# DONT BEcome A SCIENTIST

1. Dec 1, 2005

### michealsmith

hi guys i want to get ur opinion on an article i read ;
I HAVE PASTED IT FROM.. ....... http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html [Broken]

Are you thinking of becoming a scientist? Do you want to uncover the mysteries of nature, perform experiments or carry out calculations to learn how the world works? Forget it!

Science is fun and exciting. The thrill of discovery is unique. If you are smart, ambitious and hard working you should major in science as an undergraduate. But that is as far as you should take it. 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.

Why am I (a tenured professor of physics) trying to discourage you from following a career path which was successful for me? Because times have changed (I received my Ph.D. in 1973, and tenure in 1976). American science no longer offers a reasonable career path. If you go to graduate school in science it is in the expectation of spending your working life doing scientific research, using your ingenuity and curiosity to solve important and interesting problems. You will almost certainly be disappointed, probably when it is too late to choose another career.

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. In contrast, a doctor typically enters private practice at 29, a lawyer at 25 and makes partner at 31, and a computer scientist with a Ph.D. has a very good job at 27 (computer science and engineering are the few fields in which industrial demand makes it sensible to get a Ph.D.). Anyone with the intelligence, ambition and willingness to work hard to succeed in science can also succeed in any of these other professions.

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. You can get a fine job as a computer programmer, but why not do this at 22, rather than putting up with a decade of misery in the scientific job market first? The longer you spend in science the harder you will find it to leave, and the less attractive you will be to prospective employers in other fields.

Perhaps you are so talented that you can beat the postdoc trap; some university (there are hardly any industrial jobs in the physical sciences) will be so impressed with you that you will be hired into a tenure track position two years out of graduate school. Maybe. But the general cheapening of scientific labor means that even the most talented stay on the postdoctoral treadmill for a very long time; consider the job candidates described above. And many who appear to be very talented, with grades and recommendations to match, later find that the competition of research is more difficult, or at least different, and that they must struggle with the rest.

Suppose you do eventually obtain a permanent job, perhaps a tenured professorship. The struggle for a job is now replaced by a struggle for grant support, and again there is a glut of scientists. Now you spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems. They're not the same thing: you cannot put your past successes in a proposal, because they are finished work, and your new ideas, however original and clever, are still unproven. It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal; because they have not yet been proved to work (after all, that is what you are proposing to do) they can be, and will be, rated poorly. Having achieved the promised land, you find that it is not what you wanted after all.

What can be done? The first thing for any young person (which means anyone who does not have a permanent job in science) to do is to pursue another career. This will spare you the misery of disappointed expectations. Young Americans have generally woken up to the bad prospects and absence of a reasonable middle class career path in science and are deserting it. If you haven't yet, then join them. Leave graduate school to people from India and China, for whom the prospects at home are even worse. I have known more people whose lives have been ruined by getting a Ph.D. in physics than by drugs.

If you are in a position of leadership in science then you should try to persuade the funding agencies to train fewer Ph.D.s. The glut of scientists is entirely the consequence of funding policies (almost all graduate education is paid for by federal grants). The funding agencies are bemoaning the scarcity of young people interested in science when they themselves caused this scarcity by destroying science as a career. They could reverse this situation by matching the number trained to the demand, but they refuse to do so, or even to discuss the problem seriously (for many years the NSF propagated a dishonest prediction of a coming shortage of scientists, and most funding agencies still act as if this were true). The result is that the best young people, who should go into science, sensibly refuse to do so, and the graduate schools are filled with weak American students and with foreigners lured by the American student visa.

Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
2. Dec 1, 2005

### ZapperZ

Staff Emeritus
1. When you are citing a website, unless you want to highlight certain phrases/sentences, don't cut-and-paste the whole thing. People can just to the site if they want to read it.

2. This has been discussed already. See

Zz.

3. Dec 1, 2005

### Erzeon

This thread has changed my view of what I want to be when I grow up.

4. Dec 1, 2005

### JasonRox

I thought we were all in this for the love of science.

I'm going into mathematics, but still relatively the same.

I'd rather do part-time research and work another job for living, then just work another job for money, and die doing nothing of what I loved.

If you love Science, don't let the availability of jobs discourage you. You don't need a job in Science to follow your passion.

5. Dec 1, 2005

### mezarashi

I very very much agree. Very commendable principles to live by. Life's not all about the money. You'd probably be better off in the business/enterpreneur sector if that's the case.

6. Dec 1, 2005

### ZapperZ

Staff Emeritus
But even the premise of arguing that you can't make a decent living with a science/physics major is suspect. Katz should know better, as a physicst, than to rely on anecdotal evidence alone. It was why I cited the statistics compiled by the AIP. There are TONS more of those statistics at the AIP website for anyone to read.

And I truly do not understand the apparent animosity that he had towards international students. The US had always depended on attracting some of the brightest minds from all over the world, be it Europe during the early part of the last century, to the Far East during the last part of the century. This isn't a new phenomenon. But I didn't hear him complain about the immigrant scientists when their skins were white.

Zz.

7. Dec 1, 2005

### Moonbear

Staff Emeritus
This sounds like someone flying off the handle over frustration about something. Perhaps he's someone getting heat from administration because he hasn't been bringing in grants, or he's not doing a decent job training his students, so he's watching them sit in post-doc holding patterns?

He also mentions starting post-doc salaries being around $27,000 in biological sciences. I don't know where he gets that figure from. It sounds pretty outdated. Current NIH postdoctoral stipend levels, which most institutions use as the minimum stipend for any post-doc in biomedical sciences, start at$35,568. This is a substantial increase from not long ago when I was struggling with a $20,000 initial stipend (which still seemed like a lot of money compared with my grad student stipend). Also, that that really is a starting salary, when you come out of a PhD program with zero experience in conducting independent research (in other words, not just the project your mentor assigned you, but coming up with your own ideas and grant funding). It rapidly increases after that. If you have over 7 years experience as a post-doc, you'll be earning over$50,000. http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-05-032.html NIH also strongly encourages PIs to not keep hiring people into post-doc positions if they have that much experience, but to promote them to a faculty position and offer the appropriate salary for that position. But, my experience is that if someone is still floating around in post-doc positions for more than 4 or 5 years and hasn't landed a faculty appointment, there's usually a reason for it...that they just don't have some quality or qualification required in a good faculty candidate, such as demonstrated ability to obtain funding, good oral communication skills, a coherent focus for their research, or they may have sufficient publications, but no evidence that they really wrote them independently or came up with the original ideas on their own (I've seen people come out of very productive labs with tons of publications, but the ideas were all their mentor's, and when you hear them talk about the work, it's clear they needed a lot of help writing those papers...I know I've worked with post-docs for whom I practically needed to rewrite their manuscripts to make them coherent and focused...and yes, those post-docs are still doing post-docs; I would never recommend they seek a faculty position yet, they just aren't ready to work independently and supervise others.

This doesn't mean there's anything wrong with being a scientist. All it means is if you suck at it, you should have the sense to get out rather than continuing to do post-docs.

From my own personal experience, I did one, three-year post-doc, and had my first faculty position prior to 30 (in the general arena of biomedical research). I have not gotten a tenure-track position yet, but this doesn't really concern me. If anything, there's a lot more freedom in not being tenure-track because my primary focus is research and nothing else. I can't be involuntarily sucked into committees and teaching if I don't want to do it, or if it distracts me from my research committments, but when opportunities arise that interest me, I can choose to take them up.

But I also set "milestones" for myself to achieve. When I took my first post-doc position, I had already decided that I would be willing to do no more than 2 post-docs, and would not spend more than 4 years in post-doc positions. If I couldn't get a faculty appointment at that stage, I was not going to sit in a holding pattern, and I wasn't going to delude myself into thinking I had what it took to succeed in science if I couldn't get a faculty position by then. I had a back-up plan and alternative careers I had inquired about and gathered sufficient information to know I would be reasonably happy with them if I didn't stay in science. Basically, if I hit 30 and still didn't have a faculty appointment, I knew it would be time to cut my losses and run while I was still young enough to have time to establish myself in another career path.

So, rather than telling people to not become scientists, I think it's better to advise them to be realistic in their goals. Even if you manage to get a PhD, if you still aren't particularly good at working independently, running a lab, supervising students, teaching, and coming up with novel research ideas of your own, then you have to have the sense to know it's time to get out. Just like any career, there are people who are extremely successful at it, and people who fail at it. Perhaps the only bad thing about science is we're overly tolerant and keep trying to remediate the people who are not showing signs of a successful future in the career by shuffling them from post-doc to post-doc rather than just telling them they have no future in science and should go find another career.

8. Dec 1, 2005

### Laura1013

I found Dr. Katz’s article two months ago and was so appalled that I wrote to him. Here was his response:

I wrote it because it is true.

I have no regrets, because I have a reasonably successful career in
science. But the odds are against anyone entering science today.
Almost everyone who pursues dreams in science will be disappointed.
Better to find dreams somewhere else.

I disagreed with him then and I still disagree with him now.
Just thought I’d share,
Laura

9. Dec 3, 2005

### Modey3

Katz work seems to mostly focus on Gamma-Ray-Bursts. I can't imagine there being too many positions who specializes in that area of high energy physics. My primary interests in science is in Condesnsed Matter Physics/Materials Science. I would like to apply these disciplines to nanotechnology research, which i know there is research jobs for. Like Zapper said it all depends on what area you go into.

Modey3

10. Dec 3, 2005

### nbo10

Science is HARD, find something easier!!! I can't disagree, if you don't want to work in a pressure cooker you should find some other line of work.

11. Dec 3, 2005

### neurocomp2003

funny he says that computer programmers have a easier time finding good jobs...I find that one hard to believe because alot of my friends have horrible programming jobs.

12. Dec 3, 2005

### Leon W Zhang

For what? Why do you assume Science is hard?

13. Dec 5, 2005

### michealsmith

moonbear how do u know if u suck at it.

14. Dec 5, 2005

### ahrkron

Staff Emeritus
Before starting my PhD, I started a software company. In my experience, you get about the same amount of pressure in both worlds.

I better work in the one that I enjoy the most.

15. Dec 5, 2005

### gravenewworld

Its the brutal truth- a career in science doesn't pay jack compared to the amount of training you need. I have had an internship working in the pharmaceutical industry for about 2 years now, and I have to agree-it is a lot harder to get a job in industry (pharmaceuticals at least) with a phd than a masters. There are simply way too many phds for spots and companies would rather pay less for person with a masters than someone with a phd when they can do the same work. No one in the real world really cares how many letters you have after your name, they only want you to be able to perform certain tasks and many times people with MA or even BA can do them.

16. Dec 5, 2005

### Staff: Mentor

Nasty little secret of adulthood: nothing worth doing is easy.

A group of my friends (with various degrees) got random, mindless office drone jobs at the same company right after college. Yeah, it's easy having a job with no future, but who wants that?

17. Dec 5, 2005

### marlon

:uhh: mindless office drone jobs ?

How about the notion that you need to start from something small (which mostely means something "stupid") and grow from there ?

Besides, let's be honest about it. Most people would consider "doing a phd" to be about the most interesting thing you can do after college, but let us not forget that 99.9% of all phd's is totally forgotten about one year after completion. Most phd's are worth almost nothing and nobody cares about it because most people (even at top institutions around the world) will never do anything "of significance"...

This maybe a bit rude to say but we all know it is the truth.

You are better of as a young engineer to start working in a company and "start from there", in stead of starting a phd that nobody cares about (except the one doing it).

regards
marlon

18. Dec 5, 2005

### gravenewworld

From my own experience you learn much more in the real world than in the class room. I have learned so much more useful chemistry at my job than I ever have in the classroom. Schools only teach theory, hardly anything is practical. Almost every single reaction I learned in organic chemistry is never used in the real world because either A.) it is too dangerous or B.) there are much better and shorter ways of doing a synthesis. Knowing the theory behind how things work is good, but universities should teach things that are more applicable/practical. For example, why do they still teach students how to do titrations and quantitative analysis by trying to make precipitates and weighing them. No one, probably for the last 100 years, does this in the real world.

Exactly, most things are accomplished as a team. A team of 5 or 6 people with BA and MAs could accomplish much more than 1 person with a phd in research.

19. Dec 5, 2005

### Tom Mattson

Staff Emeritus
Ah, the idealism of youth.

Finding a job is a very real concern. If a one does get a PhD in the sciences, then one is pigeonholed in the eyes of employers for life. Even an MS degree in the sciences can have that effect. I was a doctoral student in physics when my thesis advisor died in May, 2000. That meant the loss of my funding. So I had to go out and find a job, and I thought that this would not be a problem because I have a BS degree in engineering.

Boy was I wrong.

Not one firm was interested in my engineering degree, and every headhunter and career counselor I spoke to said that it is because they see me as too overeducated for entry level project engineering. That fact, combined with the fact that I was too undereducated to become a physicist (my advisor died before I finished my PhD), put me in quite a pickle. I bounced from one temp job to another for over 3 years before landing a teaching job at a community college.

So I would say, yes do consider the job market and realistically investigate your options and how they become narrower before entering grad school.

20. Dec 5, 2005

### TMFKAN64

I have to agree... money isn't everything. And this isn't the idealism of youth, it's the idealism of middle age... ;-)

I'm spending most of my time these days preparing to take the physics GRE and looking for a suitable graduate program, years after I got my degree in computer science. Should I succeed, I expect to take roughly a 50% paycut... but money isn't everything. I would rather make much less doing something that genuinely excited me than putting in my time at a job that makes me dread getting out of bed in the morning.