Few of us will be surprised to hear that the academic job market is hugely competitive. What is surprising is how this paper uses techniques more commonly found in epidemiology and population studies to describe the plight of the would-be professor.
The authors use the concept of a ‘reproductive rate’ to describe how many PhD graduates a professor produces in their working life time. In the field of engineering, for example, the average professor can produce 7.8 PhD graduates over their working career.
Read the paper, and try to work out how reproductive the professors in your life are.
Of course this high number wouldn’t be a problem if there were sufficient growth in professorial positions to accomodate them. Unfortunately, this paper also reports that the average growth in such positions (if there is any at all) is a measly 1.5% or so. What this means for the next generation of scientists is that for the most part they can only hope to gain career stability by stepping into someone else’s shoes once they retire.
This paper echoes the findings of this report [particularly page 14] which claims that the probability of a PhD graduate becoming a full professor is less than 0.5 per cent!
Supply and Demand
The authors freely admit that this ‘reproductive rate’ is a rather crude approximation, and that there will be other factors at play in the academic job market. One important consideration is how many PhD graduates actually want to continue work in academia. Unfortunately even with a good chunk of PhD graduates freely deciding to leave academia, the ‘reproductive rate’ of professors is still generally far too high to satisfy the hopes of the young researchers who do wish to forge an academic career.
Those researchers who do wish to hold-on in the hope that “something will turn up” could be faced with periods of unemployment, or under-employment.
The paper predicts that unless there are some radical changes in how research is carried out, the situation can only get worse. The high reproductive rate of professors and the relatively stagnant growth in professorial jobs means that the only place these PhD graduates can go is the trudge of post-doc after post-doc, with little hope of more stable work.
Thankfully, some of the authors’ recommendations and suggestions seem already to be underway: the Royal Society has been running a project to explore students’ expectations of academic careers, and how they can be best managed.
Larson R.C. & Yi Xue (2013). Too Many PhD Graduates or Too Few Academic Job Openings: The Basic Reproductive Number R 0 in Academia , Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 31 (6) 745-750. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/sres.2210
(2014). Doctoral students’ career expectations: principles and responsibilities, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/report.2014.0001