27 February 2013

President's Column

David Helfand Columbia University

For a significant fraction of our membership, February is probably not their favorite month. Despite being the calendrical midget with the smallest number of days, for those on the job market it probably produces the largest amount of anxiety. Indeed, the entire job search process seems to consume a larger number of months, a larger expenditure of resources, a larger amount of time, and a larger quantity of emotional energy than it did the last time I applied for a job 36 years ago. Should we reduce this burden? And, if so, how do we go about doing that? I certainly don't know the answer(s), but I think it is time to start asking the question(s).

Let's start with letters of recommendation. I've only written 79 this year for about two dozen different people (that's probably a ten-year low for me). A few were for undergraduates and (non-astronomical) employees, but most were for people in astronomy looking to advance in the profession. I know some colleagues who have written more than that number for one person! Now, I have always resisted the idea, more prevalent in the humanities, that one should write a single impersonal and generalizable letter for a grad student or postdoc and submit it to a database where anyone with a job to offer could access it. How could I maximize my student's chances by playing to my target's ego if I did that? How could I tailor my letter to make it clear how well s/he would fit into the department in question? Or is it my ego that I am stroking? Is it an enhanced version of the old-boys-network I am attempting to manipulate? Would a data bank of letters objectively assessing a candidate's accomplishments really be worse? Or should we even rely on letters as much as we do? (see Dr. Eilat Glikman's recent post to the women-in-astronomy blog for a thought-provoking comment on this latter point).

Let's next address the length of the season. It used to be that job applications were due sometime in December and offers were made by 1 March. Now the application season starts in late September and dribbles into May. Clearly this extended calendar — both for job offerers and job seekers — does not increase the research productivity of our community. Over a decade ago, the AAS sought to bring some rationality to the postdoc hiring process by promulgating a 15 February deadline before which postdoc candidates could not be asked to commit to an offer. This has largely worked (apart from a few, mostly unpunished, violators), bringing closure by the end of February for the majority of those in the postdoc market. But faculty positions are uncoordinated and some candidates are in both markets. Is a faculty search deadline desirable?

Then there is the cost in time, money, research interruption, and family stress caused by the extended interview schedule. In this skype-ready age, is it really necessary to budget $10K or $20K to bring six or seven or eight candidates to campus for a faculty search (two-thirds of a graduate student's stipend for a year)? That's two days of a candidate's time for each visit plus several times that much investment for the members of the department advertising a job. At my current start-up university (Quest University Canada), we don't have the budget for this, since we are hiring eight-ten faculty each year. We start with written materials (after clearly defining on our website what we are and are not looking for), go to 10-12 phone interview of ~20 minutes each, then to four-five Skype interviews, and only then bring the top two (or sometimes three) candidates to campus. It is clearly essential that finalists visit in person to get a feel for the place and their future colleagues, but is this really necessary for eight candidates?

Finally, it must be admitted that, with 200-300 applications per faculty job this year, there is large random element in the search process; even if one is clearly in the top 5% and applies for 15 positions, one could end up with no position in any given year. This begs the question that many do not want asked: is birth control required here? I have always (well, at least in my more mature years) argued against artificially limiting graduate student positions since, both personally, and as a department, my experience is that we are far from perfect in picking winners from among the undergraduate applications we receive. Restricted access often means restricted diversity — in gender, ethnicity, and intellectual proclivities. Departments should, of course, make admissions decisions with sufficient foresight to assure they will be able to support each admitted student through to the PhD, and in times of shrinking funding, this requires brutal honesty and collective will. But openness to those with a passion for our discipline — and openness to a variety of career paths through which to pursue it (look for upcoming resources from our Employment Committee on this point) — still seem to me the right policy for graduate programs.

Where, then, should constrictions be imposed? The American Chemical Society has recently issued a very thoughtful report on the state of their graduate education which asks a number of hard questions that I find relevant to our discipline as well.

Several of the main conclusions in the Executive Summary offer trenchant commentary:

Current educational opportunities for graduate students, viewed on balance as a system, do not provide sufficient preparation for their careers after graduate school.

The system for the financial support of graduate students, as currently operated by private, institutional, state, and federal funds, is no longer optimal for national needs.

Departments should give thoughtful attention to maintaining a sustainable relationship between the availability of new graduates at all degree levels and genuine opportunities for them. Replication in excess is wasteful of resources and does injustice to the investment made by students and society.

While the state of our discipline is not exactly analogous that in chemistry, I believe that many of the issues their report raises are worthy of our consideration and, subsequently, of our action. This is a conversation I hope to advance in the coming year.

On a completely different subject, while I doubt I can take any credit for it, I was pleased to see that voter participation nearly doubled this year compared with our last election. If we keep doubling each time, we'll pass the American voter participation rate in another few years. I must say I was not at all worried about the election results this year; we had such an outstanding slate of candidates running that any combination of winners would have served the Society well. I am delighted, however, to welcome Meg Urry and Chryssa Kouveliotou, both of whom I presented with Society prizes in January, to the leadership team, along with new Councilors Geoff Clayton, Dara Norman, and Dawn Gelino. For the first time in the Society's history, the eighteen-member Council will have equal numbers of men and women, a salutary event that should continue our momentum toward the day when our discipline sees equity as the norm.

Get your abstracts in and buy your plane tickets for Indianapolis (remarkably cheap from New York, at least). In hopes of seeing you there, I am...

Sincerely yours,