Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Astronomers - Where are we going and who will we be when we get there?

Let’s talk about the US Bureau of Labor Statistics report on Physicists and Astronomers.

Here’s the link:

    First note the median pay of a physicist or astronomer: $106,360 per year. Honestly I find this number laughably large. You can scroll down and find that the breakdown is actually physicists’ median = $106,840, while astronomers’ median = $96,460, which is still large, in my opinion. Let’s just focus on astronomers here. I think it is a bit misleading to lump physicists and astronomers together; I haven’t heard of many people switching between these two research fields — not without a great deal of effort.

    The “median”, by the way, is a kind of average of a set of numbers. It is defined as the number in the middle when you list the set in increasing order. You may be more familiar with the mean average (sum of the set divided by the number of items within the set). The median is less susceptible to being dragged up or down by large outliers in the group. For example, the median of 1, 5, and 10 is 5. If the set were 1, 5, and 10000, the median would still be 5, because it is the middle number. Whereas, the mean average would change a lot.

    So I wonder - what is going on here? Surely they are not counting post-docs among this group of astronomers.

    Let’s go to the “Work Environment” tab. Here we find that in 2012 the number of astronomers was 2,700 jobs (and physicists was 20,600). This immediately explains why the overall median salary is biased toward a higher number - the physicists make more money and there are more of them than astronomers. But still - 2,700 is a low number of jobs. I suspect that they are only counting faculty, let’s check the breakdown:

54% of astronomers work in colleges, universities, and professional schools.
21% work in research and development in the physical, engineering, or life sciences.
19% are employed by the federal government.

    This leaves about 6% unaccounted for. So, a little more than half of astronomers are actually faculty members. If that’s surprising at all, it’s because it seems low to me (excluding post-docs and grad students). About 1/5 of astronomers are employed in research and development. Presumably this is outside of colleges and universities, and outside government entities. I suppose this could include observatory staff astronomers, but my perception is that they make up more like 10% rather than 20% of the community. Is it possible that the post-docs are included in the 21% category? Post-docs are mentioned in the “How to Become One” tab:

“Many physics and astronomy Ph.D. holders who seek employment as full-time researchers begin their careers in a temporary postdoctoral research position, which typically lasts 2 to 3 years. During their postdoctoral appointment, they work with experienced scientists as they continue to learn about their specialties or develop a broader understanding of related areas of research. Their initial work may be carefully supervised by senior scientists, but as they gain experience, they usually do more complex tasks and have greater independence in their work.”

    All true, but let’s not keep post-docs down. In my opinion, a Ph.D. graduate is fully qualified to become a faculty member straight away. That’s not true for everyone, but for many I think it is. The fact that post-doc positions are common now is due to there not being enough permanent faculty spots to go around. There’s an oversupply of qualified people, and an under-supply of positions.
    As an aside there is probably demand for a whole new set of faculty; there are plenty of undergraduate students who want to learn physics and astronomy. There just isn’t enough funding to support those faculty. And everyone loses a little bit. Write your senators, folks.

“Pay” tab.

“The median annual wage for astronomers was $96,460 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $51,270, and the top 10 percent earned more than $165,300.”

    If you are lucky enough to get a job offer in astronomy, use this information to negotiate your salary. Be a little careful when quoting these numbers, though, because the breakdown shows a stark contrast between university employees and federal employees.

    Federal employees are the highest paid with a median of $139,000 per year, but only make up 19% of astronomers. University and college faculty, while making up the majority of astronomers, are only making a median of ~$78,000 per year. Still useful info for that initial salary negotiation.

    So realistically if you get to be a tenured faculty member, you still aren’t going to make the overall median salary, because the median is being brought up by the federal employees — despite the median being robust against outliers (~20% is not an outlier). 

    Let’s take a look at the “Job Outlook” tab, and here’s the kicker. During the 10-year period from 2012-2022, the federal government expects the growth rate for astronomers to be 10%. With a population of 2,700, that means we can expect 270 new jobs in 10 years. That’s probably not counting the replacement of people who retire, so let’s be generous and throw those in there too. Call it 350 jobs over 10 years. That’s really generous, because the number that is actually projected on the website is 300 jobs. Also note that the projected employment in 2022 is 2,900, which is 200 greater than 2,700, not 300 as is listed in the 'Numeric' column. Hey Bureau of Labor Statistics, 200. / 2700. is 7.4%, not 10% - can we get a little better precision here? Lots of post-docs’ careers depend on this measurement. For being a bureau of statistics, they are remarkably inconsistent.

    You know what? There are probably more than 300 post-docs this year looking for permanent jobs. Good luck. You might get hired sometime during the next 10 years.

    If you are interested, you might consider browsing some other occupations described by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for comparison. For example, “computer and information research scientists” numbered around 27,000 (ten times that of astronomers) in 2012, and are expected to grow by about 4,000 (15%) between 2012 and 2022. Hey, they also make a median salary of $102,000 per year (~20-30k more than the majority of astronomers). Turns out they have a lot of overlapping skills, too. Just something to think about. 

Information and quotes gathered from:
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Computer and Information Research Scientists, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/

1 comment:

  1. Another point one might consider taking away from these statistics is that grad students and postdocs should be strongly considering careers in government, research labs, and observatories. There are lots of fulfilling career options out there beyond solely university faculty member. Since we're all trained in universities, the faculty member career path is the one that's most obviously apparent to us all when we're starting out - but it pays to educate yourself about other options (literally). As these data show, the pay is on average better in research labs or the government, and there aren't enough faculty jobs anyway.

    Specific options to think about: NASA (largest single employer of astronomers nationwide!), observatories both public (STScI, Gemini, LSST, KPNO, NRAO, etc) and private (Keck, Steward, Carnegie, etc), and don't forget aerospace (we need astronomers at Northrup Grumman, Ball Aerospace, Lockheed, Teledyne, etc. if we are to continue having any new space missions!) or small businesses related to astronomy or optics (e.g. telescope vendors such as Planewave, or detector firms such as SBIG and Apogee.) All the exhibitors at the AAS are potential employers as well as people to get swag from!

    In terms of percentage of the community who are non-governmental observatory staff astronomers: There are about 80 research staff here at STScI (Ph.D. level astronomers, in various tracks) so we alone make up ~3% of the community. So 15-20% of the community overall for all observatories doesn't seem implausibly high.

    (Shameless plug: BTW, STScI is hiring, and we'll continue doing so over the next few years as we get closer to the launch of JWST. We also hire junior research analysts right out of college and grad school in addition to faculty-equivalent posts. Interested? Come visit our booth at the AAS!)