Dealing with Uncertainty in the Academic Job Market

 Marketing Director   October 5, 2021  Career Advice

This article is from the National Postdoctoral Network.

Many in the postdoctoral community are rightly concerned about the future of the academic job market. Prospective postdocs wonder: Will institutions be hiring postdocs? Current postdocs wonder: Will there be faculty positions open in Fall 2021? There is much uncertainty with the current job landscape for so many. And while this commentary will not diminish the reality of that uncertainty, hopefully, it will offer some facts and perspective on several of these matters.

Employment at U.S. Universities in Response to COVID-19

Recent data from The Chronicle of Higher Education indicate most (58 percent) university employment changes in response to COVID-19 have been furloughs, where the hope is to rehire staff once it is deemed possible; only 17 percent of positions have been categorized as being a “permanent layoff.” Those on renewable contracts at universities appear most at-risk at public institutions where nearly two-thirds of reported academic contract non-renewals have taken place. Unfortunately, the number of individuals on renewable contracts is large and consists of a wide range of employees from postdocs to lecturers and adjunct faculty (i.e., contingent faculty). There are concerns with how the current COVID-19-related cutbacks disproportionately affect non-tenure faculty and postdoctoral scholars who are already in more vulnerable employment positions.

Postdoc Hiring

We should first acknowledge that the modern United States research enterprise will require postdoc labor for the foreseeable future. Postdocs bring valuable skills to many academic research groups and are the main driver of efforts toward accomplishing the goals of many grant-funded projects and spearheading innovative research that leads to groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

As many postdoctoral scholars in the sciences are funded via federal research dollars from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, their job security could be considered more stable compared to other academic employees. These grants are multi-year endeavors and many postdoc office administrators have noted that even if their institution currently has a hiring freeze, that often does not apply to grant-funded postdoctoral positions.

With this in mind, prospective postdocs should seek out research groups with current federal grant funding to ensure their postdoc position will be relatively stable for the next few years. Find labs with funding via: NIH ReporterNSF Award SearchDOE Award Search, & USDA Awards

In addition, a recent survey on postdoctoral hiring trends through the Professional Development and Career Office at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found 35% of responding institutions have not changed their postdoc hiring practices, 62% have modified their hiring strategy for postdocs (i.e., added new processes/procedures to hire), and only 3% have stopped hiring postdocs. Therefore, on the whole, postdoctoral hiring trends appear intact, though those requiring international travel to reach their employer are subject to current visa policies and regulations, and as such may experience temporary difficulties obtaining a position in the United States.

Faculty Hiring

Many universities have issued faculty and staff hiring freezes (see crowdsourced list of current hiring practices). How will these freezes affect faculty hiring in 2020–2021? Chemjobber has predicted fewer than 100 chemistry faculty positions will be open across the United States. and Canada in fall 2020 compared to an average number of openings of 550—a drop of over 80 percent. However, there is still relatively little data to indicate the extent to which faculty hiring will be affected in fall 2020.

Most university staff assume a decrease in available funds to hire new faculty will occur, though how large of a decrease remains uncertain at the moment. It is this uncertainty, though, that has led many universities to act conservatively and pause new faculty hiring for fiscal year 2021 (beginning July 2020). If university finances are not impacted as severely as predicted this coming academic year, perhaps hiring in fiscal year 2022 might be more robust than anticipated. The future is uncertain and all available data is being analyzed to help provide clarity as to when to make strategic increases in faculty over time.

Collecting Insights From Those on the Faculty Job Market

Together with colleagues who met via Future PI Slack, I and others are working to gain a better understanding of the qualifications needed to obtain a faculty position and how competition for one may shift as a result of COVID-19. Recently, our 2018–2019 job market survey was published in eLife and a current survey running for those on the faculty job market in 2019–2020 will begin to shed light on how COVID-19 affected faculty offers this spring.

Consider Career Alternatives

Given the expectation of a challenging faculty job market over the next few years, all postdoctoral scholars should consider career alternatives to faculty. It is always advisable to have options for your career and indeed the current climate makes having a Plan B even more important.

While it is important to be realistic about job opportunities, if your Plan A is to become a professor, don’t abandon all hope. There will always be a need for good, dedicated people in faculty positions. One point that is often overlooked is that most faculty positions are not at large, research-intensive universities. Reach out to faculty working at a variety of institutions of higher education to learn more about your options and what a faculty position may look like outside an R1 university.

Budgetary Concerns and New Investments in Science

Clearly, university budgets will be affected by potential decreases in enrollments if students don’t feel comfortable returning, or are not given the opportunity to return, to campus in the fall. However, new data suggest enrollment drops may not be as severe as originally anticipated. Decreases in sales tax revenue from closed economies will also strain state funding for many institutions (see also). Federal funding currently remains intact, though, and may increase as policymakers appreciate the value of scientific discovery and innovation and how such work is crucial to solving the complex problems we face as a society in a timely and effective manner.

There are bipartisan calls for more support of the United States scientific workforce during the current COVID-19 crisis. In fact, 31 senators have signed on to this letter from Edward Markey (Democate-MA) and Thom Tillis (Republican-NC) which calls for, among other things, emergency relief to sustain research support personnel and additional funds for graduate student and postdoc fellowships for up to two years. In addition, another recent bill outlined a plan to add a technology directorate within the National Science Foundation in order to accelerate the translation of fundamental research into useful and effective processes and products for the public good (see Endless Frontier Act).

In Europe, the United Kingdom has pledged a 15 percent increase in R&D funding for the 2021 fiscal year, representing its largest year-on-year increase ever. Last year, Germany announced a three percent annual increase in science funding to continue for nearly a decade. The silver lining of the current situation could be increased investment in the research enterprise which will more than likely benefit the postdoctoral community in the long term.

Closing Thoughts

Despite the fact that the current postdoctoral and academic job market is uncertain, the world undoubtedly needs the talents and skills of postdocs in academia and in higher education more broadly; working in higher education remains a great career where one can have a tremendous positive impact on society. The anticipated new national investments in scientific funding may ultimately improve the job prospects of many for years to come.

It is well-known that higher education unlocks economic opportunities for students as well as communities. Some have called for an Academic New Deal with increased investment in and access to higher education and other advanced training needed in the 21st century. Perhaps one positive effect of the global pandemic will be that the public will appreciate and support the need for scientific research, innovation, and robust institutions of higher education that allow for us all to grow and prosper into the future.

About the Author:  Chris Smith, PhD, is the postdoc program manager at North Carolina State University and a member of the National Postdoctoral Association Board of Directors.