Economics blogger Noah Smith has an interesting post on how graduating economics PhDs find jobs in what is known as the “Job Market”. It’s a very centralized and organized process, much like how medical students match into residency programs. All the available jobs are posted in one place and the candidates get interviewed at the American Economics Association annual meeting each January. The academic departments are directly involved in helping students send out applications and obtain recommendation letters. The only requirement to go on the job market was to have a single paper that he calls the “Job Market Paper”, which doesn’t even have to be published. What struck me most was Smith’s claim that almost everyone in the top 50 economics departments get decent jobs. He implies that many get jobs in universities and government like the Federal Reserve and the rest in the private sector.
This is in complete contrast to how students in science and mathematics find jobs upon graduation. In the first case, almost all science PhDs now must do one and usually more post doctoral fellowships before finding a tenure track faculty position. It is quite common to spend six or more years in these temporary positions before securing a permanent job. During this time, the ones that do find jobs will have had to publish many papers in prestigious journals. As opposed to economics, where assistant professors can be hired on promise of future potential, the science job market is so competitive that a young person must first prove that they are a completely independent researcher that can secure funding. Additionally, many if not most of the PhDs will not be able to find tenure track faculty positions. There is then no systematic way for them to find alternative career paths if academia doesn’t work out for them. They’re on their own tracking down leads in the private sector and some like Douglas Prasher, who was important in the discovery of GFP, may end up driving a bus. Math is slightly different in that most PhDs take non-tenure track faculty positions that are time limited. The super stars can get tenure track jobs directly out of graduate school. It is extremely difficult to find a tenure track job at a research university in math.
I think the main reason that a centralized “Job Market” exists for economics but not for say biology is that the filter for entry into the field is set at the graduate school level. Because funding for economics is very low, academic departments admit relatively few students each year. Hence, economics is at a steady state, where the number of available jobs each year approximately matches the number of graduates. This is completely different for science, and in particular biology, where many more graduate students are admitted then there are jobs. Additionally, the number of graduate students admitted is mostly set by how much research funding is available and not how many permanent good jobs will be available when they graduate. Also, biology is a labour intensive field where it is not uncommon for a single principal investigator to manage a group of twenty or more students and post docs.. As long as federal research funding remains where it is, there will always be a mismatch between the number admitted to graduate school and the number of available faculty jobs. However, that is not to say that departments couldn’t do more to help students and in particular post docs find jobs when they graduate. Post docs are generally forgotten entities in academic departments. They are usually hired directly by a faculty member and there are not a lot of university or department services devoted to them. I think that departments that take federal funding to hire post docs should have some sort of “post doctoral advisor” that helps post docs find jobs. In particular, departments should make clear from the outset that the prospect of obtaining an academic position is low and find smoother paths for people to find jobs in the private sector.