Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Solar and Space Physics Students Being Left Out In The Cold

Giving a course in basic space physics ca. 1988.

The report appearing in Eos - Earth and Space Science News (15 July) was distressing to say the least. It noted the current extreme difficulty of newly minted Ph.D.s in solar and space physics getting full time academic research positions.  And despite the critical role space and solar physics plays in our daily lives - from the interference of large solar flares with airplane navigation systems to the solar wind's interaction with the magnetosphere (see image) to coronal mass ejections, solar and space physics remain relatively tiny enterprises.

Indeed, according to the report, only 50 to 70 students in these disciplines graduate per year in North America. This is literally pathetic given that we need many more of such specialists, over say more investment bankers or Wall Street brokers.

The cruel facts? Despite the National Research Council's finding that nearly all of these grads desire research positions, only about a third find them - and even those don't last for long (especially if the person fails to get tenure.)

A lot of this has to do with the rise of temporary faculty in many universities, These adjunct professors are now approaching nearly half of the total faculty population. They are only paid per credit hour, have zero financial security and other benefits. Instead they  must cobble together enough hours to forge a  decent career. Even then they must often fall back on food stamps, e.g.

This has to make any old line  or retired academician wince given the entire purpose of getting to graduate school and hopefully gaining the coveted Ph.D. was to finally ensure financial security. Not necessarily to get rich, but just be financially secure to the point you don't have to depend on government handouts.

The other aspect, of course, is grant funding for research projects. If such money isn't available, and it generally comes from the government, then the 'well' of that academic department will dry up .

The sad fact today for the aspiring Ph.D. is that even if they make it through the sundry  hurdles there are no assurances of glory...or academic jobs. As I noted in earlier posts, the newly minted Ph.D. must compete with postdocs as well as adjunct lecturers and already ensconced TAs (and RAs!). Since most universities (especially after the credit meltdown) are on tight academic dept.  budgets (most of the $$ going for jazzed up dorms and athletic centers), it makes more sense to hire more adjuncts or keep postdocs longer than to bring in full time Ph.D.s. A potential to generate research funding is the main item which may elicit a university to look more closely at a prospect, but even here those prospects suffer because of the current impetus toward congressional budget cuts - given the size of the deficit.

Still, two authors cited in the report - Moldwin and Morrow ('Space Weather', 2016) found that success was more likely for a grad who: a) published a full paper within a year of submitting their dissertation, and b) who continued to publish for at least 4 more years.  They also found that 'there was no relationship between department size and a Ph.D.'s likelihood of finding a research career".

Nonetheless the pair still found "large differences between individual institutions" This is understandable because in many schools space and solar physics will have relatively small or poorly funded departments and the subjects may be viewed as too irrelevant or obscure to attach importance.  Indeed, the authors recommend "investigating financial support models, admissions policies and qualifying exams as well as department culture"..

I was fortunate in my solar physics research as the Barbados government paid for a full four years of it, since the importance of solar flares and their geo-effective influence was grasped. Others without such funding didn't fare as well. It was that funding that enabled me to publish multiple papers even before the dissertation was completed, see e.g.

One hopes that these recent graduates will eventually be able to find needed funding, grant money to allow them to achieve successful careers in their chosen fields. A necessary component of that is not attaining a position that translates into becoming food stamp dependents.

In the meantime, those of us fortunate to have had such careers - even for a decade or so - must now share our insights into solar and space physics to make the taxpaying public more aware of their importance.

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