Simons Postdoctoral Fellowships

The Simons Foundation will be funding new postdoctoral positions at various institutions starting next fall. Details of one of these, at the University of Texas, have been announced, with more to follow in coming weeks. These are three-year postdocs, with a first-year salary of $70K/year.

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40 Responses to Simons Postdoctoral Fellowships

  1. Stephen says:

    Why is every institute funding postdocs and no one is funding real jobs (i.e. long term)?

    When people look for jobs outside academia, in private companies, they normally look and find long-term jobs. Or at least, if they are doing well after some initial time, they can stay longer.

    Now, why a university cannot work in the same way?

    If you have a Ph.D. and looking for an academic job, this seems impossible for many years, so that you have to struggle all the time with applications, relocating, maintain a personal life, relationships, friendships, etc… and in the end you do not know when you will have a permanent job.

    I find all this completely crazy: if somebody works well, why he cannot stay in the same place more than 2-3 years?
    If a Ph.D. is not enough to get a job immediately, this probably means that there are too many people with a Ph.D. or that the whole system is dysfunctional.

    There is probably the wrong idea that putting people under this kind of situation and pressure they will work more. But competition and fear should not be the motivation to do research….Some competition is good, but when it is too much, this is exactly what kills the creativity, the freedom of thought and the passion.
    And gives people (even the good ones) motivations to leave science.

    There is also the idea that forcing people to travel will make them acquire an international experience. True. But wouldn’t be easier and better to have just funding for visit and short stays/sabbaticals?

  2. Franckle says:

    Dear Stephen, I completely agree with you. I’m a person who works with bursts of great talent when outside there’s the sun in the sweet air of the morning… or I can be depressed thinking about the strange system you described so well in which I’m immersed. Thanks Stephen, words are important…

  3. Andy P. says:

    Stephen — because of tenure, hiring someone for a “permanent” position is essentially making a 35-40 year commitment. It’s not realistic for the NSF or a private foundation to make that kind of commitment.

    Trust me, the situation in math and the sciences is much better than other parts of academia. We can at least get temporary positions that pay a decent wage and have benefits. In (say) English, you essentially have to live in dire poverty adjuncting for years until you can find a permanent job.

  4. Stephen says:

    Hi Andy,
    suppose that you are a doctor working in a hospital or a teacher in high school (or I could give many more examples). Is it unrealistic that you get a permanent job? If not, why having a Ph.D. (and maybe even one or two years of postdoc) is not enough to be trusted to get a job in academia?

    The fact that other parts of academia are worse, does not make things any better. It just make things worse for the poor guys who are in the other fields.

    I believe many of us just got accustomed to be treated in this way.
    Personally I think it is unfair and nonsense, and also counterproductive.

    Many people have also short memory: after suffering for many years and finally getting on the other side with tenure, will they do something to hire young people offering permanent jobs? Unfortunately what happens is that tenured people will try mostly to get grants in order to hire people for temporary jobs.
    It is a self-replicating system, unless somebody is willing to try and change it.

  5. Ming says:

    In view of the fact that there are many more Physics PhD’s than available faculty positions in Physics, I suppose some form of “weeding” process must be implemented. From what I’ve seen, the ones who eventually made it to tenure are usually very talented (a necessary, but not sufficient condition) and either very excited and committed to whatever they’re doing in just the right kind of research (the ones that are in fashion and get funded) or very ambitious in getting a faculty position no matter what it takes, be it personal or professional sacrifices. If you (like me) don’t fit into either category, then it’s extremely unlikely you’ll end up with a permanent faculty position in Physics.

    Is it unfair? Guess so, but who said life is fair? And besides, there are always other careers for Physics PhD’s outside academia. Is it unhealthy for Physics that the top academic jobs in Physics are only given to those who’re fashion-chasers often with questionable professional ethics? Yup I think so, but it’ll take a literal revolution to change the system…

  6. Andy P. says:

    Stephen — do you really think that senior faculty can do all that much to increase tenure-track hiring? I can assure you that most departments fight like dogs for every tenure-track line they can get. The money simply isn’t there.

    I agree that the job situation in math can be frustrating, but blaming it on tenured faculty with “short memories” is simply wrong. Getting grants and hiring postdocs is really all they can do.

    Just give thanks that if you end up leaving academia, you will be able to get a very nice job. Your salary will probably be better than most tenured faculty. This is simply false for most other parts of academia.

  7. Peter Shor says:

    Dear Stephen,

    When you get a job in a private company, you can be fired or laid off at any time. In fact, I know a number of people who have been laid off and have had to scramble for another job (and they didn’t always get one right away). It’s not fun. So in some sense, a three-year postdoc position is more secure than many other jobs.

    The biggest problem is that there is a big supply of PhD’s in physics, and not anywhere near as much demand. In computer science, most PhD’s go either directly to tenure-track positions or industry. Only top universities can get reasonable people by offering them postdoc positions, because graduating PhD’s have so many more good opportunities than they do in physics.

    So if you want a better job market in physics, discourage people from going into physics (say, start up a big String Wars brouhaha to make the field look less attractive …).

  8. POM says:

    Dear Andy,

    if the senior faculty cannot help to increase tenure track hiring, then who else can do it ? It is certainly unfair to blame “Senior faculties” as a whole to have short memories, but one can certainly blame some of them (and – to my experience which is quite large on that matter – not only few of them) no to care at all to what happens to the “youngs in their field”.

    I have heard many times this kind of answer “yes but you know… life is unfair”. So what ? One should just shut up and accept it ? This is the kind of attitude which is expected to be promoted in science ?

    Many academics consider themselves as bright and clever people, with high morality and self-declared ability to select “the best one(s)”. But very often the final decision is mainly politics. This is this hypocrisy that I (and other long-term postdocs) find unbearable:

    -on the one side there is a community which keeps on claiming that its main selection criterium is “scientific excellence”,

    - on the other side as soon as you start hearing what is really going on inside (some) hiring committees, you discover that often more than “scientific excellence” (whose definition by the way varies depending on whom the position has been designed for) what is important are dirty politics, local interest, or simply “délit de sale gueule” (or age segregation, that is unsaid because it is illegal, but that “naturally” applies).

    Surely academics in physics or maths is not worst than other segments of the society. But at least in the bank industry nobody claims to be driven by high principles. The aim is to make profit. Full point.

  9. Thomas Larsson says:

    In a steady-state situation, each advisor will on average give birth to one new advisor in the next generation. So if an average professor produces ten PhDs, 90% of his students will not get tenure themselves. It is really as simple as that.

  10. POM says:

    Except that a human society is a not a gas, not even a perfect one. There are many and various interactions between its components, from very short to long range. Moreover “Academy” is certainly not an isolated system. It is neither homogoneous nor isotropic. One does not understand much of it by simply taking global averages.

  11. Chris Oakley says:

    To expand on TL’s comment, one should not forget Weil’s Law of university hiring (under “Quotations”) either. On average, therefore, the quality declines.

  12. Bob Levine says:

    ‘Except that a human society is a not a gas, not even a perfect one. There are many and various interactions between its components, from very short to long range. Moreover “Academy” is certainly not an isolated system. It is neither homogoneous nor isotropic. One does not understand much of it by simply taking global averages.’

    But TL’s comments don’t depend on a human society or an academic subcomponent being a perfect gas. The situation is much simpler: under normal conditions, the demand for university faculty will correlate closely with the size of the student population, so that only radical increases in the size of the latter, or some other very unusual combination of factors, will significantly affect the intake rate for faculty. The last time I can recall that happening was in the wake of Sputnik, when all that NDEA Title 4 money poured in to create hundreds of new departments in many fields, and many of my colleagues received calls—as *graduate students*—from department heads pleading with them to accept academic positions in their departments. That’s going to happen extremely rarely in any given century. Yet, in line with TL’s point, if each professor trains on average only two Ph.D.s in his or her academic career, it would require something at least as spectacular as Sputnik to absorb the whole candidate pool into the tenure-track professoriate—and this at a time when administrators are trying to reduce the size of the tenured/tenure-track faculty by hiring part-time faculty on short-term contracts with minimal benefits and often terrible working conditions. It’s a mistake to blame senior faculty for this—we often fight like hell to minimize such practices. But university administrators are committed, in my view, to deprofessionalizing their faculties, and they use every trick in the book to do so.

    There’s just a fundamental problem here: a department’s size is one of its chief guarantors of survival, at a time when graduate programs are being merged or shut down completely. But the only justification of increasing size—hiring more faculty—is that you’ve admitted more students and need instructors to teach them, not just at the undergrad level but in your graduate programs. And that means you wind up creating way too many Ph.D.s for the market. If senior faculty can be blamed for anything, it’s for promoting excessive growth in their programs; but if they don’t, those programs themselves may well get the chop. And I’ve yet to hear of any constructive suggestions to solve this conundrum that were particularly realistic…

  13. Stephen says:

    Dear Andy,
    if the money simply isn’t there, there are two viable options:
    either trying to get more money, or to train less Ph.D. students (or both). Just enough to cover the demand.

    Moreover, for instance, many senior people are frustrated with having too much teaching. Teaching often implies teaching to undergrads, also to non-physics students. There is certainly demand for this. Then, why not hiring more young people for mixed long-term positions (teaching+research), so that the load would be less also for tenured people?

  14. Coward says:

    Stephen: I’d love to hire some young people to reduce my teaching load! And where am i supposed to get the money for this, especially in the current economic crisis with most universities in very dire budgetary situations? If anything, I think universities will feel pressure to increase teaching load to save money on faculty salaries.

  15. Lee says:

    Professors are to blame when they hire and retain low-salary postdocs and graduate students while giving them exaggerated prospect of their landing a tenure track job later. The false advertisement comes in the form of overstating the impact of the proposed research to be done together (this project will save the world), and understating the hiring criteria of perceived lower-rank universities (you will be a professor in some state university). Selling the professor’s research and training package to a postdoc in this manner is nothing short of selling stock or house with bubbled price, and is downright unethical if the broker intentionally does so to a new customer in the market.

    The sad thing is, most of academic research has extremely low value, from the society’s point of view. Adding a drop of knowledge in the ocean of existing knowledge is not a good bet. Its best bet for market performance is leveraging its educational value, but letting postdocs to gain teaching experience is what most professors don’t like to do – they want isolated and illusioned postdocs in their lab producing results for next NSF funding. This is unethical.

  16. “Why is every institute funding postdocs and no one is funding real jobs (i.e. long term)?”
    totally agree – however given the state of the economy it shouldn’t be too big of a surprise is it?

  17. I believe this situation has mixed causes. In the first place, contrary to what many in the system believe, society values university research very highly and funds it at a high level — even if it is not the even higher level that some in the system might prefer.

    The funding comes partly because of an expectation that university research is required to win future wars. This is a realistic expectation. However, since we have not had a war that has been decided by university research since 1945, this feeling is dying out with the generation of leaders who feel the motivation, although the reality of the situation in fact persists (think about space battle, or information warfare).

    Of course warfare, however important it may be, is an intrinsically unscientific motivation, and accepting funding on this basis is sickening the sciences. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for funding based on expectation of better medicine, or a more productive economy, or maintaining “national competitiveness.”

    Right now the life sciences are being perverted by a search for means of extending the human life span. I am decidedly in favor of doing this, personally, but I expect a good deal of dishonesty to enter medical science as a result.

    The right way to fund the sciences – or the arts, for that matter – is to donate money to the best people for whatever it is that they, personally, feel is worth doing. Since they are of course the only ones even remotely capable of deciding what is worth doing! This is an essentially elitist view and does not sit well in a democratic system. It is ultimately founded on a contemplative, non-utilitarian view of how talented people should spend their time.

    The tenure system for all its faults reflects this elitist view, inherited from a far more contemplative age. But it is to be expected that in a crowded world of well-fed, relatively well-educated people, long-lived people there will many more people who want to do this kind of work than there are places for them.

    The postdoc system in my view is an uneasy compromise between the elitist and utilitarian views. The postdoc system is sort of like boot camp or hazing, and it does more or less get unserious or mediocre people out of the way. But from the outside, where I sit, it would seem to create a very poor environment in which to contemplate and think. The worst consequence is the inflation of “style” or “fashion” in science where there should be only a small place for it, along with party feeling, purges, and the whole 9 yards.

    We desperately need multiple approaches to really hard problems, but the utilitarian, competitive approach, perhaps paradoxically, does not naturally support this. Generous private funding has in fact been necessary to supplement the support of alternative approaches to physical theory in North America.

    If you don’t want this environment, you will have to find other ways to discourage unsuitable or superfluous people. And better ways to encourage the most suitable people! But in our society, whatever you do will be perceived as unfair.

    I don’t know what to say about that. Good luck all,

    Mike Gogins

  18. Peter Woit says:

    It should be pointed out that Simons has funded permanent positions: the new center for geometry and physics at Stony Brook will have 7 permanent positions (director, 3 physicists, 3 mathematicians).

  19. POM says:

    “If senior faculty can be blamed for anything, it’s for promoting excessive growth in their programs; but if they don’t, those programs themselves may well get the chop. And I’ve yet to hear of any constructive suggestions to solve this conundrum that were particularly realistic…”

    What I blame (some of) the senior faculties for, is the unbearable lightness with which they manage the hiring process. Indeed the job market is hard. This is precisely why one should expect the hiring process to be rigorous, clear and clean. And to a large extend this process is in the hands of senior academics. I have little experience with the american system, but I have the feeling that in (at least some part of) Europe, applicants are rather used as canon fodder, for the benefits of local interest that one is aware of once the process is over.

    Just a simple illustration: why is it so difficult to obtain a constructive opinion on one’s application, which goes beyond the useless “your research interest did not meet the priority of our institute. We wish you success in your future academic life” ? Is it because the professional-life of some non permanent staff is not worth the time a permanent researcher would spend answering him ?

  20. Alejandro Rivero says:

    Of course it is possible for private companies to fund long term positions:

    “Lucas, in his will, bequeathed his library of 4,000 volumes to the University and left instruction for the purchase of land whose yielding would provide £100 a year for the founding of a professorship”

    But they can also endow, at the same price, a fellowship.

  21. Andy P. says:

    POM – In the United States (I don’t know about Europe), there is often an explicit policy forbidding people from sharing the reasons someone wasn’t hired. It can very easily lead to lawsuits, even if the reasons are totally reasonable.

  22. Stephen says:

    It was not my intention to blame tenured professors, in a generalized way.

    I just wanted to remind that, from the point of view of young Ph.D.’s life, it is much better to have opportunities for long term jobs. And I think very few people would disagree with this statement.

    Some people made the point that there is no money for this (for permanent jobs or mixed research/teaching positions).

    The solution to this conundrum is actually trivial: the money which is spent for hiring postdocs could be spent for paying salaries for long term jobs.

    Moreover, many people would by far prefer to have a long-term jobs, even if they were paid a little less. So departments would not have to spend more than what they spend now. Maybe even less.

  23. Andy P. says:

    Stephen -

    I don’t things are quite as simple as that. Let’s assume that all postdocs were converted to tenure track jobs (which will never happen). OK, there would be a spurt of hiring for a couple of years. After that, tenure-track hiring would revert to its usual lousy state, but there would be no postdocs. In the end, young people would be even worse off.

    The cold, hard truth is that academia is not growing. If anything, it is shrinking. There will never be a time in which there are enough permanent jobs for all new PhD’s to get them.

    I suppose one could argue that the solution is to shrink graduate programs, but I assure you that if graduate programs shrank, then so would departments, and tenure-track hiring would slow down even more.

    The only solution I see is for universities to do a better job at preparing their graduate students for non-academic employment.

  24. Stephen says:

    hi Andy,
    so basically you are saying that a large fraction of graduate student which end up out of academia is necessary to maintain the system.

    I might agree for those fields in which graduate studies naturally lead to other career paths (for example law, medical studies, engineering etc… have other options, in a natural way).

    For those fields which are mostly academic (such as theoretical studes, maths, etc..) what I am saying is that basically the number of Ph.D. should be equal to the number of academic/teaching positions, by increasing the number of jobs and/or by reducing the Ph.D. if the former is impossible.
    It is better, in my opinion, to have a bottleneck (if any is really needed) at the beginning of the studies rather than later on.

    I would not worry about the number of graduate students being smaller.

  25. Jeremy says:

    Stephen asks:
    “Why is every institute funding postdocs and no one is funding real jobs (i.e. long term)?”

    The problem is partially because of the “senior faculties”. If the senior faculties are forced to retire when they are 60 years old (like they are in Japan), or 65 years old (like they are in the U.K.), there will be a lot more “real jobs” available.

  26. David B. says:

    Jeremy:

    US law forbids mandatory retirements except in some professions requiring certain kind of fitness level (police officers, etc), were not retiring the individuals put others at risk. This is part of the anti-discrimination laws based on age. Suggesting that it be changed to fix academia is at best wishful thinking.

  27. Nicoletta Sabadini says:

    How is it possible that all these apparently intelligent and talented students don’t understand that they have voluntarily entered into a mousetrap? The fact that someone has studied for ten years does not imply that anyone should pay them to do the same thing for ever.

    To make an example, the conservatoriums are full of students of piano who are skiiled and study for many years, but the need for concert pianists is very limited.

    This does not excuse my colleagues who, for their own personal interests, are still advising students with false promises to enter into a process which starts with a PhD and ends with disappointment.

  28. peter shor says:

    Stephen says:

    Moreover, for instance, many senior people are frustrated with having too much teaching. Teaching often implies teaching to undergrads, also to non-physics students. There is certainly demand for this. Then, why not hiring more young people for mixed long-term positions (teaching+research), so that the load would be less also for tenured people?

    I don’t see how the economics of this works. Are you suggesting that we have two classes of tenured faculty, one with high teaching load and the other with low teaching load? Try selling that to the administration at your university.

    Otherwise, hiring more tenured faculty to reduce the teaching load requires more money.

  29. peter shor says:

    Stephen says

    Some people made the point that there is no money for this (for permanent jobs or mixed research/teaching positions).

    The solution to this conundrum is actually trivial: the money which is spent for hiring postdocs could be spent for paying salaries for long term jobs.

    But the tradeoff is something like 20 postdoc positions for one permanent position. This isn’t going to make a dramatic increase in the number of tenured faculty.

    [How I get this figure: a tenured professor is going to occupy a position on the order of 10 times the length of a typical postdoc, and the salary is on the order of twice that of a typical postdoc.]

  30. POM says:

    Nicoletta,

    I have got a good friend who is a conductor. Certainly he will never conduct the Berlin Philarmoniker (although I wish he will one day :-)) but he found a stable position as an orchestra-conducting teacher in a good conservatorium, he is making concerts, he plays with various “ensembles”. In brief, he is doing music.

    In maths or theoretical physics this is an “all or nothing” alternative: either in a short window of time after your phD you find a permanent position, or you are supposed to leave research. And a high-school teacher is not with respect to a researcher what an orchestra-conducting professor is with respect to the Berlin Philarmoniker conductor. When my friend plays with a good-although-not-famous ensemble, he is making music. When one is teaching physics at high-school level, one is not doing research (which does not mean that teaching is not a beautiful job, but this is a different job than research).

    That is what is extremly difficult to swallow in the academics world: it is a kind of random process, in which some people are “elected”, others are “damned”, and when you ask why you are damned, you are answered “well, you know, life is unfair”. Again, this would be fine if this were not happening in a community which bases all its legitimacy on its supposed “rational attitude”. From people that have been “elected” because they were “the best”, one is entitled to require higher level of explanation than just “life is unfair”.

  31. Walter says:

    I don’t think that from a financial viewpoint the ratio of postdocs to tenure-track positions should be viewed as 20 to 1 or anything like that… Many of these postdoc positions are recurring and have been around for decades.

    Still I think it’s a financial issue. When there’s a budget crunch it’s simply cheaper to hire a temporary person than a tenured track, say when someone retires. Over time this leads to more temporary jobs. Another issue worth mentioning for the US is that there’s a lot more flow from abroad than vice versa, and this makes the job market tighter. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, it keeps American science and math dominant. But it’s not good for domestic PhD’s

  32. Thomas Larsson says:

    “I would not worry about the number of graduate students being smaller.”

    Alas, advising grad students is an important part of a professor’s job. Less grad students => less work for professors => layoffs.

    Implicit in this discussion is the assumption that a PhD in theoretical physics is totally worthless outside of academia, and that theoretical physics PhD’s are too incompetent to find non-academic jobs. Whereas there might some truth in this, I don’t really buy it.

  33. Tim vB says:

    @Thomas Larsson
    From my own experience on the job market:
    Companies do always look for an expert with specific experience and training. A Ph.D. in physics means you are trained
    to do research in physics, and there are very very few jobs outside academia that involve serious research in physics!
    So the typical situation is something like this: A company looks e.g. for a software programmer with knowledge and experience in the
    development of big object oriented software systems using Java and a three tier architecture with a web client and a relational database.
    If they can get one who fits the picture, fine. If not, they will settle for someone with a Master in computer science.
    If they don’t get one, they may in certain circumstances take someone with a physics Ph.D., if he/her can
    convince them that he/her doesn’t need at least one year of training before he/her becomes productive.
    So, our Ph.D. will mostly be considered to as a kind of fallback plan C. Look at the job market and decide for yourself: What are the chances?

  34. Peter Shor says:

    Hi Walter,

    Say, over a thirty-year period, with the same amount of money you can fund 1 tenure-track position or 20 3-year postdocs. So if there are currently funds for 400 postdoc positions per year, and you use all this money for tenured faculty, you get 20 new tenured faculty positions a year. What you’ve done is replaced 300 very disappointed postdocs by 280 very disappointed new PhD’s. How much of an improvement is this?

  35. Dave says:

    A new faculty member has several years to attract enough funding, produce his/her first batch of graduate students, and get sufficient amount of research done before the tenure review process kicks in. It’s a busy time, especially when one factors in the service and teaching commitments. A postdoc offers a newly minted PhD an opportunity to beef up his/her record as a researcher and time to mature some more as a scientist and a person with relatively few distractions prior to stepping onto the junior faculty treadmill. It may be more of a blessing than a curse.

  36. Walter says:

    Peter.. I know what you mean… adding one tenure-track job this year will result in 20 people not getting postdocs this year. But the way I look at it is that the number of people who can continue on in the profession is determined by the number of tenure-track positions overall. By the pigeonhole principle, most of these 20 people would end out having to leave the profession anyhow unless they can find a way of becoming “life-long postdocs.” My opinion is that this should be done earlier rather than later, which is the opposite of current trends.

  37. Walter says:

    Incidentally, from a financial standpoint the 1:20 thing isn’t how it works. Most departments have “postdoc lines” which cost a certain fraction of a tenure-track line. So from a financial standpoint a postdoc line is 1/3 of a tenure-track line, and so on.

  38. Thomas Larsson says:

    Tim vB: Based on my own experience, I would say that the chances for a theophys PhD to eventually find a job in the private sector is close to 100%.

    Of the 20+ people that got a PhD from the theoretical physics dept at KTH, Stockholm, and were born between ca 1955-1965, I know two who ended up in academia (or stayed longer than I did). One is a professor in solid mechanics, and the other works with biophysics, not sure if he is professor. The remaining 90% have got jobs elsewhere. A lot of people ended up working for Ericsson, which is the local high-tech giant, and nobody is AFAIK flipping hamburgers at McDonalds.

    However, things might be somewhat simpler because KTH is an engineering school, like MIT or Caltech, so we have a marketable undergraduate degree to fall back upon.

  39. Tim vB says:

    Agreed, the best insurance against unemployment is an academic degree, and one in the “hard” sciences or in engineering is even better.
    My point is: As a physics Ph.D that drops out of academia, you will notice that you spend about 5 years of your life learning stuff that is no longer of any use to you.
    And you will spend a few hard years to learn all the stuff that you need for your new job.
    Eventually you will catch up with your collegues, but the feeling that the decision to study physics instead of e.g. computer science was wrong will never quite fade away…

  40. Thomas Larsson says:

    Personally I feel rather grateful to the taxpayers, including those spending their days flipping hamburgers at McDonalds, for giving me almost ten years (four years in grad school + a four-year postdoc + some extra time – hey, my academic career was longer than lubos’) to pursue my interests, and giving me the opportunity to make a substantial discovery of lasting value. That the physics community hasn’t appreciated this discovery (the math community has been more open-minded) is hardly something that you can blame on the taxpayers.