Jonathan Katz’s “Don’t Become a Scientist” has bubbled to the surface again, turning up at P.P. Cook’s Tangent Space a few days ago. I can’t recall what, if anything, I said about this that last time it came around, but I’ll make a few comments here, in light of the recent discussions about jobs in science.
As you can guess from the title, the piece is a long rant aimed at getting students not to go to graduate school in science. It’s an unremitting tale of anecdotal woe:
American universities train roughly twice as many Ph.D.s as there are jobs for them. When something, or someone, is a glut on the market, the price drops. In the case of Ph.D. scientists, the reduction in price takes the form of many years spent in “holding pattern” postdoctoral jobs. Permanent jobs don’t pay much less than they used to, but instead of obtaining a real job two years after the Ph.D. (as was typical 25 years ago) most young scientists spend five, ten, or more years as postdocs. They have no prospect of permanent employment and often must obtain a new postdoctoral position and move every two years. For many more details consult the Young Scientists’ Network or read the account in the May, 2001 issue of the Washington Monthly.
As examples, consider two of the leading candidates for a recent Assistant Professorship in my department. One was 37, ten years out of graduate school (he didn’t get the job). The leading candidate, whom everyone thinks is brilliant, was 35, seven years out of graduate school. Only then was he offered his first permanent job (that’s not tenure, just the possibility of it six years later, and a step off the treadmill of looking for a new job every two years). The latest example is a 39 year old candidate for another Assistant Professorship; he has published 35 papers.
They’re scary anecdotes, but do they really generalize to science as a whole? Find out after the cut…
A couple of caveats, here: first, I will be participating in a tenure-track search for the first time this year. I’ve been involved in half a dozen searches for visiting faculty, but not a search for a permanent position, so I can’t say for sure what the pool looks like. Also, it’s technically illegal to consider the age of the candidates when hiring, so I couldn’t begin to tell you anything about the demographics of the visiting applicants.
Second, I have personally been very fortunate in my own career path. I’ve attended and worked at elite institutions, so I don’t necessarily have a good feel for the broad picture of the field as a whole.
That said, what Katz describes doesn’t really fit my experience. I suspect this sort of thing is highly subfield-dependent, but I can’t really think of anyone in my field of physics who has spent ten years languishing as a post-doc. Most of the people I have interacted with, at my jobs, or at DAMOP meetings and the like, have done one or two post-doc stints before moving on to permanent jobs. And may of the people who did second post-docs did their first post-doc overseas, which makes job hunting in the US very difficult.
I’m not saying it doesn’t happen– Katz is in a better position than I am to assess what the applicant pool for permanent jobs looks like– but my ground-level impression is that the job picture, at least in the AMO subfield, has been better than what he describes.
Beyond that, his description of what life as a post-doc is like is even farther off, compared to my experience:
Typical postdoctoral salaries begin at $27,000 annually in the biological sciences and about $35,000 in the physical sciences (graduate student stipends are less than half these figures). Can you support a family on that income? It suffices for a young couple in a small apartment, though I know of one physicist whose wife left him because she was tired of repeatedly moving with little prospect of settling down. When you are in your thirties you will need more: a house in a good school district and all the other necessities of ordinary middle class life. Science is a profession, not a religious vocation, and does not justify an oath of poverty or celibacy.
Of course, you don’t go into science to get rich. So you choose not to go to medical or law school, even though a doctor or lawyer typically earns two to three times as much as a scientist (one lucky enough to have a good senior-level job). I made that choice too. I became a scientist in order to have the freedom to work on problems which interest me. But you probably won’t get that freedom. As a postdoc you will work on someone else’s ideas, and may be treated as a technician rather than as an independent collaborator. Eventually, you will probably be squeezed out of science entirely.
Well, OK, he’s about right on the salary range (though some post-docs make considerably more than that), but everything else is kind of off. For one thing, he’s implicitly assuming a one-income couple, which is a little, um, dated. More importantly, though, I can’t recall ever feeling like I was “treated as a technician rather than an independent collaborator.” I didn’t see anything like that from my research group in grad school, either, or the other groups where I did my post-doc. Maybe they just hid it very well, but my impression was always that the post-docs where I was were treated with a good deal of respect, and given a reasonable degree of independence. The one really unpleasant situation I know of was the result of an excess of post-doc independence, if anything.
So what’s the real situation? Probably somewhere between his hyper-pessimistic take, and my too-rosy outlook. The chance of getting a good academic job in science isn’t terribly good, and it’s entirely possible that you could be stuck in miserable working conditions. But I wouldn’t say that misery is an inevitable result of the process.
I do agree that too many students go into graduate school more or less on momentum, without a clear idea of what they want to do, or what their chances of success are like. But I think Katz goes too far in talking up the horrors of the scientific career path, and trying to scare everyone out of science.
And then there’s his advice on alternatives:
After graduation, you will have to deal with the real world. That means that you should not even consider going to graduate school in science. Do something else instead: medical school, law school, computers or engineering, or something else which appeals to you.
Medical school? You complain about the working conditions for post-docs, and then recommend that people go to medical school instead? And law school? Do you really think the world needs more lawyers?
Since we’ve worked our way around to law school, this is probably a good place to quote Kate’s standard advice to people planning to go to law school: “Don’t.” (She can explain further in comments.) Which I think is another indicator of what’s going on here: People working in any given field can easily see the flaws in that field, and are inclined to warn people off, while other fields look more attractive. I’m sure some of my readers in engineering and computer fields are snickering at the inclusion of those career tracks as palatable alternatives.
And this post long ago started to ramble, so I should really shut up and get to work.