Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Job Rumours

Things to do: post "So you want to be an astrophysicist - Part 2.0" Real Soon Now, but not before April 15...

Get back to Rare Earth: more on "Intelligent Design"; catch up on arXiv and expound on wonders of current research...

In the mean time... Many Moons ago, a clever young student named Pat Hall (later postdoc, and now Prof Hall) used the web to post Astro Job Rumours. It was a decorous and useful page, basically listing the nominally public information of the status of jobs in astronomy, especially postdoc positions; it told us when short lists were assembled, letters sent out, interviews done, offers made and accepted. Useful for gaming job offers and applications. All anonymous.

Sometime later a new, more aggressive job rumour page appeared, naming names New Astro Rumours. Much read, and the id of the owner much speculated upon (we all have our theories, and as with "guessing the referee" almost all are wrong. Though recent info correlated well with the travel schedule of a major suspect, busted!?).

The page is fascinating, no matter which side of the game you're on (looking for job, or hiring). It is sometimes incorrect, occasionally badly so (claiming someone is in play who isn't, or that a job is gone when it is still open); and often frighteningly accurate. It is gamed - applicants leak info to make themselves look more sought after; departments leak info to leverage jobs or to manipulate applicants. And people just like to gossip.

It also shows some of the structure of the market - the tendency for a small number of currently "hot" candidates to get multiple offers (this typically only lasts one year, enjoy it when it is your turn, don't expect to be so hot next year); the associated bidding instability (cf Mirrlees microeconomic theories, or the "Baseball Player Instability"), and the ratio of positions to applicants.

At a glance, fair number of postdocs this year, but with structural problems (eg the loss of STIS badly hurt optical spectroscopy people; sky survey folks are doing well; if you do mid-IR you are good; exoplanets doing well, but not as well as they should, maybe some protection of all-fields positions by extragalactic types; high energy, touch'n'go still).
Faculty positions, looks like a shortage, lots of senior level moves, searches cancelled, multiple positions and offers. We're hitting the demographic hump from the previous wave of expansion; but this is very sensitive to macroeconomic; if the economy sneezed all the universities will snap into a hiring freeze again. Elephant in the corner is whether the UC campuses will move to replace people on schedule; they represent 10-20% of all potential positions. I don't know if there are that many independently wealthy millionaries in astronomy (see California Housing Prices... - I'm only half joking).
Other possible trend that might surface is what has happened in Europe - universities abandon low demand niche fields like astronomy, and it ceases to be done at some of the (few) universities currently offering it, with even more concentration in the top 20-40 institutions that survive. That would increase statistical noise in the hiring process, because year-to-year hiring would be correlated. Could be interesting times ahead.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it is going to be very interesting to see how institutions react to the signals of drastic cuts to the federal astro science programs. The cuts haven't really hit yet, though there is lots of evidence that growth has slowed or stopped -- in real terms astro budgets are near historic highs. But the sequence of planned NASA missions is getting stretched out towards the retirement years of current postdocs, rumors are coming out of NSF about big cuts to national facilities, and the remaining programs are tending towards high-energy physics style megaprojects without a very effective distribution of the work around to many different universities as HE physics seems to find ways to do.

If I were a dean (which I guess I am), I'd be starting to get nervous about how my astrophysicists were planning to keep the excitement going over the next decade or two. Although I don't really see programs closing, I do see a chance of some retrenchment, and I think there is a real risk of the outcome you imagine -- a smaller number of top groups at places (not all universities) that can afford the buy-in to the big projects, and a bunch of other places where the astro folks will have to fight over retaining each retirement position.

And I wouldn't count on the University of California to save the job market.

--the resident dean

PS. My impression of the rumor page is that it has gone downhill somewhat in the last few years as a near-complete record of the market, perhaps because of its increasingly erratic publication schedule. They haven't got nearly as much buzz when the rumors have already traveled around a few times before the page gets around to posting them.

11:56 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

"Interesting" as in the legendary pseudo-chinese curse? (... and may we come to the attention of Important People.)

One of the very scare thing for the near future will be the loss of Hubble GO programs, those spread the wealth wide, next round of missions are much more focused on pre-selected GTO teams - leads to boom/bust funding cycles. Combined with ADP loss (and I'm not holding my breath on ATP, except it may be too small to cut), we're looking at a big loss of general funding.

Astrobiology anyone?

I think the rumour page guy lost heart, not so exciting when you're not in the hunt yourself. If my guess is correct; though given how long it has lasted the owner is virtually certain to be in a permanent position by now (but tenured? who knows?).

9:56 PM  

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