Thursday, October 18, 2007

New friends and the leaky pipeline

The Visible Universe has two new friends in the blogosphere: Sorting Out Science's Sam Wise, who featured The Visible Universe in the 25th edition of the Carnival of Space, and Astronomom, who is a real-life friend as well.

Astronomom's brand-new blog chronicles life as post-doc and a new mother. Why start a blog with so much already on her plate?

If I'm going to be part of the leaky pipeline in science because of having had a baby as a postdoc then I want that recorded, and maybe my experience will help others. If I do manage some kind of balance, then I'd like that recorded too.

Responding to the story on the astronomy job market, she writes:

I calculated at the start of graduate school that someone was investing 1/4 million dollars in me getting my PhD alone...! I've used telescopes that cost 10s of thousands of dollars a night to run - and I've had many nights on those telescopes. Surely it would be a huge waste to the field if I just disappear from Astronomy.

But as part of astronomy's "leaky pipeline," I don't believe that money is wasted if a student doesn't pursue a research career. There are many fields where individuals with real, hands-on science experience are desperately needed--science policy, science journalism, education--and having scientifically trained people in those positions can only be a good thing for the field.

Of course, some students take their PhDs and head for private-sector positions in investment banking, software design, and the like. Who can blame them when jobs within their field are so scarce? I agree with Astronomom that, in the long run, an oversupply of highly-educated astronomers isn't good for anyone: Yet, the more students are clamoring for degrees and courses in astronomy, the more tenure-track faculty should be necessary to instruct them.

That's in theory, anyway.


Astronomum said...

I wonder what the record is for cross-commenting on blogs. I think it's cool that you commented on my post in which I was reacting to an earlier post of yours!

Anyway thanks for the kind comments about my blog. My apologies if I implied that it was a "general" waste if Astronomers are trained who then leave the field. I do no think this is the case at all, and I know that there are a lot of great jobs outside of academia just crying out for science training. I think what you're doing is just great for example! I do think it's a waste for the field of Astronomy though. I just wonder how many unfinished (but funded) papers are out there because their writers left research behind....

Oh, and a general comment on my "annonymity". Kate and I have discussed this a bit, and I feel a bit silly since anyone who knows her can probably easilly figure out who I am. I'm not "hiding" from you though. I just think in general I can say more interesting stuff with a small degree of annonymity, so indulge me on that front.

drothstein said...

Ooh, I'm leaving a comment on a blog, I'm leaving a comment on a blog! (This is relatively new for me.)

Kate, I think you've hit the nail on the head; there is a real opportunity inherent in science's "leaky pipeline" in that it can be used to get scientifically-trained people into other fields where their experience will be useful. The problem is that the current system isn't set up to encourage or help with that transition.

I don't think the shortage of astronomy positions has much to do with lack of federal funding or too many people working past retirement age. I think it's more of a structural issue. I highly recommend reading this article, which was written 15 years ago and predicts that there will always be a surplus of people looking for astronomy jobs. Essentially, the problem is that astronomy is largely an "apprenticeship-type" field... for a significant number of astronomers (any faculty member at a Ph.D.-granting institution), a big part of their job description involves... making new astronomers. This is a recipe for rapid exponential growth, much faster than federal research budgets could ever be expected to increase.

The best part of the paper is that he shows how the mathematical equations for the production of astronomers are similar to those for the production of pollution ;)

Unless you want to drastically limit the number of graduate students in astronomy (which would really hurt the field, since graduate students do so much of the work ;), I think the shortage of astronomy jobs will always be with us, and the real question is how to deal with it. Maybe the answer is in changing what it means to be successful in astronomy. Right now, "successful" faculty advisors are usually considered to be those who produce lots of students who go on to get faculty jobs of their own. If instead "success" were redefined to also include getting a lot of students into successful positions in journalism or science policy or (non-Ph.D.) education, where they really feel like their graduate education helped them prepare for this transition, then maybe things would be better and less stressful for everyone.