Saturday, July 25, 2009

Job Markets and Lunar Landings

James Austin
Science Careers Blog

These last few days have put me in a pensive and sentimental mood. I'm a child of the 1960's, 5 years old when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. Those were times when people were excited about science and jobs were--apparently--abundant. Stephen Shafroth, a senior colleague during my physics years (we also co-edited an esoteric book together), told me once (if memory serves) that he had 7 offers after his Ph.D., with no postdoc. That would have been, I think, in the early 1970s, not long after Apollo 11. Stephen was a good physicist, but he was not Einstein. Those were good times to be a physicist.

Today, multiple offers are relatively rare, and only a minority of scientists who pursue academic careers ever attain them. Our recent worldwide economic woes, and the resulting state-university budget cuts and private-university endowment losses, have made things quite a bit worse. The sputtering drug pipeline means poor prospects in the pharmaceuticals industry, and the generally weak economy means generally weak private-sector employment.

Which is why it gives me such great pleasure this week to illustrate, on Science Careers, not one but two career paths where prospects are good and multiple offers are not rare.

The first area--as illustrated by Chelsea Wald--is research on mathematics education, which offers excellent opportunities in--and, surprisingly, beyond--academia.

The second area doesn't really have a name, but you might call it network science. As Siri Carpenter shows us, this new field--or set of fields--offers excellent job prospects across many disciplines. How often do you find a discipline that's equally loved by physicists, ecologists, sociologists, and whatever you call people who study e-mail and cell phones? Even the Department of Homeland Security, and all the branches of the military, are interested in network science.

It's a tough economy, and people in traditional fields are feeling the pain. So it's nice to be able to show off at some areas of science that offer real professional promise. We'll see what other bright spots we can turn up in the coming months.