rather than scientific achievements (which are scarce
    anyway). In the most common case that the candidate does not strike as a genius or a
    Packard/Sloan/CAREER material or a perceived tenure-track slave the faculty are quite
    comfortable with the prospect of letting the candidate go despite him/her
    being intellectually superior to many of their existing faculty.
    And the prospect of not hiring is also quite bearable to administrators who consider tenure-track faculty progressively less cost-effective as the funding situation deteriorates.
    The bottom line: this is a market economy and the number of tenured physics faculty is very likely to decrease in the coming years.

    Mark

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Mark,

      I think you have read too much J. Horgan 🙂

      there are no ‘easy’ ways of making a name for a youngster at the present time. By this I mean solving a ‘simple’ but conceptually new problem and opening a new direction that the oldsters have not thought about before.

      I hear you, man. I mean, let’s face it, if neither you nor I have thought of it, it just must not exist … LOL

      Kidding aside, even though I do not really buy your premises, ultimately what makes absolutely no sense is the notion of going through the ritual of the interviews, spending a lot of time and money, if in the end it is all about either stumbling into a future “Packard/Sloan/CAREER” genius, or taking a pass.
      Those people are first of all almost invariably known in advance and identifiable through their pedigrees, secondly simply not recruitable by the vast majority of departments. To do a charade search so that the department faculty can remind themselves that they are not “top notch” (in case they’d forgotten), and/or what they really need is someone to teach introductory physics for life science majors, seems bizarre… I don’t think that this is is what we are looking at, honestly.

      You insist with this comparison with the cost-effectiveness of an adjunct/lecturer, but to me that is comparing apples and oranges. A tenure-track faculty will engage in some kind of research program (even at non-PhD granting institutions that is often the expectation — been there, done that), while a lecturer won’t. One needs start-up money and a lab, and will enjoy reduced teaching load for a few years; the other doesn’t and won’t. So, either you need one or the other.
      If the dean knows that the department needs a lecturer and can settle for a temporary/adjunct one, (s)he will simply not approve the search, and will say that much to the department chair (been there, heard that). In fact, searches are so expensive that very seldom will they be approved if the department cannot make a reasonable case that a tenure-track faculty is needed and that there is a decent chance that some hire will be made. And actually at most places the third time you go back to the dean requesting that the search be continued through the following year because no suitable candidate was identified, you better be ready to hear that the position is cancelled.

      The bottom line: this is a market economy and the number of tenured physics faculty is very likely to decrease in the coming years.

      I am sure that’s true — heck, I have been hearing it for almost 20 years now 🙂

      • Anonymous Says:

        Okham,

        I commend you on you willingness to see a rationale in faculty searches, let me make a few comments on the process nevertheless.

        1. Having spoken to many a faculty candidate in recent years, I can attest that almost all search committees (except in top places) are hell-bent on hiring somebody who can bring in external funding. Generally the more mediocre the place the more fixated they are on this point. Defying any rationale they grill candidates on where and how they are going to get grants without obviously remebering that most postdocs (except possibly those from national labs) have zero proposal-writing experience.

        2. Many searches fail simply because search comittees have unrealistic expectations of some 10-20 years ago when the job market was very much different. Things are changing so slowly in academia, you know.

        3. A tenure-track faculty will engage in some kind of research program (even at non-PhD granting institutions that is often the expectation — been there, done that), while a lecturer won’t.

        That’s presicely the point. With physics research continually losing its attraction to cash-strapped administrators they are facing the choice of fewer research-oriented tenured faculty in favor of no-benefits, no-obligations, part-time lecturers that are much more cost-effective in getting hands on student tuition. Universities are run pretty much like businesses these days.

        but to me that is comparing apples and oranges

        To you — probably, but to your (hypotetical, of course) wife who is buying groceries and has to decide on how to spend money the price comparison is very much a reality.

        4. Who’s J. Horgan? Can you post a link?

        Mark

      • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

        J. Horgan — the author of The End of Science. His thesis is illustrated in the op-ed by Anderson that is linked to my post.

        Mark, I respect your experience but I respect mine as well.
        I don’t think any department will ever run a faculty search if its intent is hiring a part-time adjunct. None. Either they need a new faculty, or they need a lecturer. If they don’t need the faculty, they won’t search for one.

        And, no dean will ever authorize a search if (s)he does not buy, at least in principle, the case made by the department that a new faculty line is needed.
        Why would a cash-strapped department fly in four, five people, have them stay at some expensive hotel, feed them for three days and waste a lot of time, when all that is needed to make the decision can be ascertained from the CV ?
        Makes no sense. It’s the same reason why nobody will ever visit the BMW dealership only to walk out at the end of the day thinking “you know what ? I really need a scooter, not a BMW…”.

        I think that the fact that many searches do not succeed, can be accounted for by other factors, internal departmental politics being certainly one of them.

      • Anonymous Says:

        Yes, sure, many searches fail because of interdepartmental politics, but I doubt this alone can account for a significant part of all failures. After all faculty more often than not can understand the idea that unfilled positions do not automatically carry over to the next year and can be stripped away any time.
        What happens more often, I think, is that departments search for good candidates (who can increase their standings and bring funding) but (even second-tier departments) are unwilling to settle for a sub-par job seeker whom they perceive as a non-deliverer.
        And no, the cost of a 5-candidate faculty search are miniscule (about $10k, sometimes less) compared with the commitment to hire a tenure-track failure for the next 6 years.
        Using your analogy — most are willing to pay cab-fare to get to the BMW dealership, but hope for a good sale of rather than a full-price auto.

        Mark

        P.S. Thanks for the link, I will definitely try to read that book. Though I am not yet ready to accept its title’s predicament for science at large, rather than physics.

      • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

        departments search for good candidates (who can increase their standings and bring funding) but (even second-tier departments) are unwilling to settle for a sub-par job seeker whom they perceive as a non-deliverer.

        I completely agree with that. I would simply add, however, that in many, most cases, departments are wrong in their perception (and very often arrogant and/or disconnected from reality). Faculty who are unwilling to give younger colleagues the same chance that they themselves enjoyed 10, 20, 30.. 40… whatever number of years ago, do a disservice to the whole field (and that includes me and you), essentially killing it.

        We need to agree on the definition of “good” candidate, here. I think that the faculty at AnyStateU understand that they cannot compete for the few candidates after whom top-10 or top-20 departments will be (these persons, who can usually be easily identified from letters of recommendation and CVs, very often won’t even bother to apply at AnyStateU). Yet they embark in the search anyway, hoping to attract a solid second choice.
        If this premise is correct (if it is not going through the search makes no sense), the decision of many such AnyStateU Physics departments to forgo the hire altogether, officially for lack of such acceptable applicants, would be a direct indictment of the American university system, unable to educate more than a handful decent candidates a year… it would also mean that 80% of all postdocs out there are losers … come on, this is ridiculous. I know way too many of these young people who have a hard time getting a job, to buy this assessment of the state of affairs.

        Now, regarding the “funding obsession”. Again, Mark, I respect your experience but I also respect mine, and mine is diametrically opposite. I taught for five years at a teaching institution with some research ambition (many of the unfilled positions are at such places), and funding was never an issue. When I did get my NSF grant, people pretty much went “OK… so ?”. All other assistant professors hired at the same time as me got tenure, and some never even bothered to write an NSF application, never mind getting funded. And we are talking late 90s, when “funding pressure” was supposedly very strong already.
        In Canada funding is not an issue either because the way NSERC works, pretty much everyone gets the same (little) money.
        In the US, I know a number of researchers my age who were hired and tenured without being particularly successful at bringing in money. And how much money can a condensed matter theorist bring in a year, anyway ? 40, 50 K ? Too little to make that an issue.
        As a postdoc I managed to get an NSF proposal and get it funded. I thought that that would boost my application considerably, and was instead told by several search committee chairs that they were “not really looking at that”.

        I am not yet ready to accept its title’s predicament for science at large, rather than physics.

        It’s not true for physics either. The problem is just the arrogance of people of our generations, who think that they have already discovered everything that there is to discover, perpetuate nonsense such as “physics is dead”, and look down on younger scientists who are every bit as good as us, if not better.

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