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Amid pandemic, U.S. faculty job openings plummet

In February, Ashley Ingiosi was excited to finally interview for a faculty position after spending 10 years in training as a grad student and postdoc. “Then COVID came around,” the Washington State University, Spokane, neuroscientist says, and the job opening was eliminated. “That was the end of my job search last year.”

Now, Ingiosi is preparing applications for the 2020–21 academic cycle and is encountering a new problem: a dearth of faculty job openings. This year, the job posting website she follows—NeuroRumblr—had only listed 50 faculty positions by the end of September. Last year, 108 positions had been posted by that time. It’s “depressing,” she says.

The scarcity of academic jobs is a perennial problem for U.S. science trainees. But this year, across STEM disciplines, faculty job openings at U.S. institutions are down 70% compared with last year, according to an analysis of job advertisements on the Science Careers job board. (The Science Careers news team operates independently from the job board.) Only 173 U.S.-based jobs were posted between July and September this year, compared with 571 during the same period last year. Non-U.S. job postings dropped by 8%.

A slow start

Faculty job openings at U.S. institutions are down by 70% so far during the 2020-21 academic cycle, according to an analysis of job advertisements on the Science Careers job board. (Gaps reflect dates with no new postings.)

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“It’s about double-worse than I imagined,” says Andrew Spaeth, an industrial chemist and the co-creator of a popular online faculty job list for chemists. “I thought we’d see a hit—maybe 30%,” he says, but his site currently lists roughly 70% fewer openings compared with last year. An ecology and evolution job list reveals a similar drop, with 65% fewer openings this year.

The dismal numbers reflect anxiety about university finances amid the pandemic, says Robert Zemsky, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania who studies university finances. Big public universities, in particular, are a “total mess,” he says. “They are losing enrollment, they are losing revenue, and they don’t know what to do, so they have hiring freezes everywhere.” Even universities that are financially stable now are concerned about the future. “Everybody is sitting on their hands and nobody wants to make bets at all right now,” he says.

Given the hiring slowdown, many postdocs will probably try to stay in their positions for longer than they would have otherwise, says Paula Stephan, an economics professor at Georgia State University who studies the scientific workforce. “There hasn’t been a huge increase in funding, so it’s not clear where those dollars will come from, but maybe they’ll come from [principal investigators] not taking on new postdocs.”

A letter in Science argued that institutions should take steps to extend postdoc appointments. But because postdoc salaries are funded by a variety of mechanisms, co-author Amir Behbahani acknowledges, finding money to extend everyone’s salary would be challenging. “This is not an easy problem to fix,” says Behbahani, a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology.

Stephan adds that if postdoc appointments are extended, the academic community may see downstream impacts on another group: soon-to-be Ph.D. graduates. “It really worries me that if we help people stay on for … longer, it’s just going to kick the can down the road and it doesn’t help people to get the message that there are not a lot of [faculty] jobs out there.” But these are exceptional times, she adds. “We really need to think about how to provide some kind of lifeline … and not lose a group of people that we put a lot of resources into training.”

As tough as the situation is, it could serve as an opportunity, says Cynthia Fuhrmann, an assistant dean of career and professional development at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “The reality is Ph.D. scientists move onto many different career paths and have for a long time,” she points out. The academic hiring freezes could spur more young scientists to look into nonacademic career options, and Ph.D. and postdoc training programs to think more carefully about “preparing scientists who can nimbly adapt across a breadth of roles and across a breadth of sectors in science,” Fuhrmann says.

If and when academic jobs rebound, Fuhrmann hopes the way will be open for scientists who took nonacademic jobs and would like to return. Academic search committees should be open to interviewing scientists “who have taken a different route right now, out of necessity in part, and to recognize what really interesting perspectives … [they] could bring if they move their science back into an academic setting,” she says.

As for Ingiosi, she isn’t considering nonacademic positions just yet. She already has one faculty job interview lined up this year and is busy applying for other positions. But if she doesn’t land a job offer during this application cycle, her plans may change. “I always told myself that I wouldn’t do this to myself 3 years in a row.”

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