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In science in the US, a large fraction of the available jobs are temporary, and typically scientists take on temporary jobs (usually called postdocs) earlier in their careers. Why is this the case? Anecdotally, most occupations have a smaller fraction of temporary positions.

I'm interested in both answers about the historical events leading up to the status quo and answers justifying the status quo as a desirable situation.

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  • most occupations have a smaller fraction of temporary positions. Hmm, can you define what’s a temporary position? Arguably in most occupations (at least in US states with at will employment) all positions are “temporary positions”.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 3:55
  • I would have expected that this would be a duplicate. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/23613/… Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 4:29
  • @DanRomik Many academic/research jobs have an explicitly fixed or maximum term. In typical employment the end is not as clearly defined at the beginning. There could be a better definition.
    – JEs9X
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 11:55
  • Because they are desperate, it's actually kind of funny that people go through 7-10+ years of education to just land another job that's marginally above minimum wage. It's a very curious question as to how this system developed. Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 0:32

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Many of these positions are "soft money" positions - that is, they depend on grants. Since grants are temporary, the jobs they fund are also somewhat temporary. That said, this doesn't tell the whole story since temporary positions typically have a shorter term (for example, a year) than the grants that fund them.

For post-docs, it's a bit different. Post-docs are officially "training" positions - they are meant to be a step in the development of a scientist, a stepping stone towards more independence. Both employers (that is, universities) and funding agencies often have limits on how many years someone can be considered a "post-doc" because the idea is that this training should be temporary.

You could argue that the grad student to post-doc to professor track follows the apprentice/journeyman/master structure in the trades (I'm not certain whether it was explicitly inherited/motivated from that system, though).

Comparing academic to industry jobs in the US, while there are certainly differences in the hiring schemes I'm not sure they're actually all that different. "Permanent" jobs come to an end all the time as employers go through cycles of growth and layoffs. In most (probably all?) US states it is far easier to end someone's employment than it is in other countries like the UK or Germany.

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  • In some industrial sectors, a corporation will have several divisions competing against each other. First one with the desired marketable product wins, the others, well, layoff. It sounds brutal, and in a way it is, but then the panorama of human temperaments kicks in: There are people who are energized by this cycle. Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 4:04
  • "officially "training" positions" Officially, yes, but in reality this is mostly a lie. Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 4:30
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Not in my experience.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 4:34
  • Thanks for your answer. Do you have any ideas about why so many "hard-money" academic/research jobs are temporary? E.g., I recently interviewed for a "postdoc" in a group that apparently receives steady funding (at a government funded lab), yet their postdocs have a maximum term of 2 years. They call this a "postdoc" but on a day-to-day basis the work does not differ from that of the "permanent" researchers as far as I can tell.
    – JEs9X
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 12:03
  • @JEs9X I'd guess the answer is that they are not actually funded by "hard money." For example, LDRD seems to be "soft money." directives.doe.gov/directives-documents/400-series/… Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 12:35
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It's a myth that "science jobs are temporary." The reality is that all jobs are temporary. Employers go bankrupt and employees die, but more frequently employees find a better job and switch. In the US, many employers are able to terminate employment at any time, which is less secure than having a one year contract with a fixed end date.

Many science jobs have a fixed duration of one to two years because many employers have one to two years of funding available. If the funding available increases, the job duration may be increased too.

The current situation is desirable from the point of view of awarding grants: If the funding is temporary, you can decide not to renew it when the awardee performs poorly. From the point of view of scientific staff, longer employment contracts would be better.

Short contracts will continue to be offered to scientists as long as scientists continue to accept them.

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