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Postdocs Feel Job Crunch

As recession deepens, postdocs find themselves caught in a difficult academic job market

by Jyllian N. Kemsley
January 26, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 4

On Hold
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Johns Hopkins University advertised two chemistry faculty positions in the fall, then had to postpone hiring for the jobs because of the worsening financial climate.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Johns Hopkins University advertised two chemistry faculty positions in the fall, then had to postpone hiring for the jobs because of the worsening financial climate.

WITH AN ECONOMIC recession firmly in place, academic institutions are suffering the pinch of declining endowments and state revenue shortfalls. In turn, postdoctoral researchers pursuing academic careers are in a particularly vulnerable situation. Those reaching the end of their two- to three-year positions are feeling increased competition for jobs, and they're pessimistic about future possibilities. Meanwhile, faculty members are concerned that the problems may trickle down to graduate students.

Data on academic job availability are difficult to find. A December 2008 survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Moody's Investors Service found that 5% of academic institutions have imposed total freezes on faculty hiring, while another 43% have a partial freeze. Anecdotally, chemistry postdocs and their advisers say that, after universities started announcing budget cuts and hiring freezes late last year (C&EN, Dec. 15, 2008, page 7), roughly half of the faculty positions that were originally advertised in the fall seemed to disappear.

"It's been incredibly stressful," says a postdoctoral researcher, "Michael," who, like all of the postdocs interviewed by C&EN for this story, did not want to publish his real name for fear of jeopardizing his job prospects. Michael applied for 75 academic jobs this season, in chemistry, chemical engineering, and materials science departments; had eight site interviews; and has one job offer in hand.

The economic meltdown in October happened at the worst possible time, Michael says. Schools advertised open positions in late August and September. Then, as postdocs were submitting their applications, "the bottom fell out. Not only were departments left scrambling but also the applicants," he says.

The uncertainty and variability of the job market through the fall definitely increased the sense of competition, Michael says. "Everyone on the market knows the economy is bad, and everyone is feeling the same pressure to get an offer and not take any chances," he adds.

As stressful as it's been, Michael does have a job offer. Others aren't so lucky. Brandeis University chemistry and biochemistry professor Dagmar Ringe has four postdocs looking for jobs right now. Two have offers and two don't. Ringe has funding to continue to support the latter two for at least another year, but she notes that there is always some uncertainty about whether grants will come through.

Keeping on current postdocs will also hinder Ringe's ability to bring new talent into the lab. "There is a ripple effect, no question about it," she says. "I'm in that position right now. There is someone I did want to take, but there's no way I can because someone else would have to leave in order to make room."

Ringe and other faculty are concerned that, if the recession and hiring freezes last, graduating Ph.D. students may in turn have difficulty finding postdoctoral positions, especially in what has been a difficult research-funding climate. W. E. Moerner, a chemistry professor at Stanford University, says he has a couple of Ph.D. students aiming to graduate later this year, and he is worried about their ability to find positions. "This is only a concern right now, as they have most of the year to finish," he says.

Current postdocs are also cognizant of trickle-down concerns. Another postdoc, "Sarah," applied for 35 academic jobs this year, had two site interviews, and is waiting to hear about offers. She's already on her second postdoctoral appointment, and her current contract was supposed to end in June. Although her adviser has offered to support her for longer, she has mixed feelings about taking him up on the offer. More time as a postdoc is unlikely to help her land an academic position, Sarah says. "It's not fair to new Ph.D.s if people like me are keeping postdoc positions tied up," she adds.

Sarah is considering turning to a career in industry. Psychologically, however, that's a difficult transition. Her advisers had always pushed her toward an academic position and that was always her goal. "When you work toward something for a long time and realize it may not happen for you, it's demoralizing," she says.

For postdocs reconsidering their academic dreams, however, the industrial job market currently doesn't look any rosier than the academic track. The U.S. chemical industry saw jobs decline by 1.8% in 2008 compared with 2007, and economists are predicting additional losses in 2009 (C&EN, Jan. 19, page 8). The pharmaceutical industry, considered a subset of the chemical industry, lost about 4,700 jobs, or 1.6%, between last January and November. Classified advertisements printed in C&EN for open industrial positions were down about two-thirds in December 2008, compared with the same month in 2007 and 2006. Industry and government ads posted at the ACS Careers website were down about 20% in December 2008, compared with 2007.

Another postdoc, "Hiro," is searching for an industrial job and had several interviews at a small company. He was on the verge of getting an offer when the company instituted a hiring freeze. The job may now come through in March, or it may not at all. His adviser can continue to support him, Hiro says, adding that "I'm very fortunate in that regard." He's concerned that other postdocs in less well-funded groups may find themselves without jobs or health insurance.

NO ONE IS OPTIMISTIC that postdocs will have an easier time finding academic positions anytime soon. Many of the faculty positions that stayed open this season had funds committed before the economic crash in October. With hiring freezes now in place, people expect even fewer slots will be available next season. And there will likely be more applicants for those jobs, as up-and-coming postdocs join anyone in the current pool who is able to extend their existing appointment to try again for an academic slot next year.

A fourth postdoc, "Maruf," applied for 42 academic positions. Although he's still hopeful to interview at a few schools, he is also now starting to consider whether to investigate opportunities in industry.

He and his postdoctoral colleagues are all scrambling to revamp their plans for the next few months. For his part, Maruf had planned to take some time off to visit relatives as well as to work on grant proposals he would submit after starting a faculty position. His adviser has offered to extend his position, he says, but he also has a family to support and the uncertainty is stressful. "I think a lot of us did not realize how bad the situation could be and has become," Maruf says.

Sarah says that she hopes advisers will be realistic with their current students and postdocs about the realities of the academic job market. She had always been told there were lots of positions and that she'd have no trouble pursuing an academic career. "There are lots of things that go into getting an academic job that you can't control," she says. "Advisers should be more cautious and tell people it's very competitive."


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