87% of my blog-related e-mail is from unhappy, bitter, troubled, distraught biomed grad students, postdocs, technicians, and early-career faculty. Others write to me with problems, but these tend to be of the “I’m frustrated with my advisor” sort rather than the “I’m being tortured, abused, deported, sued, and I fear my academic career is over” sort that I routinely get from biomed people.
I specify biomedical rather than the life science in general because, as far as I can tell, the ecologists and botanists and ornithologists and whatnot seem to be reasonably content, or, at least, not more stressed out or bitter than your average chemist, physicist, or engineer.
The comments are full of possible reasons, and Mike offers his own suggestion which falls right in line with the rest:
The basic problem stems (so to speak) from too many biology Ph.D.s and not enough funding, leading to an immensely cutthroat environment–and one that is psychologically damaging to boot. Yet, despite a massive surplus of biomedical Ph.D.s, there still is a culture that places the academic tenure track above all else–and in my experience, it seems much stronger, much more inviolate than in other STEM disciplines. If you leave the tenure track, you are viewed as a partial (at best) failure.
That’s true, but here’s the thing: it’s not unique to biomedical science. The same problem afflicts physics– every time I post something about wanting to attract more students into physics, I’m guaranteed to get a few hectoring comments about how irresponsible it is to try to recruit students to a field with too many Ph.D.’s and not enough jobs. And it’s not like being on the tenure track in physics is all hugs and flowers and adorable puppies– also crossing my RSS reader yesterday was Sean’s brutally honest assessment of the tenure process at research universities, in physics. That’s a pretty good match for what commenters on the Science Professor post say about biomed.
If you want to assert that biomedical scientists are uniquely unhappy, you need to come up with some problem that is unique to biomedical sciences. The two best candidates I saw in my quick skim of the comments to the original post are the doubling of the NIH budget in the 1990’s, which led to a probably unsustainable increase in the number of students taken on, and what I’ll snarkily summarize as “Doctors are assholes.”
The NIH situation is a very real problem, with funding having doubled suddenly in the Clinton years, then flattened out over the last decade. A number of institutions made hires and modified policies (consciously or unconsciously) during that expansion in ways that depended on a large and expanding cash flow, and are running into problems now that the pool of money isn’t expanding any more.
Of course, you can argue that this is just another example of the life sciences lagging 40 years behind the physical sciences. The same basic thing happened in the physical sciences and engineering in the wake of Sputnik, only more so. There was a huge and unsustainable increase in the amount of money available to the field, leading to an explosion in the number of researchers, and then a general tightening of the metaphorical belt in the 70’s and 80’s, which puts a lot of stress on younger researchers. So, if it’s just a money thing, any difference between the physical and biomedical sciences is really just a result of the physical scientists having had thirty-odd years to get used to the same cash flow problem.
“Doctors are assholes,” on the other hand, is the stand-in for a whole host of comments that relate to the “medical” part of “biomedical.” If you read through that comment thread, you’ll find a lot of people complaining about the profit-driven management of medical centers and the generally inhuman manner in which medical students are treated bleeding over to the science side.
To the extent that the problem is cultural– that is, biomedical students and post-docs are unhappier than physics students and post-docs because of lots of little things that are common practice in biomedical sciences but not elsewhere– there’s probably something to this. Even as a student, I was always a little boggled by the shit that med students put up with, and seeing things from the faculty side has not done anything to raise my opinion of the medical education system. The remarkable thing about the business is that we manage to produce any doctors who aren’t assholes.
I suspect, though, that the main source of the effect is just selection bias. That is, 87% of the Science Professor’s email is from bitter and unhappy biomedical scientists because 87% of the bitter and unhappy people reading blogs about biomedical sciences are in biomedical sciences. This is partly because people are more likely to read within their own field (I barely have time to keep on top of the physics blogs in my RSS reader, let alone the plethora of life science blogs here at ScienceBlogs), and partly because there are many more bio types in general. Probably 50% of the bitter and unhappy comments I get on posts about academia are from bitter and unhappy biomedical scientists.
And, of course, the bitter and unhappy people are vastly more likely to comment (and blog) at length than the people who are more or less happy with their lot in life. Which tends to skew the perception of academia as a whole, really– college professors really aren’t all as miserable as reading academic blogs and magazines would lead you to believe. That’s not to say that there aren’t very real problems with academia in general, and academic science in particular, but the academic life is not an unremitting tale of woe for every single academic, by any stretch.
So, on the question of why biomedical scientists are more miserable than other scientists, I’m agnostic, shading toward “Because doctors are assholes.” I don’t really believe that their situation is uniquely awful, though.
(As a side note, that comment thread is also remarkable for the wildly distorted views people have of other science fields. There are some staggeringly dumb things asserted as fact about other areas of science, most of them quickly corrected. If you want evidence that it’s not just physicists who arrogantly talk out of their asses about subjects they know nothing about, though, it’s a good place to look.)