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How depressed should I be that I am going for a career in science?

  1. Feb 5, 2012 #1
    So, I love science and I don't regret pursuing a degree in chemistry. But as I get closer to graduation, reading about jobs really scares me. It seems like this is the progression of your career as a chemist:

    1) Undergrad for 4 years. Bust your balls studying harder than anyone else because your major is very difficult. Lots of extra work getting research experience.
    2) Graduate school for 4-6 years. Work 70 hours a week making less than minimum wage.
    3) Post doc for 5 years. Make less than if you had just gotten a 4 year business degree.
    4) Get very lucky, land a permanent position. Make decent money, but it took 10 years of education and 15 years total to get to this point.

    Ok, I'm not trying to sound like a tool, but the reason I went into science in because I am smart and I enjoy the material. Most people do not have the intellectual ability or even the work ethic to get through those 4 steps above. Yet it seems like exceptional talent in science is rewarded only with bad pay and worse conditions.

    I mean, it's not about the money.... except when it is about the money. I just wonder if, 8 years from now, I'm going to be wishing that I had gone to med school or law school instead. Because I am academically capable of pursuing any career... I just happened to choose the one with bad rewards. At this point I have pretty much ruled out a career in academia because they seem to make so little money for the extensive education and exceptional individual that is required for such a position. I've even considered becoming a patent lawyer instead of a research scientist. Yes, you need to do something you love, and I love science, but there comes a point where you have to say that 10+ years of your life and a low payscale for your talents just isn't worth it.

    Or have I just been listening to too many cynical scientists?
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 5, 2012 #2
    You need to talk to more people outside of academia. It's really not that bad. I've had a blast with my career. It's pretty tough if you insist on being a research professor, but since most Ph.D.'s don't end up as research professors, the bad things sort of cancel themselves out.

    Well, you might want to read some new graduates from med school and law school. There is more screaming on those boards than on this one. One thing that med school, and law school graduates are dealing with is that 1) they aren't going to get their dream job and 2) unlike most science majors, they are now looking at a lifetime of debt.

    Working at less than minimum wage is not great, but it beats going into $200K of debt.

    No. Professors make pretty good money. The problem is that you are unlikely to be a professor. I'd love to be a research professor. The problem is this small issue of someone offering me a job.

    I think you have. I complain a lot, but things actually have worked out pretty well for me. The important thing is that you don't think of academia as a "normal career" Also "bad" is relative. There is a lot of gnashing of teeth here, but sometimes you have to realize that as bad as things are, you got it better than other people that ended up worse. If you have a chemistry Ph.D. and there are no jobs, then you can do whatever you need to do to keep from starving and wait for things to improve. If you went to law school or med school, then this is not an option since you now have loans are are due and compounding interest will make sure that you will be paying for the rest of your life.

    The other thing is that cynicism isn't so bad if you are even handed with it. One thing about scientists is that they are worse at lying than lawyers or business people, so you have to correct for that when you compare careers.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2012
  4. Feb 5, 2012 #3
    You can't count on this, and its not a "normal" step in the career- its the super-lucky abnormal step in a career. The normal step 4 is -fail to land a permanent position, leave the field.

    And keep in mind- a lot can change over 15 years. I got my phd fully expecting to jump on any postdoc I could get, but found myself turning down a good offer in order to settle down.

    And there is the rub- lots of people enjoy science so much they'll put up with quite a bit to do it for a living. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd probably head down to the university and offer to research for free. Its hard to be objective and passionate.

    Then you are aware of the decisions you have made. Science is a really, really rough career path. That hasn't changed in decades, and won't change any time soon. Even doing nobel-quality work isn't a guarantee of a stable life and steady income in science(see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Prasher)

    BUT, the good news is you know now. You can choose to do something else with the next decade of your life. Lots of students don't find out how bad the scientific job market is until a few years into graduate school!

    But do you really? Looking back, no one who gave me this advice actively loved their job.

    I don't know much about law school, but all of my sisters went to medical school. Every single graduate of all of their classes matched into a residency, and every resident got a job as an attending. If you go to medical school and pass, you WILL with certainty, get to practice medicine for a living. Also, 200k of debt isn't that much when you start at 170+ after residency.

    One dynamic you have to keep in mind is that we don't graduate many more doctors today than we did in the 80s. The AMA keeps a tight lid on how many new doctors get trained in American schools, which keeps the ratio of doctors/medical jobs favorable for doctors.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2012
  5. Feb 5, 2012 #4
    Sure but every else is a rough career path. Also, if you define science broadly, it's not particularly bad.

    On the other hand, it's possible to go too far in the other direction. One data point is that no one I know with a physics Ph.D. is living in a cardboard box. Everyone has been able to find a decent job. It may not have anything obviously to do with science, and it may not be their first choice of career, but no one is starving. And in bad economic times, "not starving" is doing pretty good.

    On the other hand, you are totally screwed if something bad happens to the market..... What happens if you don't pass med school? What happens if you end up hating being a doctor? If you get a Ph.D., and you hate physics, you can walk away. How is Obamacare going to change all of this?

    This is where "even handed cynicism" helps. If some med school tells me that it's alright to go into 200K of debt because there will be some nice shiny job at the end of it, I'm going to be very, very skeptical. Part of the reason, I think I did well, was that when people were talking about all of the job opportunities for scientists, I didn't believe them.

    But then that just puts the filter at another level. Something is similar for business and finance Ph.D.'s. If you get a business or finance Ph.D., you are pretty much guaranteed a tenure-track position at a university paying $200K+. The catch is that it's much harder to get admitted as a business and finance Ph.D. than in anything to do with science.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2012
  6. Feb 5, 2012 #5
    That's why a bit of cynicism has helped me a lot. If someone knocked on my door and offered me a post-doc position paying next to nothing, my first reaction would likely be to take it, but then there is this "cynical bastard" that points out that if they pay me nothing, then someone is making some money somewhere, and if they really want me, they should show me some cash.

    One other thing that you need to realize is that you'll be in school for the rest of your life, and thinking about your life as "you'll be in school and then you'll get a real job" isn't a good way of looking at things. A research assistant is a real job. It's a low paying one, but it's real. Also outside of tenured faculty, "permanent positions" don't exist any more in the United States.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2012
  7. Feb 5, 2012 #6


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    You should look into engineering. Engineers can make very good money, and it can be very satisfying. I worked for many years in microelectronics, and figuring out how to build the next generation electronic devices was exciting and challenging work. I'm sure there are many comparable positions in other types of engineering.
  8. Feb 5, 2012 #7


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    Joyful, happy, youv'e got a life. ;-)

    As Einstein is quoted:
    "Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one's living at it"

    Sorry I read it as:
    "How depressed should I be that I am not going for a career in science?"
  9. Feb 5, 2012 #8
    I chose my profession because I felt the need to scratch an intellectual itch. I like creating things, particularly radios. You may find this hard to believe, but I've been fascinated with radios since the age of five. So I chose electrical engineering.

    However, that is not exactly where I went with my professional life. Every field has its share of social headaches. If you think for one minute that people will somehow meet you with very few formalities, and hand over piles of money so that you can research some obscure aspect of physical discovery --it is not going to happen.

    The business of being a professor involves a lot of sociable behavior. You not only have to know the field very well, you also should be able to show an enthusiastic face, convey concepts in simple terms that anyone can understand, and sell the endeavor.

    Many people see that aspect of the profession to be difficult, arcane, and demeaning. I pity them. The reality is not like that. Likewise, many engineers hate having to sell anything. They would prefer that people drop a project on their desk with an interesting technical challenge. Again, it doesn't happen that way.

    The talk of long hours, difficult work, and low pay are a result of this misconception. If there is one thing I wish someone had told me as a child it is that you need to sell your services and that you need to pay attention to the sales and business side of everything, especially including research.

    If you can do that well, there is a professor's job out there for you somewhere. That is why we remember the likes of Carl Sagan. That is why Neil Degrasse Tyson, Steven Hawking, George Gamow, and so many more are well known. They not only wrote papers and did research, they wrote books, created TV shows, and share their enthusiasm in a way that people remember fondly.

    Your attitude tells me that you feel doomed. You need to pull your head out of your books, and look at the larger picture of where you are. The intellectual challenge is cool; but it is hardly the only thing. You should be excited about your work, and to share that excitement with others. If you sell yourself well, the money will follow.

    The way you write tells me you aren't. Perhaps you need to consider what you would really like to do with your life...
  10. Feb 5, 2012 #9
    I'm not usually this bitter. I just happened to create this thread at the tail end of an 8 hour long studying session on a saturday night while all my friends in non-science majors were out having fun. And it was the day after I was talking to one of the other undergrads I research with who just got accepted into medical school. I was comparing our respective education lengths and realized that they are only going to be going to school for a few more years than me.

    Also, do a lot of people really pursue a career outside of science after getting their PhD? What kind of job would you even get? Is it something where having the PhD helps you, or does a career switch usually mean that you just wasted 5+ years of you life for absolutely nothing?
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2012
  11. Feb 5, 2012 #10
    There are lots of applications outside academia/research that would draw on skills obtained during grad work, but then again the industries relevant entirely depends on what your skills are in. a phD tells an employer that your an expert on that topic, so if your prospective employer uses some variety of programming software that you just happen to be an expert in, then your a shoe in. That might be somewhat rare, and a lot of phd's no doubt find there are not many occupations with cross-compatible requirements.

    Whether education that does not directly lead to a well-paying job is a complete waste of time is, imo, more of a moral/political debate. Certainly seems to be on a lot of people's minds as of late, though.
  12. Feb 5, 2012 #11
    First, it is entirely reasonable to seek an education so that you can learn to scratch an intellectual itch. I'll let you in on a secret: 90% of what you learn in elementary school you will use in later life. This figure drops to 60% of what you learn in Middle School, and perhaps 30% of what you learn in in High School. For practical purposes, if you find yourself using even 15% of what you learned in your entire collegiate academic experience in your career, you're doing very well. However, that 15% is extremely valuable and it shouldn't be ignored.

    The only problem is that neither I, nor any of your professors, mentors, parents, or anyone in your life can tell you which of those studies you didn't need to learn. If my guess is correct, it is probably different for each person. Likewise, there are many things that a school, no matter how thorough, can not teach you. You'll have to learn them on your own.

    Second, learning not just how to teach yourself something, but how to identify what it is that you don't know. That is a life skill that distinguishes adults from children.

    Your education is not for nothing.There will be things rattling around in your head that you probably won't understand for years to come until one day, while studying something similar, you recognize a new aspect of what it was that your professors were trying to convey.

    When you get out of school, you can find your muse. You may not find it in the field you studied. That's OK. There are many things I studied that I do in my spare time, not at work. Life is like that.

    Your education is nearly complete. Now you can ask yourself where you'd like to be. It is time to explore the world as an adult. You may not find your place for a good many years, or you might find it right where you happen to be standing.

    The reason I am writing this way is because if you're aiming for a large salary, a suburban house with a white Pickett fence, a spouse, 2.5 children and a pet, you're doing this wrong. You may end up that way; but if you do, it should be by choice, not by program.

    This is why a good, well rounded education in science or engineering should also include a significant foundation in philosophy, writing, and the arts. Without them, you won't be able to know why you feel the way you do or what to do about it.
  13. Feb 5, 2012 #12
    Let's see. To help put this in prospective, let's look at my life currently and your future life. You'll have the wonderful opportunity, to study something you love in a nice warm environment, get some money for it and even if it doesn't pan out for you completely as you want, odds seem to indicate that you'll do well for yourself somehow.

    As of right now, I spent the last 4 years in the military simply trying to find a way to pay for college and out of those 4 years, 2 were spent on some mountain with 20 dudes were I showered once every couple of weeks and my relief was going down the mountain to hang with 40 other dudes. Oh, and some guys used to like to aim things that went boom on said mountain from time to time and even tried to visit us during the night.

    So with that said, your prospect in life seem pretty good to me. I wish my only problem these last 4 years would be "will I make enough money in the future?" I look forward to the day I get to be in your predicament. I spent many nights studying calculus and physics by red light. If you love what you do, then you do it because you need to do it. If you love other things more, than simply get a well paying job that will allow you to live well and do the other things you love more. While I'm under no illusion that money doesn't matter, I also believe that part of happiness is just stepping into the unknown taking the risk and seeing what happens.

    So the only question you should be asking is: Why does it bother me that other people have more fun than I do right now if I love what i'm learning? Even I, on top of some random mountain didn't complain about staying up late to read Spivak while my friends got awesome jobs and got to do amazing things, simply for the reason that I love what i'm learning. Tis simple.
  14. Feb 5, 2012 #13
    This is not always true. You have to sell yourself well- sure, but there are literally hundreds of qualified people applying for every professor job in science, most of them very effective communicators. At some point, things come down to coin flips.

    The overwhelming majority of physics phds end up in careers outside of science- there just aren't enough science jobs to go around. I got my phd in theoretical physics and now I'm a bartender. One of my friends went back to school after the phd and got an associates in nursing. Some others are working in finance, yet more in insurance. A few more are programming for a living. About half of my friends with phds are in posdocs, most of the rest have left science.
  15. Feb 5, 2012 #14
    Good for them.


    I ended up in investment banking. On the other hand, my current job could (and in fact will) likely disappear in the next ten years. On the other hand, my current job also didn't exist when I was an undergraduate.

    It's hard for me to tell you what jobs will be available for you ten years from now, because I really haven't got a clue what I'll be doing in ten years. I'm pretty sure it will be geeky and cool, whatever it is.

    Well I spent 5 years of my life studying supernova which is something in itself. And it so happens that the equations that describe neutrino diffusion from a neutron star core happen to be pretty much identical to those that describe the variations of stock prices.
  16. Feb 5, 2012 #15
    And if you look at the people in academia, and they seem miserable, then maybe it's not such a bad thing that you don't get a professorship.

    It really depends on how broadly you define "a career in science." My department keeps pretty close track of Ph.D. graduates, and pretty much everyone ends up doing something that is related to their Ph.D., even if the relationship isn't immediately obvious. You do have people end up in national labs, doing IT for universities, doing science journalism, etc. etc.

    The terms "working in finance" and "doing programming" may be misleading. There are a lot of different jobs that are encompassed under "working in finance" and "doing programming." One of my friends is the director of a national supercomputing center. This could count as "doing programming" but he isn't running cable or doing desktop support.

    There are a lot of "backdoor research positions." Typically, an astronomy or physics department needs someone to install Microsoft Windows and keep the networks running, and they hire an astronomy Ph.D., with the understanding that in between installing anti-virus software that they will be able to participate in research and co-author papers.

    Working in finance can also be misleading. I'm not a bank teller, and what I do is applied research.
  17. Feb 5, 2012 #16


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  18. Feb 5, 2012 #17
    Yes, really. Scientists are amateur liars, whereas you'll find no small number of lawyers, businessmen, and politicians who are professionals at it. Note that I don't believe that scientists are generally more honest than lawyers, businessmen, or a politicians. Just that they are less skilled at convincingly lying to people.

    Even if you are an honest lawyer, businessman, and/or politician, you have to deal on a daily basis with people who aren't, and learning how people lie increases your ability to lie. How you use that skill is another issue.
  19. Feb 5, 2012 #18


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    one thing to keep in mind, is that learning ANY subject in any kind of depth, teaches you something invaluable: how to learn something well.

    perhaps you might not land the job you hope for. but the ability to apply yourself to a demanding task will give you something of value that is readily marketable: how to acquire techical knowledge.

    i have found that doing something you enjoy, for a bit less money, is a better life than doing something you don't, for more money. believe it or not, acquiring wealth is extremely stressful, and often the things that you gain in the process aren't that joyful in and of themselves.

    what is far more satsifying, is owning your own choices. to deliberately BE who (and what) you wish to be. don't underestimate the sheer power of dreams and desire, empires have risen and fallen on their account.

    true, at times, your options may be limited. but the choices you make...the paths you set out to explore...those choices are yours, and yours alone. make the most of that choice before life slips away.

    you speak of dismay that your field (chemistry) requires more dedication than some of your colleagues'. is your passion for the field up to the challenge? i can't answer that for you, but the good news is: if not, you CAN change your mind. there is intrinsic worth in knowing stuff, sometimes the true value of what you do isn't apparent until decades later.

    you know, just do the best you can, to get to where you want to be. it's possible you might not get there, sure. but if you did what you could, at the very least, you'll sleep well at night, and not be plagued with self-doubt.

    (by the way, a friend of mine, after he got his chemistry degree, wound up working for an insurance company. it wasn't his knowledge they were excited about, it was his dedication. you'd be surprised how much knowing ANYthing is better than not having a clue about anything).

    i bet if you put your mind to it, you could think of 10 occupations that could use your skill-set. there's not just teaching, or research; there's manufacturing, consulting, writing, equipment design...and this is just off of the top of my head. i'm sure YOU can do much better.
  20. Feb 14, 2012 #19
    am also a intended chemistry major, ( not decided but third year taken all the courses in chem),
    the above posters are correct i have read many reviews from real phds and graduates trying very hard to get jobs and always have laid offs and temporary jobs with no benefits and many have switch career just because life is difficult as a chemist. i mean we work so hard but yet....

    any suggestions on changing majors?
  21. Feb 14, 2012 #20
    ROFL...i didn't realize running cable or doing desktop support was considered "doing programming". :rofl:

    I wouldn't consider a director of a supercomputing center a programmer either...

    Come on, you don't really believe this do you? Calling people liars unfairly...poor form old chap.
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