Last winter, neuroscientist Michael Campos believed he had a chance of being one of the few, fortunate postdocs to land a tenure-track job at a highly respected university, even in the midst of an escalating economic crisis. Like many others, the university (which he declines to name) had instituted a hiring freeze that fall but had forged ahead with some already approved searches. After interviewing, Campos, a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, was asked to prepare a start-up budget for a new lab. It wasn't a formal job offer, but he sensed he was getting close. "I felt lucky, like I was on a plane landing safely just before a terrible storm," Campos says.
But then that plane hit the throttle and took off again. The position was put on indefinite hold. University officials hope to restart the hiring process midway through 2010, but probable additional budget cuts and Campos's high start-up costs make him pessimistic about his chances of winning either that position or another one in this economy.
Although many universities are doing some hiring, and a few are hiring aggressively, Campos's position is familiar to today's academic job seekers. And although it may be slightly better than a year ago, today's market is very tough indeed. "This year is better for my field than last year in terms of total jobs offered," says one biology postdoc who asked not to be identified. But, as members of search committees have told him, "There are nearly triple the amount of applicants" for each position.
For Campos, as for many of the thousands of early-career scientists currently aiming for tenure-track positions, the depressed job market prompted a change in course. After "a lot of soul-searching," he decided to seek a second postdoc. He's starting this semester at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital figuring out how to apply the neurophysiological techniques he's mastered to translational problems, such as using deep-brain stimulation to treat severe mood disorders. "This forces me to retool, and now is the right time to do that," Campos says.
"My sense is that the next 6 months or so will be critical" for the academic job market, says University of Oregon geography postdoc Jennifer Marlon, who also took a second postdoc, a 2-year position at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, funded by the National Science Foundation's Earth Science program. "I feel somewhat hopeful that things may gradually continue to improve, but many indicators seem to suggest that we'll be lucky to just maintain the status quo for a while."
When the economic crisis struck in late 2008, colleges and universities around the country imposed faculty-hiring freezes, limiting hiring to only the most critical positions and in many cases canceling or postponing searches that already had been authorized. At many institutions, the outlook is little better this year.
"We're still in a major hole for the next year," says Stephen Halperin, dean of the University of Maryland, College Park, College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Maryland's systemwide hiring freeze has been lifted, and Halperin says his college plans to make job offers this year -- not many, but some. "It is not business as usual for us -- very far from it," he says.
Even the searches that are moving forward are being conducted, Halperin says, "with a certain amount of nervousness because we expect further significant budget cuts. If those budget cuts come through as predicted, then the chances of making those offers will be remote." This year's searches are driven by impending retirements and not expansion, Halperin adds. If it weren't for those retirements, "we'd be doing even less recruitment. I think it's entirely unlikely we will be in the job market next year."
Despite the warm climate, hiring in California is just as chilly. California State University, Long Beach, is conducting just eight searches, says Laura Kingsford, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. None of them are in her college. The Department of Biological Sciences at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, which last year conducted 20 tenure-track searches -- about a quarter its usual number -- will conduct even fewer this year. Berkeley will have no formal, advertised searches for 2010, says Mark Schlissel, dean of biological sciences at Berkeley. "A very small number of special requests are being approved to hire extraordinary faculty," he says.
(UC) Davis, which typically conducts 50 or more searches each year in science, technology, engineering, and math, has approved only 10 this year, says Barbara Horwitz, vice provost for academic personnel. Deans have been conservative in approving searches, she says, partly because fewer faculty members are retiring than expected. She thinks retirements are being delayed because retirement funds have shrunk. "I had guessed that we would get maybe 50% more retirement than we did," she says.
A hiring "pause" that began in the fall of 2008 at the University of Minnesota is still in effect. Robert Elde, dean of the university's College of Biological Sciences, says that only three searches are under way in the biological sciences, all of them approved only because of special circumstances. Other University of Minnesota colleges, he says, are doing even less hiring.
It may be several years before faculty hiring fully rebounds, especially at public universities, which are dependent on still-suffering state revenues. And some administrators fear that the situation will worsen before it improves. "With the state budget forecast, we're looking at a pretty bleak picture for the next few years," says Elde. "We're all very worried about the cliff we're coming to."
State universities and colleges aren't the only ones that have been affected by the budget cuts. Private institutions, including top-tier universities such as Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford, are keeping a tight grip on faculty hiring, including in the sciences. Princeton, for example, plans to hire only about one-third as many faculty members this year as it has in past years, university spokesperson Emily Aronson says.
Although the majority of U.S. colleges and universities are hiring conservatively or not at all, a few schools are taking advantage of the glut by scooping up top candidates. In addition to reauthorizing job searches that were frozen last year, the University of Chicago has announced a major faculty expansion that will take place over the next 5 years. Likewise, under a recently completed strategic plan, Arizona State University (ASU) is aggressively recruiting scientists in energy, Earth and space exploration, health care, security, and sustainability. ASU's school of engineering, which recruited for only five positions last year, is conducting more than two-dozen searches this year and hopes to hire 100 new faculty members within 5 years, says Deirdre Meldrum, dean of engineering. The university's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is also recruiting heavily within those focus areas, says Sid Bacon, dean of natural sciences. Meldrum and Bacon say this new hiring was made possible by an increase in undergraduate enrollment, senior faculty retirements, and efficiencies gained in a recent reorganization.
Even campuses that aren't expanding their faculties can capitalize on the uncommonly deep field of job seekers and the lack of competition from other institutions just by being in the market. Acting Dean of the Faculty Andrea Danyluk of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, observes that as an endowment-dependent institution, Williams suffered heavily last year. But with the stock market now recovering, the school is able to do more hiring. "Because we're still doing hires, we're benefiting from the fact that a lot of other places aren't." Susan Traverso, provost of Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, reports that because her school depends mostly on tuition revenue, hiring has gone on as usual this year. "The applicant pool is unbelievable," she says.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, also known as the stimulus package, has eased hiring woes, but not much. The National Institutes of Health awarded 141 grants through its P30 program, a funding mechanism repurposed under ARRA to support hiring newly recruited faculty members in multidisciplinary areas, so at least 141 faculty searches were saved. Stimulus funding for individual research projects has freed up university funds for start-up packages. And stimulus money not aimed specifically at the sciences has nonetheless softened the impact of reduced state funding at many public universities, allowing some to borrow against future retirements to hire new faculty members now.
Even if the direct effects of ARRA funds have been modest, the indirect effect may have been larger because ARRA requirements put a limit on how much states could cut university budgets. But those limitations will soon end. The University of Arizona has already trimmed its budget to 1996 levels, says College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz. They might have cut back more, but they couldn't because that would have imperiled the university's eligibility for ARRA funding. So the end of ARRA means not just the end of special federal subsidies but also the end of ARRA's budget-cutting restrictions. "When the stimulus money goes away, so will that constraint," Ruiz says.
Despite a few bright spots, the job market as a whole remains seriously depressed. With far too few tenure-track jobs up for grabs -- and intense competition for those few -- what will happen to the current generation of postdocs? Some -- like Campos and Marlon -- are extending their current positions or finding new ones, hoping to improve their marketability while waiting out the downturn.
Others are seeking -- and apparently finding -- positions abroad. A physics postdoc at Caltech, who asked to remain anonymous, says she doesn't know anyone at Caltech, in any field, who has managed to find a position in the United States, but some are finding employment overseas. "Some of my friends are moving to Europe, and even more to various places in Asia," she says. "Both continents do not have a hiring freeze and are offering extremely good conditions, very little teaching, and a lot of money for research."
But the number of such opportunities is limited. Campos says his worry is that "large numbers of postdocs will leave science altogether because of the difficulty and uncertainty of the career path." Even in good economic times, the academic job market is glutted; the current downturn just makes matters worse, he says. "It is difficult to be a postdoc for very long and continually delay getting a real job when real life starts to set in."
Photo (top): al-Taqi 
Siri Carpenter is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.