Scarcity of research positions and number of new PhDs

This is a very touchy subject that is very rarely seen discussed in the open. But a recent thread (now closed) of discussions over at les-mathematiques.net, involving a dozen french people (candidates, lecturers and professors) provides a rare oportunity to address it.

Needless to say, I’m wholly unqualified for this (not being a researcher myself, and all that), so the main aim of this post is to throw out ideas.

I vividly remember, while an undergraduate around 1998 at Institut Fourier, seeing a small queue of nervous-looking slightly older folks in front of an office : auditions were taking place for a position of Maître de Conférence (=Lecturer). That is, people who had qualified to compete (see Michael Harris’ post), and been short-listed for that position.

Already at the time, I had heard that some auditions (not all, of course) were a bit of a farce since the chosen candidate had already been decided, and so the others who came had not a chance (and didn’t even get a refund of their travel expenses).

Why organise such auditions, one might ask. Well, because it’s the law : these are state positions, so while each university has its comittees, there’s a common legislative framework in which this takes place.

Already at the time, a nationwide website was being used, Opération Postes. The same site is being used for Professor positions (so this is very different from universities in the US or UK were lecturers get promoted if they meet targets, in France becoming a Professor usually involves moving to another university).

We’re now mid-may, so right in the middle of the audition & results period, which can be followed on that website.

Hence the aforementionned public discussion : it was started by a high school teacher who has recently finished his PhD, got hooked on research on invariant theory, but was despairing to see that this topic was out of fashion and would have had a vague chance at only a couple of the about 15 opened positions for university lecturers in France [edit: in pure maths, there are about 45 in applied math] (there are also 8+2 research-only junior positions at CNRS, where the process is different, results here and here). He was wondering what to do next (whether to quit doing research altogether, or maybe get a high-teaching-load position at a technical college) and he wrote

Bref, je ne comprends plus comment faire de la recherche. Je ne comprends plus les critères de recrutement. Plusieurs prof m’ont même clairement dit (sur Marseille) : “J’ai pris un étudiant en thèse, mais franchement, il n’a aucune perspective”. Même au niveau d’un post-doc qui m’avait été proposé (loin de chez moi) en maths pures, la personne m’a clairement dit : “Après le post-doc, dans ce domaine en maths, il n’y a aucune perspective”.

Rough translation

In short, I do not understand anymore how to do research. I do not understand anymore the recutment criteria. Several Professors have even explcitely told me (at Marseille) : “I took a PhD student, but frankly there’s no perspective”. Even at the level of a post-doc that I had been offered (far from where I live) in pure maths, the person told me explicitely : “After the post-doc, in that area of maths, there’s no perspective whatsoever”.

The thread then departed into all kinds of directions, some topics touched upon :

  • the scarcity of positions compared to the amount of new PhDs (each year the three Écoles Normales Supérieures recruit about 120 undergraduates in pure & applied maths, probably a good third of whom get a PhD, not to mention École Polytechnique, and the many large and small french universities)
  • the fact that in recent years several chosen candidates came from abroad (Italy, China…), some arguing it is a normal thing if they are the best (and that the situation in those countries is probably worse), others that it is a bad message for french students
  • the fact that until recently the chosen candidates were very young (recent PhDs) and that it was a bit of a gamble (some not producing much onwards), although the trend seems to evolve towards candidates with at least a one-year postdoc

 

Since all this is pretty interesting, I’m leaving the comment section below open if anyone would like to mention opinions (I’ll moderate it quite heavily though to stay strictly on topic).

In particular, what could be done to help people like the OP (=people with a proven track-record of publications but no academic position) not to quit research ?  An idea would be a website to create a sense of community, together with a special fund to allow such people to financially attend one conference every two years. Where would the money come from ? What about some crowdfunding : “click here to donate $1 to a fund for non-academic mathematicians” ?

 

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