On the origin of Assistant Professors

After spending the last fifteen months as a postdoc (and to be honest, mostly enjoying it, it’s been fun despite the brutal frustration of building a new homebrew instrument and getting it running), I’ve come to appreciate first hand how difficult getting a faculty job offer is—not that I previously held delusions that it was easy. I’ve recently gone through my first round of job applications, and I’ve had a few bites, but no offers so far. It’s still early in the game, and interviews are still being conducted, but I’m not holding my breath. To evaluate where I stand compared to other possible candidates, I went on a small quest last night to figure out what the career paths look like for recently hired Assistant Professors of Geology (Earth Science, Geoscience, whatever you want to call it) in Canada. I chose Canada because I’m Canadian, but also because it’s a smaller more manageable data collection effort. Admittedly, this was partly self-serving because this year there were no hires in Canada for which I would be a suitable candidate, and I wanted to scope out where might be hiring in the near future. The findings were intriguing, and while the sample size is small, it may be helpful for students who are trying to plan their careers. The key piece of information that is lacking in this study is nationality—there are restrictions on hiring at all universities in Canada that rank equivalently qualified Canadians and permanent residents higher than foreign nationals in almost every job competition including those of faculty. Therefore, the results should be skewed toward Canadian citizens, regardless of PhD or Postdoc location, but I was unable to test this idea.

Here’s what I found (please note that the data are incomplete,. but I can only spend so much time hacking around trying to dig up details that should be easily displayed on a university website). At the 12 universities I examined, there are 36 Assistant Professors of Geology. Fourteen (39%) were female, and twenty two (61%) were male. An obvious gender imbalance, but small sample size. The median year of attaining a PhD was 2007, and the median number of years spent as a postdoc was three. There was a wide range of postdoctoral experience, ranging from none to ten years. Most Assistant Professors (67%) did their PhD outside of Canada. Most also did their postdoc outside of Canada (73%). There was only one case that did both PhD and postdoc in Canada and currently holds a junior tenure-track position.

Qualitatively, all of the people holding Assistant Professorships had exceptional qualifications and publication records, and I don’t see universities being short on outstanding people anytime soon. However, this led me to another (yet unanswered) question: where do all the students and postdocs go? In any university department there are far more PhD students than faculty. Doing the math, there were 12 people hired in the last ~8 years, and probably 400 (this is a back of the envelope calculation) graduating with a PhD during the same time frame from Canadian schools, the rate of 1 faculty job for ~30 PhD’s seems similar to that of the American system. In grad school, nobody is under the delusion that they are all going to become professors, but that we don’t know the ultimate destinations of these highly qualified people speaks to our general ignorance of science in our society. The data to conduct this study certainly exist—NSERC collects information about trainees from all its supported researchers, and it would be interesting to follow up on this in a more detailed and data rich study.

What I took away from this is probably more of the same things I knew already. Things are hard if you choose science as a career path. Generally low pay, poor job prospects, etc. etc. that we should all be aware of before embarking on that journey. However, I also see opportunity. The 29 out of 30 people (the 97%?) who didn’t get a faculty job (or maybe didn’t want one in the first place) are still very qualified scientists with good ideas and clever ways to solve problems. Perhaps by reversing the trend of training so many students, better science could be done with a more permanent staff. If I were a PI, I’d expect better science to be done by a competent research associate who’s spent ten years thinking about isotope geochemistry than a newly minted undergrad who doesn’t know the difference between alpha, delta, and epsilon. Perhaps by taking advantage of the current glut of qualified researchers Canada can change the way science is done, and get back to leading, instead of lagging behind, the rest of the scientific world.


ps – I’d hoped to get this published on Darwin Day (hence the title), but I’m a day late.
pps- The raw data can be found here, and admittedly it’s a bit rough. Please feel free to use it however you’d like to share, download, make it better, etc.

Location_PhD Years as Postdoc Male_Female Location_Postdoc