The Job Market in UK Astronomy

The balance of supply and demand in science--whether we are training too few or too many researchers--is a recurring theme in science policy circles, and it is very much on the minds of many UK astronomers. For most astronomers, however, there is very little doubt which way the scale tilts.

Prompted by concerns within the astronomy community, the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society ( RAS) published a report last autumn, The Ph.D. and Careers in Astronomy , which examined the balance between the training of astronomers and the number of permanent positions available in the UK each year. The report concludes that "students completing a PhD may find it difficult to obtain a permanent post in astronomy in the UK." Consequently, says Robert Smith, one of the report's authors, postgrads and postdocs in astronomy feel frustrated about their long-term career opportunities in their chosen scientific field.

The RAS report addresses a decision taken earlier in the decade by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), which funds the majority of astronomy PhD studentships in the UK. PPARC decided to increase its student numbers by 50% between 2003-2007, a decision that probably has aggravated--and likely will continue to aggravate--an already difficult job market. "Where will the increased number go?" ask the authors of the RAS report. "Do such young people become disillusioned with science and academia as well as the job opportunities available to them in the UK?"

A Look at the Numbers

The RAS report was based on demographic studies of UK astronomers carried out in 1993, 1998, and 2003, and a consultation with about 150 PhD students during the 2005 National Astronomy Meeting in Birmingham. The report showed that, on average, 125 students start a PhD in astronomy every year. As many as half manage to find a postdoctoral position after finishing their degrees, although the RAS estimate that 40% of this number take up positions abroad. At age 30, only about one third of astronomy PhDs have an academic position--some permanent, some fixed-term --at UK universities or observatories. By age 40, a mere 20% of astronomy PhDs have astronomy faculty jobs at universities (or scientific positions at observatories) in country--nearly a third of these still working in fixed-term posts.

Does this put astronomers in worse shape than other UK scientists? Not according to Iain Cameron, head of Research and Diversity at Research Councils UK ( RCUK), the body that represents all of UK's Research Councils. That figure, says Cameron, is consistent with other disciplines or even a little better, according to data provided by the UK's Office of Science and Technology and subsequently confirmed by all the UK Research Councils. "After 10 years," says Cameron, "approximately 10% of PhDs will end up in a permanent position in academia."

An Intentional Oversupply

Even if the numbers are no worse than in any other field of science, they are still dismal, and the astronomy community worries that the odds for astronomers will get even worse if PPARC continues to increase the number of PhD students it supports. Smith, an astronomer at Sussex University, admits that the report was intended "to niggle PPARC and provoke a response." The authors got one on 2 December, when Pat Fry, the head of training and careers at PPARC, wrote a letter to the RAS. "We agree that continued efforts are needed by academics and sponsors of PhDs," wrote Fry, "to impress on those embarking on a PhD study that a PhD provides an excellent training for employment in many areas and that a career in academia will be a realistic option for only a small number." PPARC's goal, says Steve Cann, Secretary to PPARC Education, Training and Careers Committee, is "the provision of trained scientists and engineers to contribute to the economic competitiveness of the UK, hence the strategic aim of training a greater number of PhDs than might be required by academia."

John Peacock, who is professor of cosmology at the University of Edinburgh, says that PPARC's substantial increase in PhD studentship is strategic. "Based on positive feedback from industrialists," says Peacock, who is involved in his institution's graduate admissions, "their rationale was explicit: they plan to train more people than could get jobs in academia."

What Can You Do with an Astronomy PhD? Students’ Awareness

In the 2003 demographic study conducted by the RAS, only half of the astronomy students surveyed explicitly mentioned wanting a career in academia as the reason they embarked on an astronomy PhD. But the 2005 survey of PhD students at the careers session of that year's National Astronomy Meeting told a different story. "Ninety-eight percent of students had the aspiration of following a career in astronomy," says Smith.

By the time they reach the postdoc stage, many astronomers have lost hope. "Almost two thirds of people on fixed-term contracts in 2003", says the RAS report, "thought their chance of getting tenure were ‘poor’ or ‘impossible.’ " Yet report author Smith believes that many postdocs prefer to "hang on in there," remaining in the field despite the insecurity. Many, believes Peacock, deliberately put off taking a lectureship position as they fear it will impinge on their research time.

Matt Jarvis, who received his PhD at Oxford and recently returned to Oxford for his second postdoc (his first was at Leiden), says he had no idea how bad things were. "I went into [research] completely oblivious. I don’t know many people who knew how bad the jobs prospects are. It’s very competitive. People don’t know about that.” In contrast, Stephen Smartt, who won a permanent lectureship in 2004 at Queens University in Belfast, insists he knew what he was getting himself into. “When I started a PhD, I hoped that I would end up in an academic career. But I was aware not everyone does. I knew it was difficult and competitive.”


Jarvis hopes to secure a PPARC advanced fellowship or a Royal Society fellowship; either would help him get a permanent position. But it's the second postdoc, he notes, where careers in astronomy seem to grind to a halt. It's difficult to establish your reputation and scientific independence while supported by a series of short-term contracts. "One problem is that all the time you feel you are applying for jobs rather than doing your job."

Joanne Baker, who is now a physical sciences editor for Science magazine, worked as a postdoc for 10 years and got a Royal Society fellowship. Baker agrees with Jarvis that the second postdoc is the most critical time. "Due to the fixed-term nature of postdoc contracts, many [postdocs] do not look to the long term," Baker says. "This is inevitable as they perceive they cannot control their long-term careers, so in a sense they are in denial about their future careers, and eke out a living from post to post."

Alternative Careers for Astronomers

Should the 80% of astronomers who leave the field be considered failures, or do they manage to find satisfying careers? The RAS report finds that straight after graduating, 16% go to industry, 5% to the public sector, and the rest move off into a black hole. Computer programming, technical start-ups, the financial sector, management consultancy, and school teaching--all these have been mentioned by astronomers as frequent career destinations. Science editor Baker is happy with her career transitions, saying that she made a move to science editing because "editing lets me indulge my curiosity across a wide range of cutting-edge science whilst using all my experience in research."

Keith Lipman, another converted astronomer, moved straight from his PhD at Cambridge University to investment banking. He is now working as a hedge-fund manager in the UK and says that his training as a researcher is fundamental in his work. "Using evidence-based methods to determine strategies and directions for further research is the building block of our business," he says. Astronomy, he says, is excellent training for the world of finance.

So at least some of the United Kingdom's former astronomers have managed to find good work for themselves, something the folks at PPARC are apparently counting on. Still, the RAS report makes clear, postgraduate and postdoctoral students do not enter astronomy in order to work in editing or finance."Students undertaking a PhD in astronomy see it as a qualification for doing for research in astronomy and not as a more general qualification with 'transferable skills,' " the report says.

Changing Perceptions

"The message that a career in academia is a realistic expectation for only a small number of researchers is one that PPARC and other [Research] Councils have tried to put across in career literature for students," says PPARC's Fry in the letter to the RAS. The RAS are concerned that if UK astronomers are disillusioned about job opportunities in science and academia, "will they go out into the community with a positive attitude toward scientific research?"

To address this perception, the RAS suggested that "it might be appropriate for PPARC to run an 'end-of-PhD course' dealing with issues of careers, transferable skills, and job hunting." Steven Smartt at Queens University--who has been involved in organising career sessions for astronomy postgrads at Cambridge and Queens--agrees a lot more could be done. "We could improve. We are very focused on academia. We need to have information on other types of careers that are available." In the letter to the RAS, PPARC's Fry says that together with UK GRAD--which runs personal and professional skills training for all postgraduate researchers across the UK--"We need to explore how we might work together to change astronomy students' perceptions of broader skills training."

Baker thinks it is not all down to PPARC however. "PPARC is trying to increase the skills training of its graduate students," but "universities are not taking their responsibility seriously and are rarely putting much effort into graduate training in wider skills." She believes that the career needs of postdocs are ignored. "University departments do not have the time or inclination to do anything about it." Postdocs, too, need to be more proactive, she says. "It is up to the postdoc to train themselves and take courses they may need. A lot of postdocs could be more sanguine about their careers and look out for themselves more, in terms of getting training and work with bodies such as the Association of University Teachers to get better working arrangements."

"If the aim is to supply skilled scientists more broadly into the economy," says Baker, "then PPARC should also consider funding more postdoc retraining opportunities so scientists can switch fields and be flexible in where they work, making the career of scientist more appealing." As she knows from her own experience, "it is not trivial to switch careers midterm, even though the general skills you gain in a PhD are widely applicable."

Anne Forde is Next Wave's European Editor, North and East.

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