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Discouraging Days for Jobseekers

California State University, Long Beach, search postponed. Dartmouth College, search canceled. Johns Hopkins University, search canceled. University of North Carolina, search canceled. University of Pittsburgh, search canceled. University of South Carolina, search canceled. So read the entries on an astronomy job rumor mill--one of many that catalogs the state of affairs for job seekers in the sciences as the global economic crisis deepens.

"I would not want to be looking for a faculty job in this environment." --Eric Wilcots, University of Wisconsin

With state budgets crippled, endowments declining, and requests for financial aid mounting, universities and colleges around the United States have sharply curtailed faculty hiring and many, including the universities of Arizona, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, and Washington, the College of William and Mary, Temple University, and some University of California and California State University campuses, have instituted either faculty-hiring "pauses" or outright freezes.

An ecology postdoc requesting anonymity, tells Science Careers that she entered the job market this fall with 15 papers in top-tier journals and about $400,000 in grant funding and expectations of being competitive. She applied for half a dozen faculty positions but "didn't get a single sniff," she says. After waiting several months with no word from search committees, she learned through an academic-job Wiki that several of the positions she applied for have been scratched. She's still waiting to hear from three others. Of 175 faculty positions advertised in her field this year, at least 21 have been canceled or postponed, she has learned. "If you're really unlucky, every job you're applying for could be pulled," she says.

Courtesy, Nilanjana Dasgupta
Nilanjana Dasgupta

In some cases, positions have been advertised, then withdrawn, then reinstated--but with some uncertainty remaining. "We've had spectacular applicants come through, then have had to say, 'Oops, the position went away,' then recontact those applicants and say, 'It's on again,' " says the chair of neurobiology and behavior at one university, who asked not to be identified. "The uncertainty has been very demoralizing." These on-again, off-again searches have also hampered her department's ability to plan its course offerings for next year, she says. "The applicant pool is through the roof, and biology departments especially are growing very quickly. Normally, we would be expanding our course offerings, but because we don't know if we'll have the faculty, we can't do that. That means teaching assistantships are very limited, which means we can't bring in as many graduate students as we otherwise would, which means that we can't fully staff our lab courses."

Nilanjana Dasgupta, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is worried about the effect that widespread hiring freezes will have on scholarship at her institution. "The last time we had to freeze hiring, we lost a whole generation of researchers," she says. "People we might have hired went somewhere else, or left the field, and there was an entire period of intellectual development in our field that was simply not represented in our department. This recession came just as we were beginning to recover from that."

According to a survey of 214 public and private institutions, conducted jointly in December by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Moody's Investors Service, 43% of colleges and universities had imposed partial faculty hiring freezes and 5% had completely stopped hiring faculty. In a different survey, which included 372 private colleges, most enrolling fewer than 5000 students, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities found that half of the institutions had frozen faculty or staff hiring, or planned to do so. In December, Harvard University Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Michael Smith, informed the faculty that "all originally authorized tenure-track and tenured searches have been reviewed and most have been postponed until a point in time when our financial situation has improved."

Courtesy, Joaquin Ruiz
Joaquin Ruiz

Facing a $15 million reduction in its operating budget, in September the University of Maryland announced a systemwide hiring freeze for all state-funded positions. In December, the state's Board of Regents instituted a short-term furlough plan under which full-time employees will be required to take as many as 5 days of unpaid leave, with the highest-paid faculty members and administrators taking the most leave. Arizona State University has announced a mandatory furlough plan for all employees; faculty members will be required to take 12 days of unpaid leave, saving the university about $24 million. Utah State University and three South Carolina schools--Clemson and Winthrop universities, and the Medical University of South Carolina--have also announced mandatory furloughs.

Arizona's other state university, the University of Arizona, has been under a faculty-hiring freeze since October. Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the university's College of Science, says he doesn't expect a thaw anytime soon. "In about 5 years, there's going to be boom times because there's no question that universities are going to have to hire," Ruiz says. "But that doesn't help much for anyone who needs a job now."

Universities that have frozen faculty hiring have allowed some exceptions. The University of Minnesota, for example, announced a hiring pause in November but stipulated that positions essential to university operations will be filled. The University of Arizona likewise is allowing some exceptions to its freeze. Ruiz says the College of Science, which normally hires about 16 faculty members a year, has four searches under way this year, two for clinical faculty members in the medical school and two for programs so small that they could "implode" if open positions aren't filled.

Courtesy, Tom Skalak
Tom Skalak

Eric Wilcots, associate dean for mathematical and natural sciences in the University of Wisconsin's College of Letters and Science, says the school is going forward with searches that were authorized last year, but "we are being very conservative with authorizing any new hires" and will probably remain so at least until the state decides whether to raise student tuition. There's also some hope, he says, that a piece of the promised federal stimulus package will find its way to campus; if so, that may free up some money for faculty hiring. Still, he says, "I would not want to be looking for a faculty job in this environment."

University of Virginia Vice President for Research Tom Skalak says UVA science departments have put more than the usual number of searches on hold. But although faculty hiring may be on the back burner for a while, he says, "all institutions are continuing to invest in innovation, knowing that the federal and private sector support will be coming off the sidelines within 18 months to 2 years."

Sam Bonfante, associate publisher of The Chronicle of Higher Education, also sees evidence that although universities may be down, they're not panicked. Recruitment advertising in the Chronicle has slipped in recent months, he says, but branding advertising--4-color ads trumpeting universities' unique attributes--has increased. That suggests that universities are trying harder than ever to attract the best scholars, he says. "The war for talent is no less intense."

Siri Carpenter writes from Madison, Wisconsin.

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