Looking around online, there are some statistics that foretell doom for PhD students; some examples of this:

  • the number of faculty to retire in the next 10 years is at the lowest in 30 years.
  • the number of PhDs awarded is around 100,000, while the number of professor positions open is around 16,000.
  • there has been approximately 40% budget cut for math between 2008-2011 (but there was a hiring freeze put on most state universities in 2009-2010, if I remember correctly, so this may not be entirely accurate).

For more statistics, see this: http://marccortez.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/phd-job-crisis-640x4627.gif The creator of this argues that the number of grad students and postdocs is way too high, while the number of professors is on the decline.

I think that this is not true for math. Postdocs are considered to be a mandatory part in our career (and postdoc positions are quite competitive!), and while many people do a second postdoc, I rarely see people with more than two postdoc experiences. Also, there aren't so many adjunct positions; some postdoc positions are called adjuncts, but these usually expire in 1-3 years. So I would like to know the real statistics. In particular, I want to know these figures for last year (percentages with respect to the number of PhDs will also do):

  • the number of PhDs awarded (all figures from here onwards applying just to the US)
  • the number of PhDs hired as postdocs at PhD-producing institutions
  • the number of PhDs hired as tenure-track professors at liberal arts colleges
  • the number of postdocs finishing
  • the number of postdocs hired as tenure-track professors at PhD-producing institutions
  • the number of postdocs hired as tenure-track professors at liberal arts colleges
  • the number of postdocs hired as postdocs at PhD-producing institutions

To summarize, I would like to know how harsh the funneling process is in math; I know from experience that many grad students leave academia without obtaining a job as a postdoc. Is the same true of postdocs? How about the tenure-track level?

  • Different locations may have different statistics. Do you want to specify the location and add tag to your question?
    – Nobody
    Feb 5, 2014 at 8:34
  • One solution: look for jobs in other countries where spending on higher education has increased by as much as 100% in the last four years. Feb 5, 2014 at 8:46
  • @DavidKetcheson Some people really do move to the Middle East, where people seem more generous with supporting educational costs. However, many more people are stuck in the US for reasons beyond their control, which is precisely why I am asking this question.
    – user45756
    Feb 5, 2014 at 8:48
  • Not everyone who get a PhD wants a post doc or TT position and even those that do who do not get one, still can have very nice careers that they are happy with.
    – StrongBad
    Feb 5, 2014 at 9:11
  • 6
    @DavidKetcheson Well, moving to Saudi Arabia has its own issues, especially if you are a woman, or have a woman in your life you would like to convince to come with you. Even if I decided I was OK with going to Saudi Arabia, I don't think I would ever convince my wife. Feb 5, 2014 at 12:12

3 Answers 3


Almost certainly the best information you'll find is from the AMS Annual Survey: http://www.ams.org/profession/data/annual-survey/annual-survey. I don't know that it will answer all your questions (in particular, it's mostly focused on newly graduating Ph.D.'s; it doesn't track where people end up after postdocs), but if the data isn't in there, probably nobody has it.

  • It seems that they do have pretty good data on the new PhD's, since they are easier to track or gather data from. I suppose getting similar kind of data transitioning between a postdoc and tenure-track is more difficult. So: in your opinion, was it just as hard to move from a postdoc to tenure-track faculty, as it was moving from a new PhD to a postdoc position?
    – user45756
    Feb 5, 2014 at 8:55
  • 1
    @user45756 That is a very hard question to answer, especially because the job market can vary so much from year to year. I got my Ph.D. in 2007, which (using unemployment rate of new Ph.D.s as a rough proxy) was the best market since the late 80's; I finished my postdoc in 2010, which was the worst market anyone had seen since the late 90's. I think right now, the situation is pretty tough for both transitions, but no one knows if this a "new normal," if things are just going to keep getting worse, or if some new source of jobs and funding will relieve the pressure. Feb 5, 2014 at 10:49
  • @user45756 Anecdotally, I think math is in a better position than many other fields; I don't know many people consistently did good research and teaching, were flexible about where they would take a job, and didn't end up with an OK permanent position. The question is exactly how consistently good you have to be, how much you have to flex, and how long it will take to find that position. The bars have definitely gotten higher on all of those in recent years. Feb 5, 2014 at 10:52
  • @Ben Webster: How high has the bar gotten for tenure-track positions? Jun 24, 2019 at 11:28
  • @Gradstudent I’m not sure how to answer that question. There is no one bar, and no systematic way of studying where it is. I feel like the past couple of years, I’ve seen talented young people struggle a bit more to find a permanent position, and I feel like second postdocs have gone from relatively rare when I first went on the job market to close to obligatory. But I don’t have a very broad sample, so it’s hard for me to really say. Jun 24, 2019 at 19:56

To add to Ben Webster's answer, the most recent Notices of the AMS issue has a Report on Academic Recruitment and Hiring. It doesn't exactly answer your questions either, but it provides information on how many tenure-track versus non-tenure-track positions were listed and filled, which I believe is not in the Annual Survey (last I checked, this does tell you how many new PhDs get hired as postdocs versus tenure-tracks).

Putting this data together with what's in the Annual Survey suggests that if you get a PhD in math, you have a good chance of getting an academic job (immediate from the Annual Survey), and eventually if not immediately a tenure-track job. (Note these surveys don't tell you how many tenure-track positions are filled by foreign candidates or new PhDs, or how many US PhDs get permanent foreign academic positions--so there's not enough information to get precise estimates for some of the things you asked about, but I think enough to be comforting.)


This isn't an answer, but it's too lengthy to fit in the margin...

I'm going to adopt a deliberately contrarian point of view here and criticize the assumptions underlying the question from a quantitative perspective. Since we're both mathematicians, I hope you won't mind.

Just to make the point, you might go a step further back and compare the ratio

(# of Master's graduates each year)/(# of admitted Doctoral students each year)

to see how "harsh" the funneling process is at that step. But that's clearly ludicrous, since the majority of students getting master's degrees don't want to get a Ph.D.

I think the analysis you're proposing has the same problem. A very large fraction of graduating Ph.D.'s don't want a university post-doc position. Many of them want industry jobs -- a mathematician friend of mine from grad school chose a position at Google over academic opportunities and is very happy. Others take government research jobs -- in applied math, named DOE lab post-docs can be much more competitive than university post-docs.

The other big issue is that the academic job market is a global one, and increasingly so with each new year. Very many of the positions within the US are filled by foreigners, and very many individuals from the US happily take jobs in other countries. I know one individual who was offered an NSF post-doc and a named term assistant professorship at a top-three US university in his field, but turned them both down (along with multiple other offers) to take his dream job -- outside of the US. Your analysis would count all of these people as failure stories.

  • Yes, all of your comments are valid, with the exception of comparing # masters students versus # PhD students, since most students in the US do not get a master's degree before their PhD. But we might as well make the simplifying assumption that the number of American PhDs leaving America is roughly the same as the foreign PhDs entering America.
    – user45756
    Feb 6, 2014 at 7:10
  • This is not meant to be offensive, but yes, I would count the people leaving academia as having failed to obtain an academic position (it could be voluntary, but it makes no difference from the perspective of someone who wants to gauge their chances of obtaining a tenure-track position straight out of a postdoc position).
    – user45756
    Feb 6, 2014 at 7:12
  • 2
    @user45756: The word "failure" often implies having tried. There's a big psychological difference between asking "What percentage of Ph.D. recipients take a non-academic position?" and "What percentage of Ph.D. recipients fail to obtain an academic position?" Also, whether people leave voluntarily could make a big difference in the amount of competition. If 1000 people are competing for 500 jobs, then that's very different than if 600 people are competing for 500 jobs while 400 people have chosen another path. Feb 6, 2014 at 14:42
  • This isn't quite accurate either. Most of the people who "choose" to go into industry did so not because they preferred industry over academia but because they preferred the industry jobs they could get over the academic jobs they could get. If the academic job market had been less competitive, they might have ended up in academia. Aug 3, 2015 at 17:33

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