As the Great Recession in the US was beginning in 2008, chemical engineer Andrea Armani got several emails in response to her applications for faculty jobs thanking her for applying, but explaining that the search had been canceled, at least in part due to financial uncertainty.

It was likely a disappointment faced by a number of would-be academic researchers. According to a 2019 report by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, new assistant professor hires were on the rise until 2008, when they began a steady decline that lasted until 2016.

Postdocs across the US faced similar disappointment this spring, as searches were canceled due to financial struggles at institutions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. And as the faculty hiring season ramps up this fall, ongoing hiring freezes, lower numbers of faculty positions, and uncertainty about what the job market...

“You put in a lot of work—both your life’s work into training . . . and writing what you feel is the best application packet you can—only to receive an email about something that’s completely out of your control,” Armani says. “It’s just completely demoralizing.”

“In general, the mood is tense—even more so than usual,” says Pearl Ryder, a postdoc at the Broad Institute. She runs Future PI Slack, an online community of more than 350 biomedical postdocs who aim to eventually run their own labs. On the community, there’s a spreadsheet to track faculty job listings. Last year, they had 97 jobs listed with application deadlines of October 1 or earlier. This year, they have 35 jobs with the same deadline.

Other informal data support a lower availability of jobs this hiring season. The chemjobber blog, which curates available faculty jobs in chemistry, reported on September 29 that there are 99 research and teaching positions listed, in contrast to 354 similar positions at this time last year. And neurorumblr, a crowdsourced spreadsheet of neuroscience faculty jobs administered by Princeton postdoc Adam Calhoun, likewise indicates that job postings are way down from 2019.

“The whole academic job market is so frustrating, because you have these yearlong cycles where you apply in the fall, and you hope to hear maybe in the winter or the spring, and then if you don’t get a job, you have to sit around for another year,” Calhoun, who is looking for a job this year, tells The Scientist.

“When COVID hit, a lot of searches were canceled or put on hold, and a lot of institutions instituted either yearlong or even two-year-long bans on hiring,” he says. “This added to this backlog of people searching for jobs. People who thought they’d get jobs last year didn’t get them so there are even more on the market this year. And that, combined with the number of jobs available, is making things even worse.”

Career consulting website The Professor Is In has collected an unofficial list of institutions with hiring freezes with more than 400 entries. 

In a Twitter poll administered on September 10 by Denis Wirtz, the vice provost for research at Johns Hopkins University, about half of 1,056 people responded that their insitution has a hiring freeze in place. The other half responded that hiring was either ongoing but reduced or proceeding normally—a data point Wirtz found surprising.

“I was, in this COVID-19 era, under the impression that many more universities would be really slowing down recruitment, if not blocking it altogether,” Wirtz tells The Scientist. And the interpretation of hiring freezes can vary widely, he adds. For instance, Johns Hopkins officially has a hiring freeze in place, but individual department chairs and faculty can make a case for recruitment, especially in focal research areas such as artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and climate change. The university is also contractually obligated to continue recruiting for major gifts, which often come with money earmarked for professorships.

“In other words, it’s not all black. It’s not all white. It’s, as usual, a bit in between those two extremes,” Wirtz says.

For instance, according to William LaCourse, dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, there is a hiring freeze in place for staff and vacant faculty slots have been temporarily removed from budgets. But because the university has made a commitment to the continuation of academic programs, appeals for hiring faculty could be made, he says.

Postdocs reflect on career choices

Not only do hiring freezes differ across institutions, Jenn Kong, a postdoc at Stanford University who is on the job market this year, tells The Scientist that some places appear to be continuing with faculty recruitment as usual. She curates a list of biology faculty jobs and points out that a few institutions, such as UT Southwestern, have postings for several tenure track positions.

Despite the institutions that are hiring, postdocs “are feeling pretty down in general,” Kong says. “The thing that I think most people are worried about is if it’s actually going to get better next year. We’re hoping that universities start to open up jobs again, because they’ll realize that maybe their financial situation isn’t as bad. But at least with Stanford, we don’t know when the undergrads are coming back, and that’s been a huge financial loss for the school.”

Amid all the financial challenges, academic science may also experience a loss of people if postdocs can’t find jobs and decide to do something else. Fewer faculty jobs “means a lot of great scientists are going to decide not to go the academic track and, as LeBron said, bring their talent elsewhere,” says Wirtz.

“We are seeing people changing routes,” agrees Stephanie Eberle, vice chair of the board of the National Postdoctoral Association. Many postdocs thought academia was going to be consistent and secure for the long term, Eberle adds, and now it looks like it’s not. “The secret to any career choice is understanding yourself and what you want, so a slow down allows you to do that. In a recession, it just takes longer to get a job, and the longer that takes the more time you have for reflection and to think about exactly what you want.”

Another important consideration regarding postdocs who might opt out of the academic track is “the unequal burden that some people are experiencing right now because of work from home,” says Barbara Natalizio, the chair of the board of the National Postdoctoral Association. Unlike a lot of other recessions where financial concerns are primary, the pandemic and the social and economic turmoil it has caused in the US may make it much harder for some people to be on the job market, Eberle tells The Scientist. Learning how to do virtual interviews is a challenge, they say. And “if I have two children around and my partner works or I’m a single parent, that’s an additional burden beyond the recession.”

See “Gender Gap in Research Output Widens During Pandemic

Armani did get a job in 2008 and is now a chaired professor at the University of Southern California. She acknowledges that what trainees experienced during the 2008 recession is not to the same level as current pandemic-related hiring concerns, but says that “the sense of frustration that postdocs are going through right now” is familiar.

To support early-career researchers who are on the academic market this year or have just started their labs, Armani has organized a free virtual workshop for November 4 and 5. More than 400 people have already registered. In addition to discussing what to expect when job hunting and becoming a new PI in a pandemic, she wants to try to minimize stress for these researchers.

“Anything I can do to try to reduce the number of questions, I feel I should do,” she says. “We’re all stressed enough.”

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