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How valid is this?

  1. Dec 7, 2009 #1
    http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html [Broken]

    A friend of mine who is an engineer sent me this via email. I don't know how he came about it but I read it and part of it seems valid. Is this pessimistic or is this the reality of the career path called scientist?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 7, 2009 #2
    It's the reality of being a professor at a research university. The good news is that most physics Ph.D.'s *don't* end up as professors in research universities, and so the job prospects outside of academia are a lot, lot better than that for professors. Your typical Wall Street investment bank hires several hundred physics Ph.D.'s, and there are a lot of industries that are Ph.D. heavy.

    This is why I scream up and down left and right that people should not go into graduate school thinking that they will be a professor at a research university. You'll be a lot happier if you don't have that albatross around your neck.

    One cool thing about a Ph.D. is that it teaches you to do research and think creatively, and you need to do research and think creatively about what you are going to do with your Ph.D.
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  4. Dec 7, 2009 #3
    YAY!!! Thanks (smile on my face). Yeah he is persuading me to go engineering I just talked to him; go figure.
  5. Dec 7, 2009 #4
    If you don't like physics, then you shouldn't go after the Ph.D. However if you *do* like physics don't avoid the field out of a totally wrong idea that there aren't any interesting jobs for physicists out there, or that you will be forced to live a life of poverty, or that a physics degree isn't useful.

    One problem with physics professors is that they give dreadful career advice because they've never been on the outside. The advice can be dreadfully optimistic, but it can also be dreadfully pessimistic. Your typical investment bank hires *hundreds* of physics Ph.D.'s to do numerical modeling.

    Also dealing with the supposed "glut" of scientists by limiting Ph.D.'s is not going to work, because graduate students bring in money that ultimately pays for tenured faculty, and if you get rid of graduate students, then you won't have the cash to pay for tenured faculty.
  6. Dec 7, 2009 #5


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    This is nothing more than a cynical rant that for some reason seems to keep showing its face.

    I'd love to see some data on this. Is he talking specifically about academic jobs? What about jobs in government labs? Industrial research? Military or medical research? Entreprenurial opportunities? It might also be worth pointing out that there are some jobs out there that REQUIRE a PhD, but it's silly to assume that those are the only jobs you can get once you have a PhD, or that your academic training has gone to waste if you wind up with a job where one is not required.

    It might be worth pointing out a couple of things here. Post-docs are presented in this rant as being one step above homeless bums. As a post doc, you have a job and you're doing that which this author claims you won't be able to do (spending your time working on scientific problems). I worked for two years doing post doctoral research and while there was some pressure to produce results, I got to spend my time doing the research that I really enjoyed. Second, spending more than ten years as a postdoc is not typical. I don't have solid data off the top of my head to back it up, but I would suspect that after ~ 4 years (say a median of 2 post-doc positions) most people either enter a tenure track postion or find permanent employment in another sector.

    These (medicine, law, engineering) are professions. The sciences are academic subjects. I believe these examples are what debaters call 'staw men.'

    These numbers are at the very least outdated. More realistically today in the US one is looking at $40-45,000 starting as a post doc in physics. I won't argue it's great money. But then again, if you chose to pursue physics for the money, you're in the same boat as the guys who did it to get all the hot chicks. And there are lots of people who support a famlies on post doc salaries just fine.

    Where is this coming from? Is this meant to imply that if you pursue graduate school, your partner will leave you? That you will never find someone who will love you? Money doesn't define success for everyone.

    Why? There's this idea out there that time spent doing research either as a graduate student or as a pos doc doesn't count as work experience. I would argue you're developing a valuable skill set that's worth far more than time-in at a "dead-end" job.

    What? There are unpleasant aspects to a job? One might equally point out that medical doctors don't spend every hour in the ER performing life-saving surgeries, but have to spend hours dictating charts, or that lawyers are required to look over real-estate purchase contracts rather than defend an innocent man wrongly accused of murder.

    I would argue we need more advocates for science in the world. This requires more people with advanced education, not less.

    A little overly dramatic? I've seen people with lives ruined by drugs. These are people who drink paint thinner for a cheap buzz.

    I might conclude by saying that I'm not all that against the general gist of this article. If you chose to pursue academia, you're in for a tough go of it. But this author paints a very bleak picture that focuses only on negative, and in my opinion highly exaggerated aspects of this path.
  7. Dec 8, 2009 #6
    It's also pretty accurate if you confine yourself to academic positions. One other thing is that it makes more sense if you look at it as a historical document dated 2000. Also the end of the Cold War was really tough for physicists.

    Yes he is. There is a problem in that people see academic positions as "standard" and if you confine yourself to research positions at universities, there is a massive overproduction of Ph.D.'s, but that means that in figuring out what to do that you shouldn't confine yourself to that role.

    If you inflation adjust it then you get rough numbers. Also starting salary for a Wall Street quant is roughly $120K. Starting salary for a computer programmer is around $70-80K. Also if you want to stay at the $45K level, then you can teach community college or high school.

    The other thing is that is quite possible to keep research networks and contacts going for a lot of scientific work. The one big mistake that I made was that I was mad at the system enough so that I didn't keep a lot of my research contacts going after I went into industry. I would have been in better shape had someone told me that I was "normal" for doing what I was trying to do.

    The important thing here is to compare apples to apples. The problem is that people in academia think of corporate positions as soulless and deadly, and so they idealize how much real control they have over their fates in academia. In reality, I think that people in corporate environments have more freedom over their work in a number of ways.

    The problem is that the academic system as it exists isn't set up to create more scientists. It's designed to produce university professors and *that's* the problem. Something that would help a lot is if physics departments *encouraged* people to do a dual degree so while you got your physics Ph.D. you got some MBA-like degree. Also we need more mechanisms to allow people to do science research outside of the university. Someone with a Ph.D. and a job at a community college or investment bank is quite capable of doing research, and we just need the social systems in place to allow people to do that.

    Curiously for me, the problem isn't money, it's time. I make enough money so that I could spend three months out of the year working at a national lab on global warming models or electric cars or teaching physics. The problem isn't money. The problem is having a job waiting for me when I'm done, and all we'd need for that is for Obama to make a speech.

    The other big problem is that people like me "physics Ph.D.'s in industry" have no real voice in the system, and policy/funding decisions at DOE, NSF, NASA, and the professional societies are made by and large with people with only academic experience. This is a huge problem because academics only make up a small fraction of scientific professionals. There's also a lot of expertise that gets missing. One thing that I'm probably more skilled at than your typicial physics professor is "thinking about money."

    One reason that education is a good investment is that educated people eventually figure out what to do with their education. I started graduate school in 1991, and no one could have predicted in detail what I ended up doing with my Ph.D. Remember that the world wide web was invented in 1990. Conversely, I'm pretty sure that the hot job in 2030 is probably something that hasn't been invented yet.

    Actually, I think that the author is pretty accurate about the aspects of going into academia (although he needs to inflation adjust his figures). Also there is a balance situation, in that if you move people out of academia into industry, then the working conditions in academia improve. One thing about his rant is that it's a bit dated, because since 2001, you've had a reduction in the number of Ph.D.'s, and you've also had massive numbers of physics Ph.D.s move into industry as a result of the dot-com and financial waves. Yes things got crazy, but in the end dot-coms generated lots of employment and so has finance. Also, just like the collapse of the dot-com bubble didn't mean the end of the internet, the collapse of the finance bubble isn't going to be the end of finance jobs for Ph.D.'s.

    Once you move some physics Ph.D.'s into industry, it gets less bad for anyone that wants to stay in academia. Also one thing to point out is that we aren't talking about huge numbers here. The US produces about 1500 physics and astronomy Ph.D.'s each year. Creating a thousand decent jobs ain't that hard. Wall Street probably has been hiring about 200-300 physics Ph.D.'s per year, which makes a huge, huge difference in the balance.
  8. Dec 8, 2009 #7

    Andy Resnick

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    While pessimistic, I think it's also a useful tonic. My career path was not as limited as was laid out; even so, I just got a tenure-track position at 40. While I have no illusions about 'solving the mysteries of the universe', I do recognize that my job is a lot of fun (I get to play with toys all day) and I'm lucky to have a job where thinking is valued. and creativity encouraged.
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  9. Dec 8, 2009 #8
    I don't mean to pry, but may I ask how old you were when you obtained your PhD? I don't have the book on hand but when I read Stephen Krantz's "Mathematician's Survival Guide: Graduate School and Early Career Development" (It was actually a really good book.) I think I recall him saying something about how there is kind of a time limit between the obtaining of your PhD and acquiring a tenure-track position; i.e., after seven years (I think that was the time frame he mentioned), the implication was that tenure-track was a fading possibility.

    I don't believe he was speaking specifically of Mathematics, but it was a while ago that I read the book so take this with a grain of salt.
  10. Dec 8, 2009 #9
    One should point out that things are very, very different between fields. If you get a Ph.D. in finance from a decent school, you are pretty much guaranteed a tenure track position immediately after you get your Ph.D. The trouble is that it's *really* difficult to get in.

    In the case of physics, people typically do post-docs of three years each. The thing about post-docs is that they are temporary employment so after the second, you may get a third, but after you get that then you won't get any more post-docs and you have to look for something permanent. Also permanent employment does not mean professor. There are a lot of non-tenured physicists that work in national labs or universities. There are some bizarre and weird restrictions on what people can and can't do in order to keep the system going.

    Also just because you get tenure-track doesn't mean that you will get tenure.

    Personally, I think that tenure is an awful thing and should be abolished. This has something to do with the fact that I don't have tenure, and I'm not going to get it, but what happens is that to allow for semi-permanent employment for relatively few people, it ends up making life hell for everyone else.

    What's really going to make things nasty at the elite universities is that now the endowments are running dry there are going to be cuts, and if non-tenured staff get hit hard to save the tenured staff, there are going to be some interesting fireworks.
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2009
  11. Dec 8, 2009 #10

    Andy Resnick

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    I was 29 when I got my PhD. I don't think there are any hard rules about timelines or postdocs or any 'requirements' to get a tenure track position. The issue is, what are you doing with your time? Spinning your wheels, or making forward progress?
  12. Dec 9, 2009 #11
    I do not know much of anything about the topic at hand, but I'd like to note that the same man who wrote "Don't Become a Scientist" also has such gems as "In defense of homophobia" and "Diversity is the Last Refuge of a Scoundrel" available on his website. The guy is clearly a jerk and not very intelligent in matters other than physics, so take whatever he says with a large grain of salt.
  13. Dec 9, 2009 #12
    He may be a jerk, but his articles are logically consistent. It is unfortunate that people automatically write off anyone who disagrees with mainstream groupthink as "not very intelligent".
  14. Dec 9, 2009 #13
    Yes - while I very much disagree with what he has to say about homosexuality and such, you have to judge an article on its own merit. Just because someone is bigoted doesn't make everything they say wrong.
  15. Dec 9, 2009 #14
    Regardless of what is mainstream or not, his papers are written with the nearsighted logic that anyone who is actually examining an issue fully would avoid. I'm not questioning his beliefs either, but he seems a bit of a blowhard, and although he does make some points, i still wouldn't trust anything he writes. Just a thought.
  16. Dec 13, 2009 #15


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    The first two thirds of the essay just sounded like a bunch of cynical BS, but in the last third I think I picked up something else. He basically points out near the end that the problem is that grad schools are training more phDs than there are jobs for it. I get the feeling that the author believes that grad schools are handing out phDs to just about anyone who wants one and that it's only increasing the competition to get a job as an actual "scientist." I get the impression that the hope of the article was to discourage people who are unsure or not quite as competent as they should be to pursue such a career, in hopes of freeing up the market for the more qualified scientists.

    That's just my interpretation at least. Any thoughts?
  17. Dec 13, 2009 #16


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    I'm in a soulless, deadly position in industry, and am seriously contemplating trying to jump the fence to academia. Would you mind elaborating on this?
  18. Dec 13, 2009 #17


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    They may be logically consistent, but in my opinion, a number of his premises are flawed. A logically sound argument from a false premise is still a bad argument.
  19. Dec 13, 2009 #18
    It is mostly true. You have to be highly motivated and have perpetual love in your research, and are willing to make many sacrifices a long the way. He is just giving people a dose of reality. Also, just to be fair, yes, you can go into the industry but you have to remember that there are many brilliant people in the industry too and there is plenty of competition. So the moral of the story is - there's no easy way out in life; you just have to work hard in everything you do.

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  20. Dec 14, 2009 #19

    Vanadium 50

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    This is only true if you believe that the only jobs that "count" are academic jobs - indeed, academic jobs at research universities.
  21. Dec 14, 2009 #20
    But industry has a lot more "warm body problems" where brilliance doesn't matter much. If you have 10 million lines of code, then it's something that one person just cannot handle, no matter how brilliant they are. You need lots of reasonably intelligent, but not necessarily totally brilliant people to just "shovel code."

    Also, suppose you have a piece of code which can cost *billions* of dollars in losses if it malfunctions. You are going to hire a ton of people to go over that code with fine tooth combs. Also, if you have a critical position in which someone has the keys to the bank vault. You are going to have two or three people watching everything they do, and then another two or three people watching everything that those two or three people do.

    So all this means, lots and lots of jobs.

    The other things is that the numbers are very different. There are about 800,000 jobs in the securities industry. Your typical mega bank hires about 170,000 people and the investment bank division hires about 20,000 or so people. The total number of physics/astronomy Ph.D.'s that get award each year is 1500.

    The problem with academia is that you aren't going to get anywhere *even if* you work hard. If you have 1000 applicants and 100 jobs, then you might get somewhere if you work harder than the next guy. The trouble is that the next guy is thinking the same thing. So it turns out that everyone works hard, go crazy, and in the end you still have the same pool of jobs.

    Also, hard work can lead to serious, serious exploitation. If are in a good position if you have 1000 applicants, 100 jobs, you get everyone to work insane amounts of effort, and then you skim off the work of those 1000 applicants. This happens in both industry and academia, but academia is quite a bit worse about it.

    If you want to get anywhere you have to *THINK*. If you just work hard and don't think about what's going on then someone else is going to end up with most of the rewards of your work.
  22. Dec 14, 2009 #21
    I have the opportunity to keep in touch with my physics professors, so I can give you some examples from the world of a state university of the very real differences in freedom between academia and industry. The physics professors with tenure often lead a pretty good life. Understand this is a broad generalization from my specific experience. The hours are good, often 9-3 or so, with lots of flexibility if you need to pick up your kids or whatnot. The professors get to work on their own research, with quite a bit of latitude in what and how and when.

    This is really not that bad of a job, if you can get it. However, there are some things that are not so easy for them. There is always a great deal of uncertainty in state universities around budgeting. Of course, many tenured professors use grant money to pay for their research, but at least in a run of the mill state university, it is unusual for everything to be paid for this way. The building, the utilities, the level of staff support, and various and sundry other things are paid for from the departmental or college budget, and when tax revenues are down, universities can suffer budget cuts that affect their ability to perform routine tasks.

    One of the most telling examples actually comes from the lab where my wife studied for her microbiology degree. There was not enough money in the departmental budget to pay for even the most routine lab supplies, so boxes of gloves and pipette tips were always being paid for out of grants that ostensibly were intended for other things. There is nothing unusual about this, you have to buy these things somehow, but my point is if you work in industry, and you need lab supplies or equipment that is manifestly necessary to do your job, you just buy it.

    Other problems I noted included equipment that was often the cheapest model or brand available, and consequently was more liable to break down or malfunction, and buildings and facilities that were poorly maintained. State universities have a tendency to cut the maintenance budget first in a crunch, [less bad press from firing plumbers] and this adds up over time. I noticed a very short term perspective when it comes to equipment. The total cost of maintenance and replacement was not often considered, or even just ease of use or range of function.

    This is not always the case. Many universities have very nice facilities and ample funding, but moving into industry from academia the contrast struck me strongly. My lab, and my office, and my computer are just nicer, and it is easier to get the things I need, whether that be consumables or equipment. Much of the difference is that I generate revenue rather than consume it, so the payoff is easier to see than when your product is grad students and journal articles.

    Another thing that I noticed in academia is strong territoriality. It was always a big deal if you needed to borrow some supplies or use the equipment in another lab. There is a lot of variation in this, but in my experience, professors only wanted their grant money used for their students and their research. My R&D lab is open to engineering associates all over the cluster, and we just plain share better. I think a big difference is money. I work in a profitable enterprise, so there is just more to go around. If I worked in a dying industry, I think it would be a lot less pleasant.
  23. Dec 14, 2009 #22
    Yes. For most people industry is far far better.

    True, but you aren't making an apples to apples comparison. Being a tenured professor is a very good life, but so is being a managing director in a investment bank or the CEO of a successful startup. Assuming that you get your Ph.D. your odds of being a tenured professor is about one in twenty. The big problem that you run into is that if you try to become a tenured professor and you don't make it, which you probably won't, then the jobs aren't that great, whereas if you try to become a managing director, and you don't make it, then you end up with a decent life.

    It's good to have goals, and if you have a goal of becoming tenured faculty, that's great. The problem that you absolutely have to be aware of is that it's a goal, and not something that is likely to happen.

    And the problem is that without a supply of cheap labor (i.e. graduate students) they whole thing falls apart. One problem is that you have to keep the labor temporary. Grad students are willing to put up with low wages because it is generally believed that in a few years, they'll be making more money. The trouble is that if you have people in *permanent* positions doing that sort of work, they'll demand more money.

    So one thing that happens is that to support tenured faculty, you have to make everyone else an adjunct. One big problem that academia has is that they can't lay off tenured faculty or force them to take salary cuts. This is great if you are tenured, but if you are not (and most people that work in academia aren't) then it's going to come out of your hide.
  24. Dec 14, 2009 #23
    If you want to be programming until you are 70, then ok. But if you want to climb the corporate ladder, there are other factors involved, not just the technical aspect. That's where the real competition comes in.

  25. Dec 14, 2009 #24
    True, but the nice thing about the corporate world is that you don't have to compete for the high level positions if you don't want to. I know a lot of people that at the bottom of the totem pole and are just fine with that.

    The trouble with academia is that it's "up or out." I don't know of graduate student that's really said "I'm happy just were I am and I don't want any sort of promotion to being a post-doc." The problem is that even if you want to stay a graduate student forever, the system won't let you do that.
  26. Dec 14, 2009 #25
    I don't know about quantitative finance, but in the field I am working in (engineering), you are expected to grow into managers because in the end, you are supposed to bring in projects for them. Maybe in the world of quantitative finance, you are already bringing in money directly through your work.

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