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Do scientists make good money?

  1. Jan 2, 2010 #1
    I'm aware that physicians are among the highest paying jobs but is it possible to earn an income close to that of a physician as a physicist, chemist, biologist or other scientist? I could just as easily go to medical school and obtain an MD in the long run but what I'm really getting into chemistry for is to make my contribution towards mankinds knowledge and to making the world a better place and all that but its a petty many scientists don't even earn half the money that your average general practitioner does. I think it would be fairly cool to be able to help my family out in the process of working as a scientist. Also I'm planning on doing independent research and projects and that kind of thing requires funding.

    I suppose scientists can make a fair bit of money by patenting inventions if they happen to make any. Also having a good knowledge of scientific fields such as chemistry would pave the way for setting up businesses based on that knowledge. Do any of you make the same kind of income that physicians make while working in a purely scientific related field such as chemist, physicist etc.?
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  3. Jan 2, 2010 #2


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    It obviously depends on how successful you are, well-known physicists are sometimes recruited by private universities because it is good PR for the university to have them on staff.
    But if you want to make as much money as a physician while working in academia you need to move into the management side of things (head of a department,rector etc).
    "Pure" science is more or less a dead end if your goal is to make a lot of money.
  4. Jan 2, 2010 #3
    Most scientists with patents forfeit the patent to their parent company, unless they developed and filed (expensive!) the patent on their own. Defending patents is an even more expensive proposition.

    As for base salaries, chemists/scientists generally make between $50k and $100k. Doctors make between 50% and 100% more than that. You'll make the most, by far, as a neurosurgeon ($200k+). Tedious, detailed work, though.

    Tons of companies employ chemists and chemical engineers.
  5. Jan 2, 2010 #4
    I'm getting into science because I love it but if I can make money on the side then why not. The only thing stopping me from becoming a general practitioner is I may not have the time to do scientific research with a job like that but at the same time I noticed that there are people with titles like "Physician and biochemist". If they can do it then I don't see why i can't.
  6. Jan 2, 2010 #5
    I'm betting they are physicians more by title than actual work, though. I can hardly imagine someone working as a family doctor and doing research on the side, but would perhaps be feasible if that someone is head of a department in a medical institution. Or sometimes I think people just put the whole thing so as to "show off" they're qualified in both, even though their current work only encompasses and justifies only one of the titles.
  7. Jan 2, 2010 #6
    In general, scientists don't make a lot of money. At my university, an untenured assistant professor makes between $50k and $60k. A tenured associate professor makes between $80k and $100k. A full professor makes about $130k. Not bad, but that's after six years of grad school and four years of postdoc. Not to mention that your chances of becoming a professor after your postdoc is less than 1 in 2 (that's in physics, I think it's even worse in chemistry). I know they say not to become a doctor for the money, but if money is what you're interested in, you really don't want to become a scientist. We get paid pretty badly, we're on short term appointments (like grad school and postdoc) unless we're lucky enough to get a professorship, and we have to beg for funding all the time. You've got to love what you do in order to go this route, because you don't get paid that well.

    Granted, after grad school you can use your skills to start a company. I've heard of people who start up scientific instrument companies after they finish their PhD. But these people are far and few in between. Medicine has its own share of difficulties, like the $200k loan you're stuck with after med school. But it's a better route to financial security than getting a PhD.
  8. Jan 2, 2010 #7

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    You have a twisted idea of not getting paid that well. $130K is well into the top 10 percent of salaries (the 90th salary percentile in 2008 was $108K/year).
  9. Jan 2, 2010 #8
    It's not that $130K isn't well paid... it is. But full professor is the very, very top of the pyramid, and relatively few people make it there.
  10. Jan 2, 2010 #9
    $130k for a professor after many years of ********, compared to a pharmacist who makes that after a few years out of pharmacy school, working in a corner drugstore...

    I think the feeling of under compensation that us STEM professionals feel comes from providing a large percentage of GDP and being only a small percentage of the population. I saw the exact numbers in the R&D magazine, as I remember it was something like 2% of the population provides 50% of the GDP.

    I would suggest doing what you want without regard to money (probably the attitude that leads to the under compensation), because then when stuff creeps into your life your still doing what you want instead of longing to do what you want. I know plenty of PhD physicists that work at my corp and make good money. If you like helping sick people become a doctor. If you want to find a new drug you could do research for pharma.

    In any case you should try and determine what type of specialization you want to do, then work on getting the internships, finding university professors in the field, assistantships, etc. to get a lot of experience in that specialty.
  11. Jan 2, 2010 #10

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    Pharmacists need to work twenty years to reach that kind of pay -- and many never reach it.

    And pharmacists are not STEM professionals?

    First off, are you talking about the venture capital people, most of whom have a business degree, or people doing the R&D?

    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 15, 2017
  12. Jan 2, 2010 #11
    No but chemical engineers (or any other really comparitively) do
  13. Jan 2, 2010 #12
    WRT, the pay scale chart, I have direct observational evidence, sample size of 1, that is in contradiction, I apologize and did not want to mislead the conversation. Perhaps she is in a high demand region of the country and receives higher than average pay.

    WRT, to STEM definition, Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM), my understanding was that medicine was not included in that.

    Citation NSF:
    http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf05313/pdf/tables.pdf" [Broken]
    Page 3: 5,580,200 SET professionals (does include managers of SET), this data is from 2001, not quite sure why reports haven't been published since then...

    US population: 281,421,906 year 2000 census, chosen to be close to the 2001 data point above.
    SET professionals 1.98% of the US population around 2000.

    the closest thing I got was specifically the comment:
    I do specifically remember my wild assertion in R&D Magazine but could not find it. Of course what I remembered as 50% of the GDP could have been 50% of GDP growth. I typically don't source all of my wild assertions on Internet forums, but I still try and at least make my wild assertions as accurate as possible. No hard feelings, I know you're just keeping me honest. Anyways my main point wasn't the income disparity but the last two paragraphs.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  14. Jan 3, 2010 #13
    Compared to the national average I'm sure that's great. But his "standard candle" here is a medical doctor, who makes considerably more than any professor could hope to.

    Not to mention that the chances of a PhD becomming a professor are quite slim.
  15. Jan 3, 2010 #14
    It depends on how you define scientist. I work for a Wall Street financial firm and my job title includes the word "research". I think of myself as a scientist and I make pretty decent money. Now whether you think of me as a scientist or not is up to you.

    No they can't. One rule is that the big money is to be made in distribution and not invention. What invariably happens with patents or other IP is that you end up selling it to another company, and the person you sell it to makes the big money. Now you *can* start your own company (and lots of people in biotech and EE do just that) so that you end up buying IP instead of selling it, but that requires a lot of business skills. You can also work for another company, and then work your way up the corporate food chain to the positions that make the big bucks.

    At which point the question "what is a scientist?" comes up again.

    Sure, but you also need business knowledge and skills.
  16. Jan 3, 2010 #15
    Your chances of getting tenure track after Ph.D. is 1 in 6.

    There is something called the golden mean. Just because you don't want to life out of a cardboard box doesn't mean that you want to have a private jet and a yacht. One weird thing about discussions about money is this weird idea that either you take a vow of poverty or you are this hyperobsessed greedy bastard. It's really weird.

    Depending on how broadly you define scientist, you can end up living a decent middle class life. Also one *really* good thing about Ph.D. programs is that most people get out of them with no debt. This gives you a huge amount of freedom. A lot of doctors and lawyers end up in jobs that make $200K because they have no choice, and golden handcuffs can be as bad as iron ones.

    I think this is false. Most Ph.D. end up obsessed with academia, so you have too many people going after too few jobs. Once you broaden the horizons a bit, I think you end up in pretty good financial shape with a Ph.D.
  17. Jan 3, 2010 #16
    To be brutally honest, I think that academics really have a skewed idea of what generates wealth. You really need business skills to generate wealth. If you have an R&D prototype, it will stay an R&D prototype. To get it out to market you need to think about financing, advertising, distribution chains, sales, etc. etc.

    I'd argue the opposite. One problem that Ph.D.'s have outside of academia is that they often end up "overspecialized." You really do need a firm foundation of general skills, and you do always need to be learning new things. For example, I don't have any problems with PDE's. I do however get nervous talking to people on the telephone, and learning how to deal with that was an very important part of my education.
  18. Jan 3, 2010 #17
    This is one problem with these sorts of comparisons is that you need to figure out what you are comparing to what. Ph.D.-level researchers in Wall Street banks make more money than general practitioners in rural Arkansas.

    You do have to be very careful about these sorts of assertions because often the person making them has some financial motive to presenting data in a certain way. For example, it's very common for universities to uses these sorts of statistics to argue for more government funding of research or more student loans. They have to be taken with a grain of salt, because people have been fooled into make very bad career choices by bad statistics (i.e. they myth of the shortage of academic researchers that the NSF was saying in the early 1990's).
  19. Jan 3, 2010 #18
    Not any professor. B-school professors make scary amounts of money. One other thing is that a lot of physics professors that I know have side businesses and consulting firms. The problem with academia isn't the salaries of the tenured faculty. It's that there are not enough of those jobs to go around.
  20. Jan 3, 2010 #19
    Typical compensation for a first year physics Ph.D. quantitative researcher working on wall street is $90K+bonus which can range from $30K in a bad year to $60K in a more typical one.
  21. Jan 3, 2010 #20
    Also people like the Council on Competitiveness really annoy me because they are all CEO, university presidents, and labor leaders that are *TOTALLY* out of touch with the lives of ordinary scientists and engineers. They often argue a lot for more funding for science, but all that money goes to people with the power, and not to post-docs, graduate students, and you get a lot of money that gets focused on research and development rather than on things like basic literacy and undergraduate education.

    There is a real "bait and switch" here because they say that "innovation" creates economic growth, but they don't define what "innovation" is which makes it easy for money to go into "innovation" without thinking clearly about what is really going on.
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