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Is science really a terrible career?

  1. Sep 7, 2013 #1
    Since I was little I wanted to be a scientist. Ultimately though, I was talked into going for engineering because the jobs are apparently so much better.

    Currently my major is electrical engineering and I'm interested in focusing on robotics. But there are parts of it I absolutely hate. Though I love electronics, technology, and most of all math, I find programming to be something to suffer through and I'm being warned that that is a significant warning sign that engineering isn't for me.

    Anyway, so I started searching on the internet what other career paths were like, in particular what it's like to have a career in science. Very few people had positive things to say. Years of post doc work for very little pay because apparently it's so difficult to get a job as a scientist, and even when you do get the science job so little of the work is actual science compared to writing papers and applications for grants: this is a problem for me, because I dread the idea of a desk job. I want to work with my hands, and I've dreamed about having a lab since I was a child; but the people who are actually in the labs aren't making much more than minimum wage from the descriptions I found of post doc work.

    One writer, a professor of physics, went so far as to say "I've seen more bright, talented young people have their lives ruined by PhDs in physics than by drugs" (Especially big downer, since physics is my favorite field).

    Is the job market for scientists really that bad? Am I better off staying with the engineering career I'm less enthusiastic about? Is it possible to mix engineering and laboratory science somehow?

    I really need some guidance on this; this whole process of researching has done nothing but leave me feeling even more overwhelmed and after the bleak outlook that some have expressed even a little depressed :/
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 7, 2013 #2


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    I don't know if someone can become a 'scientist' and make a living. The key these days is to specialize.

    You are studying robotics but don't like to program. Did you think the robots programmed themselves? Programming is a skill which most scientists come into contact on a daily basis. If you work at all with computers, then you must know a little something about programming. If you use something as ubiquitous as a spreadsheet, you are programming it when you set up your data cells.

    If you don't like to program, maybe it is because you don't have much experience at it. Robotics programming can be a bit complicated, so you might try programming which is simpler and then work up to the more complicated stuff. I always treat my program projects as a design problem: how to design and implement a method using a computer to solve a specific task (i.e., calculate an answer).

    With your EE background, if you still find robotics not to your taste, there are other areas of EE in which to specialize. EE graduates have been in great demand in the past and have commanded higher salaries as a result.

    Don't let the physics professor's comments get to you. For the most part, doctoral programs in physics serve to churn out professors of physics. If there are too many candidates for open physics professorships, then some candidates are naturally going to be disappointed. There are some positions available in industry or government service for the leftover physicists, but after a point you have a glut of unemployed physicists.

    On the other hand, as an EE, you will have more opportunities available to you, even if you don't have a masters or PhD.
  4. Sep 8, 2013 #3
    Do you have a link to the article? Were they ruined by the PhD process, or by spending a decade or more focusing only a career that was essentially unattainable.
  5. Sep 8, 2013 #4


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    They were probably all string theorists :smile:
  6. Sep 8, 2013 #5


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    Please read this and compare:

    http://www9.georgetown.edu/grad/gppi/hpi/cew/pdfs/Unemployment.Final.update1.pdf [Broken]

    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  7. Sep 8, 2013 #6
    Who told you this? He/she is wrong. Yes, there are more jobs for EE to do embedded designs and digital hardware design that involve programming. But there are a lot of jobs for analog and RF that position cannot be filled because the lack of knowledge people. I started out as firmware design engineer and I realize I hate programming. So I switch to analog design and RF. Never have a problem of finding jobs in my whole career. I've been through the lowest time of the industry, never had problem. You just have to be good.

    Analog design require more math. Particular RF and antenna design, Those are electromagnetic in every sense. The famous Smith Chart that is the most important tool for RF and antenna design is based on EM. Your friend does not know what he/she is talking.

    Digital hardware and firmware designers are dime a dozen. A lot of EE gone into this because it is easy to get in. But the price to pay is the technology change, Firewire that was so popular 15 years ago is all but die. Every year, things change and you have to constantly study to play catch up. Pressure is higher because you have to have short product turn around time as they become obsoleted very fast. Look at computers, the life span of a computer is about a year. You always are under the gun to push the product out.

    Analog and RF design move slowly, I still study books from long time ago. Maxwell's equation still holds. Companies always have hard time finding good RF engineers. Don't quit because you don't like programming.
  8. Sep 9, 2013 #7
    Those are some interesting and important stats, but they don't really address what the OP wants - a career as a professional scientist. We know that physics graduates rarely become professional scientists. Sure, he will still be better off career wise with physics than other humanities degrees but that doesn't address his want of being a scientist. I think It would be more applicable to link him to your 'so you want to be a physicist guide'.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  9. Sep 9, 2013 #8
    I'm always wary about asking established professors for advice about becoming a professor and if I ask academics, I tend to speak to younger academics. Established professors have already succeeded, and although they're aware of what's going on around them, they're not as immersed in it as graduate students or postdocs. On the other hand, there are a few posters on this forum who are maybe drawn to internet sites like this because things really haven't worked out.

    I'm only an undergrad, but here's my own reasoning: I'm a good student and I'm still very cautious about careers in academia. I have a very good physics GPA, a lot of research under my belt as well as graduate level classes and I'm starting my junior year. All of this is at a top undergraduate program at an elite university. I'm sure that if I want, I can get into a good graduate school, and I'm sure that if I make doing physics my absolute priority, I'll end up with a job in academia. However, I'm not sure how much I'm willing to give up. I'm not sure if I'm willing to give up geographic mobility, especially as I'm not an American and may want to live closer to my family one day, or have the finances to be able to visit. I'm not sure if I'm willing to earn low wages for the first 7-10 years of my career, at the same time that some of my friends are pulling in mid 6 figures (or even seven figures, who knows) and settling down. I'm not sure if I'm willing to pick up everything every two years to move to a different country or state when I'm in my early 30s and might have a serious relationship or children. I'm not sure I like how slowly the academic hierarchy progresses. Of course, if physics was my only passion and what I lived for, given my preparation and the resources I have, I'm sure I could make something work (even being a non-tenured faculty member at a low tier university). But other things matter to me too, and I'm still in the process of deciding whether physics is for me or whether I can get the same satisfaction doing something else.

    As a consequence, I'm considering a range of careers. I've been thinking about the skills that I enjoy in physics (problem solving, coding, mathematics) and considering other careers which might also use these skills and be engaging. In my opinion, if I can find something else which uses those skills and is intellectually engaging, I'll probably be happy. I'm not as senior as a lot of people, but a lot of my friends are starting internship searches now for post-college jobs, and my advice to myself and to them when they ask is to just consider what you enjoy doing, and find jobs that play into that.
  10. Sep 9, 2013 #9
    All I know is that I did a fair amount of programming as an experimental physicist, so if you hate programming, I'm not sure I'd go into science. Frankly, I've met a lot more engineers recently who do less. They also seem to have more opportunities to leave day to day engineering, and move into the management/business side of things if they want. It seems odd to me, but many of them are doing exactly that, since they don't seem to like the day to day engineering. Not sure why'd you go be an engineer if you don't like engineering, but it's not my life...
  11. Sep 9, 2013 #10
    When I was young [6 years old], I first formulated the idea I wanted to be a scientist. Unsurprisingly, I didn't have a very good idea of what that meant then. Science is a high prestige field, and there is a big push to educate more scientists. As it turns out, my interests and abilities are more on the engineering side. Ah well, it did turn out in the end. I'm sure there is something you can find in the world of science and technology that will be interesting, but deviating from the straightforward paths requires more diligence to succeed. Also, there are laboratory or research roles outside of academia, which is what most people mean by a career in science. However, you typically need at least a masters to do this in industry, and and PhD would be a way better idea.

    It is likely to be somewhat difficult for you in EE if you don't like programming. There are a few strictly hardware design roles left in EE, but for most things you are going to need some willingness to program. However, as some other posters have noted, there are lots of different kinds and levels of programming. I do nothing more complicated than scripting, and that is sufficient for what I need to do. I have colleagues who absolutely hate programming, but then again, I'm not an EE, and neither are my teammates. We turn to others who are EEs when we need serious programming done.
  12. Sep 9, 2013 #11
    For my experience, most STEM students who hate programming hate it because they weren't taught it correctly and they don' understand it. It's highly unlikely for someone who is OK with STEM to hate programming because they are quite similar.

    What languages did you learn and why do you hate it?

    Also, moving to science isn't going to magically prevent you from learning to program. You still will need to know how to program and is mandatory to increase your marketability.
  13. Sep 9, 2013 #12
    I want to clarify, what is the meaning of programming?

    To me, programming is like writing programs in C++ etc. To me programming does not include using programs for simulations, calculations etc. There is not way anyone in engineering or science to avoid using simulation programs. But I don't think it is a requirement to know how to program in C++ etc.

    OP was asking about EE jobs. I responded in detail in my own experience that it is not necessary to do programming in EE. Of cause you ruled out embedded, firmware type of job, but there are lots of EE jobs that don't require programming. When I hired an EE, this had never been a requirement.

    You definitely do not need to know programming if you are IC designer, RFIC, RF, signal integrity and analog design. There are a lot of EE jobs on these.
  14. Sep 9, 2013 #13
    Why not? I think one of the worst thing Physicists do to their career prospects is ignoring much of what they do as "Oh, that doesn't count."

    I suspect that this ends up leading to the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. What do you consider a scientist, and what don't you?
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2013
  15. Sep 9, 2013 #14
    I disagree, and have known many physicists who treated programming as a necessary evil. In my current job, I very much love the parts that are most like science (developing models, understanding data, testing the models ,etc). My least favorite part of the job is the programming, I find it incredibly tedious and always have.

    I put up with the programming because without it I can't do the rest of my job, but if all I were doing was programming I'd quit and find something else.

    I'm not sure this leads to no-true-scotsman. It seems reasonably clear to me that working in insurance or finance isn't the same thing as doing science, etc. If they are, then "scientist" as a job title starts to lose a lot of meaning.

    There is nothing wrong with physics undergrads (or phds for that matter) finding non-science jobs, but if someone is asking about the career prospects in science, it seems misleading to say "there are lots of opportunities out there" if the opportunities you refer to are mining data for insurance companies or pricing derivatives for banks.
  16. Sep 9, 2013 #15
    I don't follow.

    All I said is it's ok if you don't like to program in computer language like C++ etc.

    But it's a totally different story if you don't like to use simulation programs, schematic capture or pcb layout design software, then you are in big trouble.
  17. Sep 9, 2013 #16
    I really don't know of many people that don't use C++ or Python for their Ph.D. research. Matlab and Mathematica are always supplemented with something else.
  18. Sep 9, 2013 #17
    In the first post, OP asked about in field of EE, not physics. I did not comment on physics, only EE. Mathlab and Mathematica belongs to application side, not programming side. That's what I called simulation program, not C++ type.

    If anyone does not like to use Mathlab, Mathematica, Microwave Office, Ensoft, schematic capture....They are in the wrong field!!!!
  19. Sep 9, 2013 #18
    I guess I agree with you, upon reflection. After some thought I've realized I rather like programming, I just hate (as in absolutely hate) my programming class. Thus far I've learned C, Java, and VHDL. VHDL is my favorite.

    I don't know. I guess I'm just more interested in the theory and mathematical side of things than the purely electronic stuff.
  20. Sep 9, 2013 #19
    I guess what I'm really looking for is a happy middle ground between the practical part of engineering (designing products, etc.) and the theoretical stuff (doing math). I really like electronics and I'm not a terrible programmer (I just can't stand my programming class and teacher) but my passion is pretty much equally for mathematics/physics and for machines.
  21. Sep 9, 2013 #20
    At some point, you'll get over the anti-programming hump, and realize how potent it is to simply solving problems that need to be solved and showing what you need to show.
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