Becoming a Postdoc


At some point toward the end of your PhD work, it’ll be time to apply for a post-
doctoral research position. The best place to look for a postdoc (or staff) position at a
university or observatory is the monthly
AAS Job Register. Each year some 200 short-term
postdoc (and about 80 permanent staff) positions are advertised worldwide, with peak
activity occurring in November.

Postdocs can be divided into ‘named’ and ‘unnamed’ positions. The named positions
include Hubble and Chandra Fellowships in the US, and Fellowships funded by the
national research councils in the UK and Australia. These positions generally offer
freedom to explore your own research direction, a (reasonably) generous research
budget, and a decent salary. As such they are prestigious and highly competitive.
Unnamed positions are typically with individual astronomers or university
departments that have generated funds for the position via a research grant, and the
research topic is likely predetermined.

In either case, you may be invited to join a large team. Being a member of a large
research group can allow you to tackle major scientific questions and work with top
people in your field. However, it can also make it difficult for people outside the team
to evaluate your contribution to the project.

First, the good news! Although most countries overproduce astronomy PhDs relative
to their job market, the number of postdoc positions worldwide roughly matches the
demand for positions (after excluding people who don’t wish to continue in
astronomy or are unwilling to live abroad). In the most recent decadal report of
Australian astronomy, some 70% of PhD recipients obtained a postdoc (mostly
abroad), 20% obtained a job in industry, and 10% don’t respond to questionnaires.

So generally speaking there is a postdoc position in astronomy for you if you want it.
Postdocs are the key period in which you show what you’re made of in terms of the
quality and quantity of your publications. The average academic astronomer in the
UK produces 4.4 papers a year. Ambitious young postdocs should be looking to
match or exceed that level with quality papers. A typical research career involves two
to three postdocs each lasting two to three years. The next step is an application for an
entry-level Lectureship or an Assistant Professor job.

Now the bad news. It’s tough to get a permanent job in astronomy. It is not unheard
of for a university department to receive more than 100 applications for a single
position. Although the numbers vary over the years, a recent report by the UK’s
Royal Astronomical Society concluded that only 1 in 5 students with a PhD in
astronomy obtained a permanent job in the field in the medium term — meaning by
the time the “student” is about 40 years old!

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the popularity of sub-fields in astronomy, and
hence the number of related jobs that are available, change with time. In a survey of
Australian astronomers (covering the period 1995 to 2000), the percentage who said
that they were working in galactic astronomy declined from 41% to 24%, while the
fraction of those exploring extragalactic topics rose from 26% to 42%.