Rumor Mill Stats — 2009 edition

Assuming that pretty much the chips have by now fallen into place, let us take a look at the Condensed Matter Physics, Atomic Physics and Biophysics Jobs Rumor Mill (CMJRM), and see whether something useful or interesting can be learned about physics (and possibly science) hiring in academia in North America. In particular, it might be interesting to compare this year’s outcome with that of last year, to see whether a possible pattern, or trend, may appear.

I rely on the CMJRM as my source mostly because I am not aware of any alternate site providing the same information. Over the few years of its existence, the CMJRM has come to enjoy a reputation for remarkable accuracy, although there are reasons to suspect that this year it may not be as reliable as it usually is [0]. Still, it seems safe to regard it as reasonably on target, especially if one is interested in the “big picture” only.
As of July 2, namely the date of its last update, 107 institutions in North America (US and Canada, research universities as well as four-year colleges), are listed therein as having advertised openings in Condensed Matter, AMO (Atomic, Molecular and Optical) Physics and Biophysics, in both theory and experiment. The total number of available positions is very nearly the same as that of advertising institutions, even though in some cases “multiple positions” were allegedly offered, and indeed in some cases more than one person was hired.
At eight institutions, the search appears to have been aborted at a very early stage, presumably due to its cancellation by the university administration (quite likely due to financial problems). Given the uncertainty in the total number, we may make our life easier and just take 100 as an estimate of the total number of positions.

Altogether, 68 job offers that were extended (counting all offers, i.e., also those made to senior candidates and those following the declination of the offer by the first choice candidate)
35 (51.5%) are listed as accepted
18 (26.5%) are listed as declined
15 (22%) are apparently still standing
13 offers (19.1%) were made to female scientists [1]
20 offers were made to a group of 9 persons
51 institutions are listed without any information on offers being made (that is, besides the above-mentioned ones which cancelled the search early on)

For a ballpark estimate of the number of accepted offers, let us tentatively assume the following:
1) No offers have been made at those places where no candidate is listed
2) Standing offers will be accepted at a 50% rate
That puts the fraction of positions for which searches were carried out and which were eventually filled, at around 40%. I believe, based on my experience and observation over the past decade, that this figure is realistic. Even with the obvious uncertainty associated to the two assumptions listed above, as well as with the inherent uncertainty of any information based on rumors, I doubt very much if the fraction of advertised positions that have been filled is above 50%. This is in line with what appears to have happened last year as well, and it is my belief, corroborated by countless conversations with colleagues (both junior and senior) that over the past decade the most likely outcome of a search in condensed matter physics at the tenure-track level has been a null one.
Moreover, I have no reason to believe that condensed matter, AMO and biophysics are “special” in any respect, and expect the same to be occurring in other areas of physics, and possibly in other areas of academic science [2].

To me, this immediately begs the same question which I asked last year: why do so many positions remain unfilled ? This is downright mind-boggling, given all the claims about “oversupply of scientists”, “PhD glut”, “lack of academic jobs” etcetera that some in blogosphere repeatedly, relentlessly insist with making, often advocating a reduction of graduate enrollment. In fact, to many of them such a “glut” is so obvious that they do not even feel the need to substantiate it with actual data.
If so many bright, talented PhD scientists graduate each year from American universities, why is it that the same universities who educate them would prefer not to hire them, even when they do have positions to fill ?

These are the only explanations of which I can think:

  • The academic route, once touted as the most desirable professional outcome for a young American scientist inclined to pursue a career in research, has lost its appeal. The “best and brightest” simply leave academic physics (or, science) early on, to take different, possibly more challenging and rewarding career paths. This was in fact already suggested over a decade ago by Nobel laureate Philip W. Anderson, at least with respect to physics. The ones who are left, who apply for academic jobs, are the least creative and engaging.
    Personally, I find this very hard to believe. I know dozens of talented young physicists currently in postdoctoral positions who regard the academic career as a very desirable outcome. Many of them would seem to me to be perfectly suitable candidates for many of the positions that went unfilled. Granted, many of them may not have wanted those particular positions, but still, that not even one of them would have applied seems hard to believe. Most of these people are fully aware of the realities of the physics academic job market, and are not going to spit at a faculty appointment, even at a second-tier institution.

  • The average level of the applicants has simply gone down. That is, a few applicants deemed “excellent” (“rising stars”, all invariably educated at the same 2-3 institutions if not by the same 5-6 advisors) are sought after by many departments, while the others are simply not worthy of attention. Colleges and departments would leave the position unfilled, with all the drawbacks that that entails (reduced research visibility is the most obvious, but also a widening generational gap between faculty and students), rather than hiring mediocrity.
    I have to admit that this seems implausible too. Do physics departments across North America really grant PhD degrees to many, many students whose heart is not in research, who would be better served with just a MS degree but are instead encouraged to go for the PhD by ruthless and selfish faculty needing “cheap labor”, preoccupied with the advancement of their own career and research program more than with the welfare of their students ? Is there really a “glut” of PhDs out there whose real qualifications and expertise do not match what the official record says, and are unfit to be successful academic researchers ?
    Or, is this just an urban legend, perpetuated by delusional and arrogant old faculty who think that none of the young applicants is as good as them, “good” being defined as “with the right pedigree” ? Is our discipline being slowly strangled by our own collective imbecility, by the notion that “we cannot settle for second best” even though our own department is not even ranked top 50 ?

    If anyone can explain this to me, I would really appreciate it.

    [0] It went for two months without being updated (from early May until early July). Rumors were not as abundant, possibly because the difficult financial situation affecting most physics departments has led to the eventual cancellation of some of the openings advertised early on in Fall.
    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 number has been arrived at simply by trying to identify female names in the list. Because I am unable to do that accurately with oriental names, it is possible that I may be slightly underestimating.
    [2] Last year I tried to assess what fraction of candidates to whom an offer was extended, who obtained their doctoral degrees outside the United States, and found it to be very large (almost one third). I am not repeating this time-consuming exercise this year, but have no reason to believe that last year outcome was in any way unusual.

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    20 Responses to “Rumor Mill Stats — 2009 edition”

    1. Schlupp Says:

      Now, before I read this post, let me just sate that I totally agree. There cannot possibly be anything to critisise.

    2. Schlupp Says:

      What is the significance of the 9-person group? If a group of 9 candidates gets 20 offers this would roughly imply that each of them gets two offers. Having 10 people with two offers out of a group of, say, 40 with one or more offers does by itself not really strike me as exorbitant concentration.

      Otherwise, of course, perfect post!

      • Massimo Says:

        I did not mean to ascribe to that figure any particular meaning, actually, other than the fact that in many cases the places who went after the same person decided to forgo the search after that person declined.

        • Schlupp Says:

          Meh. I ask for a clarification, I get some clarification. Boring. I think I will go back to nitpicking-mode after all.

          You present here an analysis of job offers in a (few) subfield(s) of physics. The overall impression of your post is that you are somewhat unhappy with some of your observations. Now, I think the post very interesting and a valid piece of blogging, but I still feel that you should be aware that not everyone might see it in such positive light. Some people say that it is a very wrong thing to mention something negative about one’s field without including a comparative analysis of other fields. Do biology departments have similar rates of failing job searches? And history? And orchestras? Somewhere, I’ve read it asked “does it make any sense to make a statement about the (un)friendliness of a given environment, without comparing it to others ?”

        • Massimo Says:

          Hey Schlupp, did I tell you that joke about the two farmers and the horses ?

    3. JaneDoh Says:

      Your analysis seems spot-on to me–the problem is with the searches, not the candidates. I am in another physical science and in my (admittedly limited) experience, about 50% of searches are successful.

      You left off one important one–departmental politics. The search is disorganized and the department doesn’t really know what they want. Or various factions cannot agree on a candidate, even though several are well qualified, so nobody is hired. Or a sub-set of people think that the proposed research is too applied, or not applied enough, etc.

      To be fair, in a recent search I witnessed, the best candidate in my opinion was considered “too much of an engineer”, and the other candidates were intelligent, prepared good talks, and knew their stuff, but didn’t seem ready to be PIs.

      • Massimo Says:

        Jane, I am familiar with departmental politics and yes, it can get really nasty but… can it really derail 50% of all searches ? Seems unbelievable…

    4. pablo Says:

      My 2 cents:

      Universities are more and more competing between each other. The goal of each and every university is no more to do good teaching and good research but to be the “best” university, at least in some field and at some geographical scale.

      Therefore, job committees are not looking for “good” candidates, that are plenty, they only want the “best” candidates because -come on- they deserve the best. And they need the best if they want to secure their external funding since the success rate for research grants has decreased drastically over the years.

      But the “best” are, by definition, a limited resource. Hence 50% of unfilled positions.

      Does this sound a possible explanation to you?

    5. Doug Natelson Says:

      I think Schlupp has it basically right. Suppose you make a case as a search committee or department that, say, the top three people on your short list are really all fantastic and you’d be thrilled with any of them. You make an offer to the top person, who then takes several weeks to decide, since they have a competing offer. Eventually they turn you down. By then, the number 2 and 3 choices already have competing offers, and by the time you can act, it’s too late. Going without filling a position in this case was in some sense a choice, in that you could keep going down the list. Still, if you’re looking in a particular area and you would either have to stretch that to fill the position, or you’d have to go back and explain to the dean + provost (not to mention the department) that you need to go to number 4 or 5 on the list,…. I doubt too many places consciously decided only to try to hire their number 1 or nothing. (Though that can happen. It’s also possible to have a full search, and after interviewing several candidates you discover that none of them are really a good fit.)

    6. Massimo Says:

      Doug, first of all Schlupp is always right.
      Secondly, while I can certainly relate to the scenario that you are describing, indeed having witnessed it myself (rarely though — much more frequent is the case of a hire not being made due to internal departmental divisions, in turn caused by the fact that many did not agree with having that search in the first place), it still seems to me implausible that it should happen in 50-60% of the hires, for a number years in a row now.
      I mean, if in the majority of cases, out of 100+ applicants only 2-3 are viable, and they are also sought after by other institutions, where is then this alleged paucity of academic jobs, the ‘oversupply of PhD physicists’ about which so many talk (you know who they are) ?

      • Doug Natelson Says:

        Another possibility, of course, is that the rumor mill routinely misses some fraction of hires that are actually made. I know that they miss some.

        • Massimo Says:

          Yes, I do know that for a fact myself but, what is your estimate of that fraction ? 50% ? Let’s say it is that high (and I very much doubt if it is). Even so, that would still mean a huge number of positions going unfilled, something that makes absolutely no sense to me.
          Doug, I am serious, if people like you and I do not start saying something about this soon, we risk witnessing the demise of our own field within our professional lifetime. Any business will try to hire the best out there, but none other will leave a key position permanently unfilled.

        • Schlupp Says:

          “Doug, first of all Schlupp is always right.”

          Quite so. Far to seldom is it stated in such clarity.

          When a university hires, they at least think about hiring for decades. So, it is a reasonable strategy to consider each hire carefully and to invest some time into the decision. The time invested has to balanced with the problem that during this time, NOONE does the job. Pablo suggests that universities do not consider this a huge problem, because they are only chasing the extaordinary and value even a slim chance of improving their odds over getting the mundane done. I do know people who hold this opinion, and I’ve always wondered why they work in a field and a job they consider of so little importance. Moreover, these departments seem to admit themselves that they cannot recognize budding brilliance and consequently want to go the safe way and hire the same person everyone else is after. I also know people like this. That said, every once in a while a job search will take longer than one round even without sinister reasons, the question is what the expectation value for the time taken can be.

          Apart from the long time between job searches, another feature distinguishing academia from many other businesses is the relatively strict yearly rhythm of job announcements – interviews – offer(s) – decisions – start date. The fact that the fifth choice may not seem suitable does not indicate that the committee thinks there are fewer than five good candidates, because choice number five may simply have revealed him/her/itself an asshole at the interview. It does indicate that the choice of interviewees was not the best, but I guess this can happen. At this point, an industrial company might just invite the next batch of strong candidates for interviews, but the academic rhythm may mean that a physics department feels obliged to wait for another year.

          So, let’s assume: 10% of the offers are not reported. 10% fail due to toxic or clumsy department politics. 10% fail due to bad luck combined with the peculiarities of academic hiring. Explains about half, which is not THAT bad given that we do not have a lot of information. Did the APS ever research the question? Why job searches may fail, would interest me, if I were the APS.

          Granted, departments might not truthfully answer “we are too dense and to hire, which is all to the good, because we’d be vicious to the hired newbe anyway” or “we are waiting for the underachieving offspring of a Nobel prize winner, and keep getting useless applications from competent physicists.”

    7. Anonymous Says:

      This exercise is pretty clearly a waste of time. I happen to know many of the candidates on the market this year, so I also know that the information on the rumor mill is incredibly incomplete — I count at least 10 instances where an offer has been made / accepted / declined, where this is not listed. This is to say nothing of incomplete shortlists. And, this is only for the small fraction of searches in my subfield, where I know the people!

      The rumor mill is a fine way to find out when someone *is* hired somewhere. But it’s pretty clearly a terrible source of statistical information about the overall job market.

      • Massimo Says:

        This exercise is pretty clearly a waste of time.

        And you commented on it ?

        Anyway, I ‘happen to know’ too of some searches whose outcome is not listed in the rumor mill — of the order of a few. I still think that the numbers proposed above are in the right ballpark. After all, if offers have been made and not accepted (and I am quite sure that offers accepted and not listed are very few), the conclusions still stand. Naturally, I shall welcome more accurate information that you may provide. Do you have any ?

    8. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

      Dude, stop playing with your new phone and write a new post already!

    9. PodunkUniversity Says:

      What I’d like to do is study job satisfaction among faculty. Why do we idealize academic jobs so much anyway? Just because you can walk around in white socks and sandals, and give yet another graduate student an excuse not to face reality for five years? Academia prays on the idealistic and the immature. I speak from personal experience.
      If somebody had the money and sack to make a university without tenure positions, just a big team of permanently employed researchers (they’d get paid less, but they’d have job security), I bet they’d kick butt. Most of the novel research is done by postdocs anyway. Anyone have Art Vandelay’s number?

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