Science Is A Scary Place to Work

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.

Comments

  1. #1 andy
    August 8, 2006

    My advice, FWIW is that going to Europe (even Oxbridge) for a postdoc is a BAD idea. Maybe OK for the first, but then come back to the US or even Canada for the 2nd and then apply for a tenure track. Trying to get a job in North America when you’re living in Germany, France or the UK is really really hard. (And of course, if you’re a Can/US citizen you’ll never get a permanent job there, reserved pretty much for EU citizens.)

    Even with lots of papers if you are not “seen” at NA conferences etc — “out of sight, out of mind.”

    It’s sad — I really liked Germany (2 yr), France (1 yr) and Oxbridge(2 y) — but it made me literally unemployable back in NA, even with 20 papers.

  2. #2 Dave
    August 8, 2006

    (And of course, if you’re a Can/US citizen you’ll never get a permanent job there, reserved pretty much for EU citizens.)

    I can’t speak for the rest of Europe, but no jobs in the UK are ‘reserved… for EU citizens’. We have plenty of non-EU scientists in the UK. Probably too many since it makes it harder for us locals to get faculty posts.

  3. #3 Rob Knop
    August 8, 2006

    I can’t recall ever feeling like I was “treated as a technician rather than an independent collaborator.”

    Part of that is your research field.

    I was not treated that way myself– I had a lot of respsect and was given a lot of room to lead things, although it was within the bounds of my collaboration. But my collaboration, partly influenced by the thinking of some who had been particle physicists, did in fact refer to post-docs as “manpower”, and many were treated as highly educated technical labor, even when we said we weren’t treating them that way. My collaboration was small in comparison to the mammoth high-energy collaborations

    It really depends on who you end up working with.

    Re: the grimness of the job situation, I have done allright myself, although it remains grim as I consider (a) trying to get tenure, or, more likely, (b) trying to get a job at a small liberal arts college even though I’ve already been teaching for five-six years and thus may be “too old and expensive”. But I have seen other struggle. There are a lot of post-docs who go quietly into the night, who evaporate into other careers and aren’t really heard much from again.

    The stress of the uncertain employment situation is also a major factor on all of us.

    -Rob

    -Rob

  4. #4 andy
    August 8, 2006

    Hi Dave, thanks for your comment. I’m sure you’re right, but are those _permanent_ jobs as opposed to “visiting reasearch fellow”- type positions? When I was in the UK (granted, maybe Oxbridge is not representative of UK universities generally) I got the impression that they really did prefer “sound men” (read: an Oxbridge graduate).

    Interestingly, for a Brit, having done a post doc at a good US university was definitely a “plus”.

    I may be wrong, though.

  5. #5 Orac
    August 8, 2006

    He’s way off on postdoc salaries these day, at least in the biomedical sciences. The NIH has a specific pay scale that recipients NRSA grants must pay their trainees, and many institutions (mine included) mandate that all postdocs be paid according to the NRSA scale, refusing to sign off on NIH or other federal grant applications that do not include pay lines in accordance with the NRSA scale.

  6. #6 andy
    August 8, 2006

    Hi Dave, thanks for your comment. I’m sure you’re right, but are those _permanent_ jobs as opposed to “visiting reasearch fellow”- type positions? When I was in the UK (granted, maybe Oxbridge is not representative of UK universities generally) I got the impression that they really did prefer “sound men” (read: an Oxbridge graduate).

    Interestingly, for a Brit, having done a post doc at a good US university was definitely a “plus”.

    I may be wrong, though.

  7. #7 andy
    August 8, 2006

    Sorry for duplicate post. First post was rejected as spam so I resent.

    Apologies again.

    Aadu

  8. #8 Lily
    August 8, 2006

    Mother. Full-time anything. Sanity. Choose two.

    The more intelligent a woman is, the more likely she is to realize this — which is why a one-income household isn’t really a dated idea.

  9. #9 Rob Knop
    August 8, 2006

    Re: postdoc salaries, in Physics, if you’re at a University, you can expect at most about $40K for your first postdoc. If you’re at a national lab, you can add $10K to that.

    If you are a post-doc at a national lab, and you move to a University for your second post-doc, expect a big pay cut. This was a problem for the post-doc who came to work with me….

    By the way, for what it’s worth, my sister, the 6th grade teacher at a private school, has a higher salary than my regular (9 month) salary as a fifth year assistant professor at a major research University. (Of course, she lives in the Bay Area, and so the cost of living is quite a bit higher for her.) I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from this datum, but it is interesting to note.

    -Rob

  10. #10 Mary
    August 8, 2006

    I can’t really think of anyone in my field of physics who has spent ten years languishing as a post-doc

    That’s strange, because all of the post docs I know (our lab used to have five post-docs and two grad students. Now it has one post-doc and two grad students) have done it for more than ten years. And I’m in atomic physics.

  11. #11 Uncle Al
    August 8, 2006

    Given the astounding number of reasonably nascent PhDs, their demonstrated skills, and their employment (of whatever remuneration and stability) in their chosen fields… where are their eldritch outputs? Where are the imagining minds as opposed to calloused fingers? Where is the future aborning?

    NIH is notable for burning budget without concomitant heat and light. ANOVA! NIMH in particular is an overwhelmingly expensive excrescent obscenity.

  12. #12 Bill Hooker
    August 8, 2006

    He’s way off on postdoc salaries these day, at least in the biomedical sciences.

    No, he isn’t. Many — I think most, but I don’t have the data to back that up — institutes pay considerably less than the NRSA scale. Where I am, for instance, the going rate for a postdoc with 6 or 7 years’ experience (like, say, me) is below the bottom of that scale. This is typical, in my experience. As for “refusing to sign off on grants” that don’t pay NRSA scale, I want to work where you work (although I note that refusing to sign off on an application is not the same as refusing to accept the amended award, with lower salaries; most institutions will happily skim off their cut and leave the PI to deal with any shortfall).

    I say this not to complain about my financial lot, because as Katz remarks I didn’t go into science to get rich. It just chafes my scrote to be told I get paid at a rate I will likely never see.

    (As for tenure, do the math: 20K postdocs, 2K positions. Not sure how recent those numbers are — the NSA should have relevant stats.)

  13. #13 Harlan
    August 8, 2006

    I think this depends a lot on field. I’m pretty familiar with the job markets in Computer Science and Experimental Psychology. In neither case does anyone linger for 5 or 10 years as a post-doc because they can’t get a job. The majority of new Computer Science faculty are either hired straight out of grad school or are hired from industry research labs later in their career. Post-docs in CS are quite rare. In academic Psychology, however, it’s quite typical to have a post-doc before landing a faculty job, but this is typically a single two-year post-doc. Some people get hired right out of grad school, and some people linger a bit longer, but the supply of PhDs is not so high that highly-qualified people are stuck in low-paying jobs for many years.

    My understanding is that a lot of the biological research fields are much more like what the original article was discussing. A friend in cell biology is on her second post-doc, and is something like 5 years out of grad school, and probably won’t be looking for jobs for another few years yet.

    Oh, and a note regarding NIH payscales. They’re a big step up from grad student pay scales, and they’re certainly enough to live on, but they do not scale with cost of living, so if you’re getting a postdoc at NYU or Harvard or Berkeley, you’ll be a whole lot poorer than if you get a postdoc at the University of Iowa.

  14. #14 NL
    August 8, 2006

    As always, look at the data. Initial employment for physics PhDs in 2002/2003:

    one year after the PhD

    by subfield

    starting salaries

    What’s missing is: what happens to the postdocs? It would be nice to see hard data on what percentage of them take a faculty position, some other permanent position, leave science, or do a second postdoc…

  15. #15 Chad Orzel
    August 8, 2006

    That’s strange, because all of the post docs I know (our lab used to have five post-docs and two grad students. Now it has one post-doc and two grad students) have done it for more than ten years. And I’m in atomic physics.

    See, you’re hoarding them all…

    Again, I wasn’t saying that it doesn’t happen, just that I didn’t meet any ten-year post-docs when I was a student and post-doc myself.

    I suspect the treatment of post-docs is very field-dependent. If you’re dealing swith a 900-member particle physics collaboration, it’s probably easier to treat post-docs as academic cannon fodder. AMO tends to have more like one or two per project, which makes it harder to avoid dealing with them as individuals.

    As always, the AIP Statistical Research division has just enough data to be tantalizing, but not enough to answer the questions I’d like to have answered…

  16. #16 NL
    August 8, 2006

    That’s strange, because all of the post docs I know have done it for more than ten years. And I’m in atomic physics.

    I’m flabbergasted by this. I guess I don’t know my field as well I thought I did…

  17. #17 cb
    August 8, 2006

    I’m a grad student in HEP and i I recall my advisor telling me (with a smile, and not a blink of an eye) that i would have to go through two or three postdocs before i could realistically be considered for a tenure-track position. I think we can all agree that different subfields require different number of postdocs. At least in the case of HEP what is strange is NOT doing at least two post-docs. Assuming, of course, the final destination is academia. I find this frightening and frustrating. Call me crazy but i think part of the solution to this problem is to get undergraduate physics majors exposed to some healthy doses of what is traditionally considered ‘graduate level physics’. When a student then enters ‘graduate school’ they will be better informed as to the area of physics they want to pursue, will have a stronger background in general physics, and will not languish around the dept. unsure of an area of research or thesis topic. (oh, and let’s please due away with the backwards notion of a ‘qualifying exam’!!) One could specialize more on specific topics and subfields early into a graduate education, so that the 5-6 years of graduate school would be more of like the last 3 years of grad school plus that first post doc….am i making any sense? And incidentally, if one is to regress this idea a bit further i guess what this boils down to is that MOST (not ALL) high school grads are not exposed to enough ‘higher math’ and physics. But why is that? Could it be that our culture does not ADEQUATELY (didn’t say not at all) reward or encourage a young person to learn things like ‘higher math’. What person knows at a young age they want to study quantum mechanics? They must be exposed, made aware and rewarded for doing well in things that are difficult. Otherwise, they will tire easily from excessive thinking and plop down in front of their x-box listening to their ipod with mtv blasting in the background…wait a minute it’s all the parent’s fault!! So, i think if this problem is to go away we have to completely restructure our society….i give up i’m going outside!

  18. #18 Incoherent Ponderer
    August 8, 2006

    The salaries are in 30K-40K in academic sector for my sub-field. Add 10-20K for government labs.

    One postdoc is a must. Two postdocs quickly becoming a norm. If you are doing your third – your are delusional about your chances, AFAIK.

    A postdoc used to be 1.5-2 years. Now it’s 3 years. Two people in a group I collaborate are staying for their 4th year. It’s against university rules, but they simply have nowhere to go – refuse to take a second postdoc but have no faculty offers, not even close.

    We don’t train twice as many PhDs as there are jobs for them. We train about 10 times as many. Thanks to industry and various teaching-only physics positions we don’t have as many homeless physics PhD begging for some change on the street. But I would estimate that more than half no longer do physics (and not because they didn’t want to), and only about 20% actually still do some physics-related research.

    Highly inefficient, considering that the time it takes to get a PhD extended to an average of 7.something years nowadays. Less for theorists, more for experimentalists. Look at CVs of faculty members who were in grad school in 50ies and 60ies and it took them 3-4 years and they got faculty positions without need for a postdoc. Hmm…
    I am sure it’s because they are really smart and we are all stupid. :)

  19. #19 Incoherent Ponderer
    August 8, 2006

    RE: postdocs – I know a guy who got his PhD in 1993. He is still a postdoc, 13 years later. Yep. I am not kidding. It can happen to you too, if you aren’t too careful. He is still hoping for that academic faculty position. Must be well over 40 by now.

  20. #20 Caitlin
    August 9, 2006

    They do not scale with cost of living, so if you’re getting a postdoc at NYU or Harvard or Berkeley, you’ll be a whole lot poorer than if you get a postdoc at the University of Iowa.

  21. #21 kstrna
    August 9, 2006

    It should be noted for the biomedical sciences a post-doc starting at $36,996 (and as others have noted some pay less) is paid less than I made, not even taking into account inflation, straight out of college as a research assistant (glorified tech) working 40 hours/week with full benefits about seven years ago. It is why a number of classmates are jumping to industry or becoming consultants or going to professional schools (law for example, usually on the school’s dime as PhD in the sciences are sought) where the pay will be significantly better once they are working. Many are not cut out to be faculty members but a significant number would make excellent faculty members but they just don’t want to deal with what is viewed as a weeding out process. Those are anecdotes but it is hard to track as the university has not been keeping track of post-docs very well so it is hard to get good numbers. It sounds like physics especially certain sub-fields it is different situation regarding post-docs.

  22. #22 Nicholas Condon
    August 9, 2006

    When I hear this incessant handwringing about jobs in “science,” it seems like it frequently comes from people with two characteristics: they seem to believe that the only viable destination for a Ph.D. scientist is a professorship, and they who work in subfields that are oversupplied (biology) or have very limited non-academic employment opportunitites (HEP) and they mistake their situation for the state of the entirety of the scientific enterprise. There are lots and lots of Ph.D.s employed in both government and industry, and many of them are indeed working on the sorts of challenging, stimulating problems that attract people to science to begin with; just ask Derek Lowe.

    It seems like it might behoove prospective science grad students to decide whether they want to be a professor or not before they choose a field of study. If they don’t have a strong need to be a professor, then they should pick a field that allows at least a reasonable chance at industrial employment (e.g. organic synthesis, analytical chemistry). If their life ambition is to be a professor, they can choose whatever field of study they like, but they should go in with their eyes open as to their job prospects.

  23. #23 catswym
    August 9, 2006

    “but they should go in with their eyes open as to their job prospects.” ~NC

    i think this is the problem tho.

    before grad school you either have no idea what the prospects are, or what your dedication to science is.

    as a fifth year grad student now i can say it is only in the last few years that i have begun to realize what life is like beyong the phd–in terms of there being a glut of phds, the longer and longer time languishing in postdocs and the difficulty of finding an academic job and getting funding for it. i don’t think i’m alone in this.

    not to mention, grad school is the first crucible you encounter on your way to being a scientist. it’s where you find out if you can really love doing this for the rest of your life. even if you find out you don’t–by that time you’re well on your way to the phd.

    so, in that respect i don’t think you CAN go into grad school with your eyes wide open. not to mention everyone in academia is encouraging you to go (advisors, profs, and the selection committee at the school of your choice), and don’t mention the negative aspects.

    much like kate, my advice to people thinking of going to grad school is: don’t.

  24. #24 David McGloin
    August 9, 2006

    It’s interesting to read this discussion and what seems to be a slightly negative slant on the lot of a post-doc. The fact that in the US that people might end up doing two or maybe three post-docs and this being a bad thing is a little strange to my ears as I come form the UK. The system we have is rather different – as noted in the comments above. Typically a PhD is three years (although this is being shifted to 3.5 years now) and to be honest why shouldn’t you get your degree in this time? I’m currently working in the States and the people I see here who are in there 4th/5th/6th year should under the UK terms have a degree by now. With a 3 year degree under your belt you can progress to a post doc or two and then think about what you want to do. Maybe this will be into a permanent position (no tenure here), maybe into something else. In terms of careers available there are tons – bear in mind most careers do not need a PhD but you’re likely to get paid a bit more if you have one.

    After my degree I left academia and went to work in Government research before moving back for my first post-doc. I then got a lovely research fellowship, which means I am a PI, have my own group and funding and can pretty much do what I want for the 5-8 years of funding that I have. I have no teaching or admin responsibilities unless I choose to take them on. In US terms I consider this a nice tenure track positon. At some point I’ll apply for a permanent positon – I’ll have a solid research career behind me and to be honest most of the top places don’t really care about teaching experience. My thoughts on the US system – abandon tenure…My thoughts on doing a PhD – if you can afford it do it in the UK (added bonus of no extra classes too) and get ahead of the game. Not sure how a UK PhD looks to the American job market, but I see litle difference between my good students and the good ones here, and my students will have their degree years and two-three years work experience by the time many here graduate.

  25. #25 IP
    August 9, 2006

    I am really shocked to hear that PhD is 3 years in UK. Does that count after Bachelor (4-year college) or Master (2 years on top of Bachelor)? This is in Physics? Experiment or Theory?

    Regardless, even if someone was offering to graduate people in 3 years, the real question is how competitive those people would be on the job market against those with 6 or 7 or 8 years of PhD? How many papers can you publish in 3 years vs. 7?

    In many ways, I don’t think hiring committees are interested in how many years it took you to get PhD, but they often do have a cut-off in terms of when you got your PhD and they often look for a certain number/quality of publications. Getting your PhD with only a handful of publications means you are likely to spend multiple postdocs trying to make up for it.

    I also agree with previous poster – it’s impossible to start grad school “with open eyes”. In many disciplines tenured academic positions is the only path to continue research you have been supposedly “trained” to do for many years.

  26. #26 David McGloin
    August 9, 2006

    The UK PhD is roughly 3 years, and almost all complete within 4 years. Recently the conditions have been changed slightly so that it should take 3.5 years. The PhD is typically started after a good first degree (some of these are termed Bachelors and some are called Masters degrees (not to be confused with a post-graduate Masters degrees)) For slightly weaker students or those who wish to change fields a little a Masters (MSc) is also an entry point. A typical taught masters is one year. This is true in all subjects, both theory and experiment. Note very few PhD programs require you to take classes, so the research starts straight away. Typically you would expect to publish a minimum of 2-3 first authors papers. In my PhD I had 6 papers in total with another published sometime after my viva.

    The point is that you have a fairly hard limit after which you’re funding runs out, so by and large you get the work done. I agree that it is not the time taken to get your PhD that is important, but the quick UK PhD allows you to get on with other stuff sooner than the US system and while you may lack a little experience over a recently graduated US PhD you can leave academia sooner if you wish. The idea that you may have fewer publications than your US counterpart is true, but then you would typically take on an extra postdoc positon to make up for this – this may also be considered a more flexible option as you can ‘hop’ around a few fields an get lots of experience.

    Another interesting thing about the Scottish education system is that you can leave school at 16 (in some cases) with your University entrance qualifiactions. This means you can have a first degree and a PhD at 23, as did one of the postdocs in my group when I was a grad student. My wife also had a very good first degree in astrophysics at 20, but was then lost to IT, alas!

  27. #27 Armand
    August 10, 2006

    Hello-

    I am responding to this fascinating post (and great subsequent comments) as a complete outsider- that is someone with an MFA in Creative Writing. (I found this blog through Science Blogs) I have a very close friend who’s a physicist, and we often discuss jobs and careers and such and, over the years, I’ve come to believe a few things are common to all of us in this day and age:

    (before I launch into my long rant, I would like to apologize in that it’s not very technical, but, I figure, since my career interests are different enough from most of the other posters, it won’t matter much)

    Finding a good job is hard no matter what your field. I don’t care if you’re a fireman, a chemist or an English teacher, the days of watching your career unfold in a graceful arc, taking you to yet higher heights (if such days ever existed) are pretty much over. It’s just like driving in Boston: expect detours, unmarked roads and long delays. I no longer expect my career arc to make any sort of sense. I no longer pretend to have any idea where my next break or success will come from. I just try things, apply for jobs, send out my stories on a regular basis and every once in a great big while, something good happens.

    Granted, there are always going to be people who, whether through connections, timing, immense talent or just dumb luck, will have amazing careers, but for a lot of us ordinary Joes and Janes, we get up and go to our compromise job with compromised hopes, and we find that it takes a lot of pushing and patience to get anywhere.

    Another thing, I think, that has changed is that in all except the most physical careers, people are sticking around longer. Guess what, tenured faculty aren’t retiring, they’re choosing to stay til they die. I remember a few years ago my sister, who works in HR, told me not to worry because pretty soon all the baby boomers would be retiring and there would be lots of opening for writing instructors. Well four years have passed since her prediction and my own prediction is that this will not be the case. More likely, people will stay on (at least in a limited capacity) far beyond age 65. 55 is the new 35 anyway. I fully expect to be working into my mid-70’s myself. So, based on my thinking, everyone’s career will simply unfold at a slower pace.

    This would all not be a problem at all, of course, if it wasn’t for the inconvenient fact that most people still want/ need to have children before (if not well before) they turn 40.

    Finally, I think the time of simply having one job has ended. I don’t know how it goes in sciences, but this is especially true of the arts. For example, my goal is to eventually forge a career out of writing, teaching writing and editing. And this is because I doubt that any single one of these will provide a regular sustained income at this point in my career or anytime in the next decade.

    So I write part time (mostly unpaid), edit part time (unpaid), teach composition part time (paid) and keep my day job (paid of course, but does not show up on my CV). I don’t look at my career as one thing leading to one other thing (I cannot be a writer who wants to become a better paid writer) instead I look at it as a bundle. The items in the bundle are interrelated enough that success in one helps strengthen the others . For example, if I get a short story published, it helps my teaching career, or the fact that I teach composition at a college gives me more authority as an editor. The fact that I edit a small (tiny) fiction journal means that I get to meet authors and make connections. Speaking for myself (in the hyper-competitive world of creative writing), I don’t think I would go far without the understanding that it will be a bundle of things (and not one job) that will create the illusion of one career.

    Cheers and sorry I went on for so long-

    Armand

  28. #28 Bill Hooker
    August 10, 2006

    When I hear this incessant handwringing about jobs in “science,” it seems like

    When I hear reasonable concerns dismissed as “incessant handwringing”, I think, “bite me, jerkoff”.

    Just sayin’.

  29. #29 Joseph Wang
    August 11, 2006

    Med school – why not? It’s a few years of hell, but there is a reasonably good paying job pretty much guaranteed at the other end

    Law school – why not? It’s three years, and again at the end there is a reasonably good paying job at the other end. As far as whether the world needs more lawyers or not, one is limited to how much one can fix up the world’s messed up priorities.

    Also, the “grass is not as green on the other end” doesn’t work. I know people who became doctors and lawyers, and from a economic rational point of view, it makes no sense at all to be a physicist than a doctor or lawyer.

  30. #30 Johan Larson
    February 26, 2008

    My dad was a prof (in Comp Sci) before he decided, in his fifties, he needed a change and moved over into an industrial research position. According to him, the biggest frustration in academia was the constant constant chase for research funding.

    As far as I can tell, at least in computing, profs aren’t really doing much technical work themselves. They’re in the business of getting research funding, and hiring and managing graduate students.

    My own take on the Ph.D. situation is that the current job situation is rather like that for musicians. A surplus of decently qualified aspirants have driven down the salary levels and work conditions to the point that only somone who absolutely loves the work for its own sake should get into it.

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