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Friday, October 21, 2011 / Duncan Forgan

Can Academia Be Simulated?


After last week’s great Astronomy Journal Club conversation, a thought has been rattling around my brain. We discussed the current career situation in astronomy, which is evolving in a direction most are unhappy about / unnerved by. There were calls for the system to be consciously redesigned to produce a steady state, where the total number of PhD students entering academia is somehow balanced by professors retiring.

My thought is this: to design such a steady state, which will depend strongly on demographic changes and economic turbulence, surely simulations of the system are needed.

I’m thinking about developing an agent-based simulation of the academic career progression (if Ken is reading, it won’t be during office hours!), but I’m interested in canvassing opinion. Is this a good idea? What variables would need to be tracked – gender, age, relationship status?

Feel free to tweet me or leave a comment – I look forward to hearing your suggestions!

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4 Comments

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  1. Ken Rice / Oct 21 2011 9:35 am

    If you were to model academic careers on habitable exoplanets it would probably be alright to do it during office hours.

  2. Duncan / Oct 21 2011 10:01 am

    Good – Glad we cleared that up :)

  3. Chris Lintott / Oct 31 2011 2:05 pm

    I have to say – and I’m aware I speak as one of the fortunate few – that I’m not at all convinced that such a situation would be optimal. For starters, it assumes that everyone who moves on to a postdoc will want to remain an academic, and more importantly it greatly limits those who will ever get a chance to experience leading their own research. If the situation is stable – so those entering academia know what the odds are – then I don’t have any problem with the number of postdocs exceeding the number of permanent posts. Anything else would lead to a dramatic fall in the scope of academic effort, and benefit those with the resources to finance themselves (as often happens in the arts).

  4. Duncan / Oct 31 2011 2:21 pm

    Hi Chris, I agree that there needs to be more postdocs than permanent positions (just as there should be more PhDs than postdocs, etc). When I talk about a steady state, what I really mean is that the fraction of people at any stage attempting to advance to the next stage, rather than leave academia, should be relatively constant. The simulation would have to account for the fact that people will want to leave academia for various reasons (something I’m still figuring out).

    In that sense, a steady state requires changes in the number of PhDs available to result in appropriate changes at upper levels (and as you say, those entering the system should be informed properly). It’s not clear to me how much joined-up thinking happens here (or if joined-up thinking is even possible given the various councils and societies providing funding).

    What I’m really interested in looking at is how the system responds to demographic and political changes, and whether it gives us any insight into how the system could be better structured.

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