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Just How Hard Is It To Succeed in Pure Science?

  1. Aug 18, 2013 #1
    Hi, I love the cognitive sciences. Indeed, for the last few years, what's been motivating me to work hard in school has been almost exclusively my dream to lead a life deeply mired in the mysteries of the mind/brain. I haven't gone a waking hour in an extremely long time when I haven't thought about human nature and thought.

    There are, of course, a number of alternatives to pure science that constitute this sort of lifestyle, but none of them seem to fit me as well as a career in pure science, itself. It's a dream I'm willing to devote my whole being to pursuing.

    But I'm still not quite sure what I'm getting myself into, just how improbable it is that I'll make it. Am I setting myself up for disappointment? Is my aspiration just as irrational as, say, the average kid's dream to get drafted into the NBA?

    I have an edge at this point; I'm going to Princeton as an undergrad this fall and have already read lots of scientific literature, but there's no way for me to know where I stand compared to other aspiring scientists. I get mixed messages from the internet, am being biased by my own hopes and expectations, and just don't know.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 19, 2013 #2
    no, the difference is the average kid actually knows he wants to play professional basketball.
    It's a well defined job in a well defined field. that's really what you should try to figure out during the next 2 or 3 years. whether its Cog Sciences (interdisciplinary, so there are lots of qualifications that will get you into that field) or Pure Sciences (again, vague . . .) you need a "well defined" target. Doing that will significantly help you answer your questions.
  4. Aug 19, 2013 #3
    Uh. Cognitive Neuroscience.
  5. Aug 19, 2013 #4
    good, now I believe you would need to find out whats the job market for this field,
    is it growing/shrinking/stable? usually what's the background of people working in this precise field of interest? what kind of skills you need to build as an undergraduate students to be successful in this field later on, etc . . .
  6. Aug 19, 2013 #5
    My question is, in fact, about the job market...
  7. Aug 19, 2013 #6

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    If you don't try you won't succeed. However, ...

    You're not even a freshman yet. Don't you think it might be a bit premature to decide at this young age the one and only thing you want to do for the rest of your life? Keep your mind open to other interesting possibilities. That's one of the key reasons for going to college.

    The more specific you set your sights the more likely you are to fail to accomplish that goal. "I will only be happy in life if I become the Joe Smith endowed professor of field X at Most Prestigious University" -- that's a recipe for an unhappy life. That position is open once every 20 or 30 years so, and it's not given to a freshly minted PhD. You might be the top person in that field and you still won't get that cherished position just because of timing. Moreover, you will not be the top person in the field if you are unhappy with your position in life.

    As a not-yet freshman, you probably have a glamorized and unrealistic view of what researchers in your chosen field do. Spend some time in college finding out what they really do do. It most likely involves long hours with lots of time spent fighting the academic bureaucracy and lots of time spent writing grant proposals. Every job has its downsides as well as its upsides. You've read about the glamorous upsides. The downsides of any job aren't as well published as are the upsides. You need to be able to put up with those downsides because there's no avoiding them. Spend some time looking at the negatives as well as the positives of what you think you want to do. You might find that you want to do something else.

    The number of people accepted to PhD programs will be greater than the number of people needed by academia itself in any scientific field that has applications outside of academia. Your chosen field, cognitive neuroscience, apparently is such a field. Cognitive neuroscientists can find jobs in medical research centers doing applied rather than pure research, in mental health clinics helping patients who have some cognitive disorder, in the military, even in advertising. This outside demand for trained personnel vastly increases your chances of getting into graduate school, but it also vastly decreases your chances of getting the Joe Smith endowed chair at Most Prestigious University.
  8. Aug 19, 2013 #7
    I'm happy just doing science. I'm simply wondering what the odds are of getting a tenure-track position for an above-average graduate student in a field like mine.

    You really don't have to emphasize to me that there are other interesting possibilities; that goes without saying. This is just an interesting possibility that I'm particularly passionate about and thus have asked a question about.
  9. Aug 19, 2013 #8

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    How do you know that? Do you know what researchers in your chosen field really do, or do you just have a glamorized / idealized view of what they do? I suspect that the latter is the case.

    It's rather low. This is one of those fields where there is a need for highly trained personnel outside of academia, so there are a lot more PhDs granted than academia itself needs. Moreover, a lot of those academic positions are not in research colleges. Teaching colleges, nursing schools, and medical schools all need cognitive neuroscientists, and many of those professorships do not involve research.

    A key problem here is that many students go into PhD programs with attitudes just like yours. They all want that tenure-track position at a research institution. Because of that broader need, there are a lot more people competing for those few slots than there are slots available.
  10. Aug 19, 2013 #9
    With all due respect, but you don't know that. You've never done serious research in science. There are many talented and passionate people in grad school who drop out because they just don't like the research. It is something you should take into account.

    Keep your options open. Try to do some undergrad research to see whether you like it. And please don't make up your mind too fast.

    If you get a PhD, then you will have to spend some years as a post-doc. This is highly competitive and insecure. All the post-docs are insanely smart and motivated people. You will just be one of those.

    If you're lucky, you can land a professorship, and perhaps get tenure. What's the odds of that?

    A rough calculation is the following. Let's say that each professor in his carreer takes on 10 grad students who obtain a PhD. Some people do less, some people do more, so I think this is quite accurate. But for these 10 grad students, there is only one professorship. It's not like they're going to make 10 new professor positions for the grad students. The number of professor positions will roughly stay the same. So the odds of you getting a professor position is roughly 1/10. This is a remarkably low number. I agree the approximation is rough, but the odds won't get higher than 1/5. You should conclude that the odds of getting a professor position is very low. It's ok to go for it and try to get it, but be realistic.
  11. Aug 19, 2013 #10
    As I've already said, you really don't have to emphasize to me that there are other interesting possibilities; that goes without saying. This is just an interesting possibility that I'm particularly passionate about and thus have asked a question about.

    It seems silly to suggest that I do undergraduate research to be sure I want a career in science; I'm going to need to do it to get into a strong graduate school, anyhow.

    Are these odds higher for the highest ranked graduate schools?
  12. Aug 19, 2013 #11
    I'm not disagreeing with the above. From a numbers standpoint they are right. But there is more to it than that in my mind.

    IF you are high enough caliber and IF you are willing to do WHATEVER it takes to stay in the field, I'd say your chances are high. You might not end up at Princeton as a prof. You might not get tenure until your mid 40's, etc., but you'll probably be in the field if you want it bad enough.

    Those are two big 'ifs' though. Giving you the benefit of the doubt since Princeton is a pretty good school, let's assume you will have what it takes in the skills/knowledge/ability department. The second 'if' is almost more important. I know from my own experiences that the second 'if' is much more problematic than the first, looking at myself and my friends. At some point, many of us decided we didn't want it anymore. The process to get to tenure is LONG. 5-10 years of gradschool. 2-6 years of postdocs. 0-4 years of leave replacement teaching. So on and so forth. You will find that along the way, loved ones die, you fall in love, you break up, you get married, you have children, you buy a house, and many other things. There is a high likelihood of you deciding that you no longer want to stay in the rat race, moving all over the country and/or the world, chasing the next post doc, making far less than your friends who did something else.

    I know it's semantics saying that there's a difference between 'failing at doing it' and 'not wanting to do it'. In a very real sense, I didn't have what it took to make it as a professor. But I consciously decided to stop pursuing it because I decided it wasn't worth it, GIVEN MY CIRCUMSTANCES. I have no doubt that it my life worked out differently, I'd be a prof somewhere. Most likely not at a top tier school like I'd like, but I'd be teaching. However, life has a nasty habit of getting in the way and changing your priorities. In my mind, that's why a lot of us "don't make it".

    To put it succinctly, what 18 year old you wants is most likely going to be different from 22 year old you, and it's certainly going to be different from what 34 year old you wants. If you love cognitive science, study it. Do summer research. Maybe go to graduate school for it. But if you get sidetracked by something else you love, don't worry too much. And you might get sidetracked by other things as well. Be prepared for it.
  13. Aug 19, 2013 #12
    I'd amend this to 'you might not get tenure ever.,' and 'you might not get a full time position ever'. I've met people in their early 50s who have been bouncing around in temporary positions for their entire careers, all over the world. If you are willing to take temporary positions in South America, India,etc, chances are you can always find another temporary position to fill that hole, but its a risky career and likely to lead to fits of low or underemployment in between science jobs.

    We should always remember the story of Doug Prasher- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Prasher He did top caliber work (it ended up leading to a nobel for researchers with whom he shared his research), but had to work for several years driving a courtesy shuttle at minimum wage in between science jobs. I think his story is unique only in that we have such a strong measure of the quality of his work- its a common trajectory for people who will do ANYTHING to stay in the field.
  14. Aug 19, 2013 #13


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    I don't think so. Factors such as the prestige of your program and the name recognition of your supervisor may have an influence but I strongly suspect they are higher order corrections. The reason for this is that if you look at the numbers for every tenure-track position that opens up there will be roughly 10 applicants (in some cases there are hundreds). Almost all of these 10 will be highly motivated researchers who "want it bad" to the point where they have made major sacrifices in their lives just to be qualified for the position. And in the end the decision for who gets the job may come down to factors that you have little control over such as how well the candidates' work fits into the strategic direction of the department, how hot your specialty happens to be now given that it was chosen 10 years ago, or how well you fit into with the department personality-wise. The prestige of your progam won't mean a whole lot if those other factors aren't coming out in your favour.
  15. Aug 19, 2013 #14


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    One interesting question is whether there are any fields of study where a PhD graduate in that said field has a reasonable chance of finding a tenure track position as of now. And I am defining as "reasonable chance" as a minimum of 50% probability of securing a tenure track position, either directly from a PhD or after 1 or 2 postdocs.

    I might also add that when I say "any" fields of study, I mean any field, not just in STEM.
    Last edited: Aug 19, 2013
  16. Aug 19, 2013 #15
    Finance is probably pretty high. I don't know about 50%, but it seems pretty high to me. Lots of opportunities to make a lot of money outside of academia probably leads to not a lot of competition in academia.
  17. Aug 19, 2013 #16
    A more relevant question for YOU, perhaps, is "what is success?" Might sound a little Zen, but its definition varies all over the place, from merely being able to do your work, to Nobel prize at the other end. Fame and fortune do not often accrue to scientists. Most labor hard for no reward and little progress, and I have worked with many, many PhD's in non-academia who were happy to be well paid, have some benefits, and whose talents were distributed normally, just like all the BS and MS folks I worked with. Some were resoundingly mediocre at nearly everything they did (like the MIT PhD who was a young earther).

    A good life, IMO, contains right-livelihood, to steal from the Buddhists. As much as possible, it centers on personal growth, satisfaction, community, and the development of character. Toward that end, a good education can help, and sometimes, work associated with it is happy as well as interested. Usually, it is not.

    Your chances of being happy are only lightly affected by your chosen career path. It's more about the attitude you cultivate on any path you find yourself, IMO. Lots of us are financially secure. Not quite so many are what they'd call happy.

    Artists often read Vassari (Lives of the Artists) to gain insight into the life of art. (I do art, too, and have read it and the great artists of Vassari's time were not something I'd want to emulate.) I recommend young people read James R. Newman's "World of Mathematics" for a similar reason. It's math centric and dated, but there's a physicist or two in there, and some great philosophers, too. The biographical info presented as commentary between the 133 papers is full of insight into how these great (mostly) men came to their career. It may prove useful to you.

    Good luck. it is a fine time to be entering higher education. Tools, techniques, computers.... 50 years ago people finished careers where you will be starting. Have fun. The ride is short.
  18. Aug 19, 2013 #17
    Going through alumni from my institution, every single poli-sci phd in the last five years was in a faculty position upon graduating. I don't know how many will get tenure, but everyone is in academia.

    80% of the econ phds were in faculty positions, often in business schools. The other 20% were in positions obviously related to economics.
  19. Aug 19, 2013 #18


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    As J. K. Galbraith said: "Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists."
  20. Aug 19, 2013 #19


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    I find your claim about political science PhDs hard to believe. Are you certain that every single poli-sci PhD alumni from your institution was in a tenure-track faculty position, as opposed to being postdocs or in adjunct teaching positions? Because postdocs will also technically be in academia as well.

    On the other hand, I find your claims regarding economics PhDs plausible, although I would have expected a slightly lower percentage in faculty positions. It's also worth pointing out that the overwhelming majority of economics PhDs were originally math majors in the beginning (and there may be a few physics majors in there as well -- Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Engle had originally studied physics).

    [As an aside, I've had a chance to peruse a few economics research papers online and much of it is for all intents and purposes either in an area of applied mathematics or statistics.]
    Last edited: Aug 19, 2013
  21. Aug 20, 2013 #20


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    I should make a correction. I'm exaggerating when I stated that the overwhelming majority of economics PhDs were originally math majors (I would have to conduct a survey of economics PhDs across different schools to determine what their original majors were). It's more accurate to state that many economics PhDs were originally math majors.
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2013
  22. Aug 29, 2013 #21


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    Last edited: Aug 29, 2013
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