The Problem of the Steady State

Just as a quick postscript to my recent item about proposed changes to the method of funding PhD students by STFC, let me point out the following simple calculation.

Assume that the number of permanent academic positions in a given field (e.g. astronomy) remains constant over time. If that is the case, each retirement (or other form of departure) from a permanent position will be replaced by one, presumably junior, scientist.

This means that over an academic career, on average, each academic will produce just one PhD who will get a permanent job. This of course doesn’t count students coming in from abroad, or those getting faculty positions abroad but in the case of the UK these are probably relatively small corrections.

Under the present supply of PhD studentships an academic can expect to get a PhD student at least once every three years or so. At a minimum, therefore, over a 30 year career one can expect to have ten PhD students. A great many supervisors have more PhD students than this, but this just makes the odds worse. The expectation is that only one of these will get a permanent job in the UK. The others (nine out of ten, according to my conservative estimate) above must either leave the field or the country to find permanent employment.

The arithmetic of this situation is a simple fact of life, but I’m not sure how many prospective PhD students are aware of it.

9 Responses to “The Problem of the Steady State”

  1. Of course, one should remember that most academics work in non-PhD-granting departments, and most permanent jobs in most fields are not in academia at all. I think what you really mean to say is that faculty at research universities must, in steady state, produce on average during their careers one PhD student who gets a permanent faculty job in a PhD-granting department. But to suggest flatly that the others must leave the field or country to get permanent employment is to take a very gloomy view of the value of the PhD. It is perhaps understandable that a large fraction of those seeking a PhD are hoping for a career in a major research university, and so your point about the realism of incoming students is a fair one. It is however disappointing that there are faculty and departments who believe that is all that their PhD programs are training scientists to do, and that is the only path that should be regarded as “success.”

  2. telescoper Says:

    Perhaps I was being parochial, but I was actually talking about the UK. Virtually all academics (i.e. those in higher education) here DO work in PhD-granting departments; there aren’t many physics or astronomy departments that don’t award PhDs. In fact, I can’t think of any.

    One of the main arguments for increasing the number of funded PhDs was that the skills acquired would find their way back into the general economy in the way you suggest. I think that’s fine and it is a success if such a person chooses to ply their trade outside academia of their own volition. I’m just arguing that people should be told the facts about their prospects of continuing academic research before they start.

  3. Peter – you are assuming that teacher-at-a-university is the only kind of astronomy job. That ignores everybody at a lab, or running our telescopes, and the kind of effectively indefinite research staff that exist in at least the bigger groups – certainly there are people like this in Cardiff. My guess would be there are twice as many such people as permanent academics. Finally, of that rate of one student every three years, probably half are from overseas; but of course only some of these end up with jobs as well. Overall my guesstimate would be that 1/3 apprentices end up with an astronomy job, rather than 1/10.

  4. telescoper Says:


    No I am not assuming that is the only sort of job in astronomy, but I was referring to specifically permanent academic positions (first sentence of my post). Including the positions you mentioned changes the number a bit but I doubt if it’s as much as you think and it wasn’t my point anyway.

    Nowhere near half the PhDs in astronomy are from overseas either. Moreover, as Bryn pointed out in his comment on the previous item, my numbers were intentionally conservative.


  5. I agree with Peter’s analysis.

    While there are some longer-term posts in astronomy in Britain, these are rather limited in number or character. There are essentially no non-university research institutes left in British astronomy (although some satellite-based research is carried out at the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory). Observatory support jobs are, apart from those at Jodrell Bank, all outside of Britain, even if they are funded (rightly) from British money. This leaves positions on open-ended contracts funded out of rolling grants in some university departments, and only a proportion of posts funded out of rolling grants are operated in this way (as opposed to conventional three-years-and-out postdoctoral assistantships funded out of the rolling grant).

    I do not notice longer-term research/support positions in the U.K. being advertised in the same numbers as permanent academic positions. Adverts for permanent lectureships do appear from time to time, on average one every couple of months or so (hence my figure of 8 astronomy academic posts per year in my other posting). The number of longer-term non-academic research posts is small. I know this because I am somebody who has been looking for such vacancies for much of the past fifteen years, and I have not seem them in any number: they are far fewer in Britain than the limited number of academic positions (at least ones that are advertised).

    I have worked in a number of British university departments over my career, and none of these had any number of longer-term research or support positions in astronomy at the times that I worked in them, the majority had only computing system management posts and nothing else.

    It is possible that a few British astronomy research groups have rolling grants and choose to use them to support open-ended contracts. However, these are limited, and we should be careful not to use this small number to distract us from the severe situation regarding careers in astronomy in Britain.

    When I think of those people I know who started PhD studies in astronomy in British universities, only a very small number were still working in astronomy ten years after being awarding their doctorates. A large majority have left the field. This experience, though anecdotal, is totally inconsistent with 1 in 3 people who start PhDs in astronomy remaining in the field in the long term. It may be consistent with Peter’s estimate of 1 in 10.

  6. […] this investment worth while ? Over at the PeterBlog, Professor C worries that we are over producing students, because only one in ten can become an […]

  7. telescoper Says:

    I think the avatars are for people with wordpress accounts. That’s less of a problem than the strange format of your last comment, which I can’t be bothered to fix.

  8. telescoper Says:

    There were line breaks all over the place, until I took them all out…

  9. […] it gives me the excuse to rehash an argument I have presented before, which is that most analyses of the problems facing young postdoctoral researchers in astronomy are […]

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