The GSU program, first off, has a larger than average graduate student to faculty member ratio. Seven graduate faculty currently supervise 19 graduate students (a number of whom are part time), for a ratio of 2.7. The ratios for two other, representative programs are UT/Austin's (10th ranked) at 1.75 (35 vs. 20) and 1.19 (25 vs. 20) for U/Toronto. At current rates, this is what these figures imply: for a faculty career of 25 years, each GSU graduate faculty member will produce approximately 10.3 Ph.D.s, of which one will find a job in the stable marketplace. For every 8 Ph.D.s that graduate (48 person years), GSU will support one three-year postdoc.
The career paths of 15 GSU Ph.D. graduates are tracked on their graduate info page. However, of the 5 graduates who are now in permanent academic jobs, 3 were foreign students who had been guaranteed professorships in their home countries upon successful completion of their degrees. Discounting this cohort, only 3 of the remaining 12 have achieved permanent positions. Depending on definition, 5 of the 12 can be said to have left the field (none have more than 8-years post-Ph.D. under their belt). Depressing as this is, it is, in fact, a somewhat better performance than many departments can claim, and the faculty is justifiably proud of this record.
GSU prospective students are assured that their teaching responsibilities will generally end by their third year, freeing them to devote full time to research and dissertation work. Yet these same promises were delivered to students in the late 80s and 90s and went unfilled. A number of current students still teach well into their graduate programs. In addition, graduate students fulfill a number of expected support roles in the department including maintaining the computer systems and network and performing maintenance at the research observatory.
The "training in pedagogy" received by graduate students is more or less pro-forma. GSU does not permit graduate students to entirely supervise classes. Yet teaching academic jobs now usually request teaching "beyond lab supervision" in their descriptions. Students will need to look elsewhere for this experience. Graduate students should be warned that outside adjunct teaching appointments demand a great deal of work and pay very little (they have a captive audience of people who must gain teaching experience to even compete in the tight market). A full semester of teaching introductory astronomy at Austin Community College, for example, pays the instructor $1500.
Prospective students should be informed of the community's ranking of their intended programs before committing to them. Rankings, despite their somewhat arbitrary nature, do reflect the perception of graduates and their parent programs in the community. The 1993 National Research Council ranking of Ph.D. granting astronomy programs placed GSU's 33rd: the bottommost listed entry (several schools have programs which were not ranked). Although I am convinced the program is somewhat better than this, it is unrealistic to compare the program through rose-colored glasses to top-10 or even top-20 programs. The physics department is unranked by the NRC in 1993 (having recently received the right to grant the Ph.D. at that time). However, most would agree it is a program not in competition with Georgia Tech's, which is ranked 61st, or even UGA's (this is now debatable), which is ranked 75th.
On the positive side, it is clear that the GSU has a program on the rise, with an active, ambitious faculty and a number of interesting projects underway. A fairer ranking of the program would be in the mid 20s at present, with the possibility of a top-20 assignment within the next few years, particularly in the unlikely event that the CHARA Array succeeds.
Why this doom and gloom? The fact is that Ph.D. programs require typically 6-7 years of concentrated effort, pay apprenticeship wages, and offer no prospects of employment with one's, by then, career identification. It would not be so bad if, say, those years were filled with a reasonable wage so that one could begin a family or a life (like most other contingent jobs in this era of "flexibility" in hiring); or if the apprenticeship period was followed by a relative guarantee of success in the field (as medical doctors and lawyers enjoy). Some faculty criticize student expectations, and would have, as Sandra Gilbert has stated, students be grateful for being permitted to participate in intensive study which "animates their soul." They encourage students to think of a Ph.D. education as being rather like a stint in the Peace Corps. "Make the world a better place, and then get on with the rest of your life."
This would not be so bad for terminal M.S. (two-year) programs, which probably could be expanded to fulfill some of the needs of the academy and industry. But having dramatically lopsided numbers of Ph.D. graduates with clear career expectations versus few postdocs and fewer faculty show that academic planning is not ruled by consideration of a healthy discipline which looks out for its members, but by simple economic greed for cheap labor.
The nature of the field changes qualitatively with this oversupply. Candidates who would once have transitioned directly from graduate school to secure faculty appointments now find that they must endure a number of postdoctoral relocations, assuming they can find them. Tenure itself is now harder to obtain, often requiring 7 years instead of 5 or 3. Job security may not come until one reaches the mid 40s.
Hiring changes as well. It is impossible to quantitatively make reliable decisions out of a hiring pool of 200+. Any conceivable reason to disqualify candidates must be found. The ones that endure tend to be careful, incremental researchers who have planned several lines of inquiry guaranteed to produce a number of research papers in the short term. They have made no "career errors." Speculative or longer-term research, especially in the younger creative and productive years, suffers. Any glance at the typical qualitative nature of papers in the major journals from the 1960s and today will reveal this shift. Overproduction breeds scientific conservatism and scientific stagnation.
Students exit the field in a variety of ways. Some simply cut short their graduate programs with M.S. degrees. Many are unable to find an initial postdoc after the Ph.D. and are forced to immediately leave astronomy. Others seek permanent positions for long periods, moving every few years, living on the lower salary of a contingent or temporary employee. It is not unknown to have astronomers search for the cherished faculty position into their 40s (and sometimes 50s) before changing direction. Yet most postdoctoral salaries are below 30K (and are easily filled at this). Industry salaries are almost twice this for similar training. Clearly an attachment to research is cultivated and bred with great strength in the course of a graduate career.
The American Astronomical Society is positively mendacious in their misrepresentation of the job issue. Their current Career Education Page (intended to lure people into the field) has the audacity to misrepresent the current case as follows:
On the other hand, there is a small turnover of positions each year and, therefore, strong competition for positions. In recent years, there have been about 150 job openings for astronomers in North America, while the number of Ph.D.s conferred annually in recent years has averaged about 125. It is common for astronomers to spend from three to six years in postdoctoral positions before finding a steady position in a university department, national facility, or government lab.But most of these 150 positions are temporary, and attract competition not only from the new Ph.D.s but from recycled temps of the previous two decades. Their implied "apprenticeship period in a postdoc" before full entry into the field applies to only a distinct minority of Ph.D. graduates. They circularly argue in this brochure that 100% of astronomers work in astronomy, defining, of course, an astronomer as one who practices astronomy. They do not mention that most people are squeezed out of the field after a succession of increasingly frustrated job searches. Only when the number of permanent jobs created annually equals the Ph.D. production rate will equilibrium be obtained. Not quite ready to sing "Happy Days are Here Again," the AAS leadership contents itself with offstage renditions of "Keep Your Sunny Side Up!"
But at what cost is this empire building constructed? Wishful thinking, writer and academic Cary Nelson claims, is often academia's major contribution to the public sphere. (Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, NYU Press, 1997. He also produced the delightful metaphor at the end of the previous paragraph.) Graduate students, he says, "acquire an identity they do not have at the outset. These commitments can become very deep. We are, after all, talking about six to eight years of teaching and research while working for the Ph.D. ... Then suddenly, in their thirties, they are cut off from a field they have inhabited for a decade or more. And they have to invent an alternative future they have not even imagined, let alone one for which they have trained." Yet departments and faculties often feel their mild disclaimers exculpate them from responsibility. "As for real recruitment brochures, suffice it to say that it is disingenuous and dishonorable to claim that warnings to prospective graduate students about the job market are sufficient, that such warnings take faculty and institutions morally off the hook. The undergraduate senior can easily dismiss warnings about a career to which he or she is still quite uncommitted. The commitment comes later, the career seduction comes later, identity formation comes later. It is with a certain corrupt relief that faculty and administrators note they can post job warnings and still lure applicants into the labor pool ... The package is appealing, its eventual psychological cost often at once large and unimaginable." He concludes, "...when apprenticeship leads to no future it becomes not only unethical but pathological. Apprenticeship with no future is servitude."
Despite some doses of the usual petty academic politics, I found graduate school a congenial place, the work fascinating, the colleagues stimulating and generally friendly. I quickly bred a strong attachment to the field, which continues to this day. Though I am currently between positions, I consider my own prospects better than that of most in the field, and have high hopes for my own future.
Yet if I were to make the decision to enter graduate school today under the same circumstances as I did in 1988 (but with more complete information), I would have refused. At the very least, I would have demanded of departments that they provide a substantially higher stipend (at the 25K+ level) to compensate me for the work I would perform in the field with little prospect for being further ahead in a career at the end. I would have also involved myself less in support roles (according to the pay), or demanded in advance a guaranteed quid pro quo for the work not directly toward my dissertation. (In fact, I did this, requiring a principal investigator to sign a document assuring me a 20% observing share on an instrument which I built--a commitment which I have not yet tested, and which may very well be fought bitterly by the department in its realization.) As it was, I myself, like many of my cohort, were enablers for a number of dysfunctional expectations of my department. But this is universal in the field. I do not criticize GSU uniquely for this, but only point it out as an example of that which a potential student should beware.