Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Don't become a scientist!

Says Jonathan katz, a high energy astrophysicist at Washington University in St. Louis.

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.

Katz is right on the money. If I had a son or daughter about to embark on a scientific career, I would ask them to read this essay first.


Carson C. Chow said...

Gee Steve, why so cynical? I think rather than outright discouraging people we need to make the future more realistic to them. If someone loves science then they should pursue it just as someone who loves poetry, philosophy, art, or music should. The difference currently is the expectation. When a person chooses sculpture as a career path they know that they are probably consigning themselves to a life of poverty with a small chance of success. Yet, brilliant people, even Americans by golly, choose that. I agree that if the choice is to get a PhD at a small school or go into engineering, one may want to think twice about a different career but of the people I know that went to top schools they all ended up with pretty good jobs. I think shrinking research funding may be a somewhat good thing if it is done gradually. There is way too much band wagon jumping these days and the qualitity of stuff coming out can be questionable. If there were no money available, then university administrators wouldn't expect faculty to get large grants, which ironically would mean faculty would have more freedome to pursue riskier research directions. Students would only get teaching fellowships which would make it less attractive for them to go to graduate school. I think many people are prisoners of their own grants. They work on projects only because they know they can get funding for them.

Steve Hsu said...

There are certainly many people who are happy with their careers in art or science - most likely due to the non-economic (aesthetic) satisfaction they derive from their work. Also, society benefits enormously from these people.

That does not imply anything about the a priori probability that a kid embarking on a science career will be happy (or happier than they would have been on another career path).

Let's face it, the scientific track is a tough and nasty one, and kids (by kids I even mean PhD students) should not be left ignorant of this fact. I know many professors who are uncomfortable telling their students frankly what their odds are of getting a permanent job as a researcher. Would you want your daughter's PhD advisor to beat around the bush, or just tell her the straight facts about her chosen career?

I cannot stand the lip service paid to math and science by our "leaders" when in fact they routinely cut funding and send their kids to study law at Harvard. Sure, we all benefit from those busy drones advancing science and technology. But do you want your kid to be one of those underpaid drones?

We should face it that an American kid going into science is competing, in what is likely a zero-growth, not-for-profit enivronment, directly against millions of poor but talented people from India, China and former Soviet states. This is not the case in law, medicine or finance, although globalization is starting to impact those areas as well.

A related question: if you knew that software outsourcing would lead to a drastic fall in the number and quality of IT jobs in the US over the next few decades, would you not warn your kid away from his dreams to be a programmer? Well, we are already at that level of competition in science research in the US.

Carson C. Chow said...

I think there is a difference to being realistic versus being negative. We certainly should let all students know that the probability of obtaining a faculty position is low. Just as it is low to get into Harvard, be a published author, be a ballet dancer or have a cooking show on TV. I definitely do not subscribe to the theory that law, medicine or business school is a direct path to security. If you don't go to a top end school in law or business it can be pretty rough and medicine is no picnic anymore these days. I think the bottom line is that if you are exceptional, then you have a higher likelihood of succeeding than if you are not. I have seen several people become emotionally dejected because they went into accounting and engineering rather than their true love of physics. They live their lives wishing they at least gave it a shot before bailing out. I would tell my children that they should follow whichever path they wish but they should definitely know the odds. I wouldn't discourage anyone from playing the game but do need to know the rules.

Anonymous said...

Same story in engineering.
The best plan is to work towards your own business or a job that can't be outsourced/offshored like plumbing, heating, A/C or electrical wiring. Hell even house painting. I have lots of friends who did a lot better than I in those fields.

scienceguy11 said...

Sadly, I think Katz's piece... while perhaps a bit exaggerated... is more-or-less on the mark.

I'm a scientist (ivy league PhD, '01) and was one of the lucky few to land a steady job in research science within a few years of getting my PhD. I'm not a professor, but a staff scientist at a government lab. Anyway, the majority of those in my graduate school class (probably around 70 %) either quit the field entirely or are still in post-doc purgatory. Note that the ones who quit with a masters degree are, by far, the best off financially... despite the fact that those of us in the program were arrogant enough to consider leaving with a masters as a "failure."

You can read up on the post-doc trap if you like, just google it. Whatever you do, make sure you don't end up on that treadmill for too long. A post-doc can be a great opportunity to try new science and, in certain cases, work in interesting places. However, it's usually true that the "post-doc" experience doesn't live up to its promise. It's advertised as "post-doctoral training" but the word "training" is inserted, more often than not, so that those who apply can be paid far less than they're worth… specifically because their employers know how difficult it can be to get a job doing research.

Ask yourself this... what kind of "training" position requires, as a prerequisite, the highest degree in the land? Okay... you might say... "but MD's go through a residency period too." Sure, but MDs enter a residency program in order to specialize in a particular subfield of medicine. In contrast, profs are looking to hire post-docs with backgrounds and specific skill sets to implement/augment their research programs. You can have a phd in a related subject and still be rejected because your training wasn't extensive enough in the right subfield. If you're hired for your specific expertise in the first place, does it make sense to call the position a "training" period? I suppose it's an open issue for debate, but I see a certain level of unfairness here... particularly given that exactly what the post-docs are "training" for is not always terribly clear. The likelihood that any given post-doc (particularly at lower-end institutions) will get the kind of academic job in which they will actually use their "training" is comparatively low. In contrast, a radiology resident who successfully completes the program is nearly guaranteed a job as a radiology specialist.

I'm a bit disgusted, frankly, with how little we pay our post-docs and how we treat them. It's endemic to the system - science is structured to eat its young. We string people along for years on the mere, faint hope that they'll someday get a permanent position. Yet, the longer they remain in the "training" program, the more valuable their skills become to the principal scientist... thus the lower the incentive for that principal scientist to fulfill his part of the "training" bargain and help the post-doc find real work. I’ve seen this kind of abuse first-hand while collaborating with a well-known academic group. It can be especially egregious and flagrant in the case of foreign-citizens whose visa status is tied to the post-doctoral “advisor.” I recall one instance in which a PhD chemist from Asia (who was in this country because her husband had found a job) worked for the better part of a year without pay because her “advisor” promised to help her obtain a work visa. This is technically illegal and probably atypical, but the point is that these positions are so ill-defined and policing so infrequent that the system is rife with abuse.

Beware of excessive post-docing. It can kill your spirit and rob you of your youth. That being said, I understand and sympathize with all who want to make research a career. It's a path that has many, many rewards... both intellectual and personal. I'm not recommending against trying it... I'm just saying that if you're on your second or third post-doc, it's time to look elsewhere even if your advisor tells you that work is just around the corner. It probably isn't... there are far more people with PhD's in the sciences than there are permanent positions.

Anonymous said...

Katz wrote:
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.

With the final sentence of his essay, he destroys the validity of his argument.

If the schools are filled with weak American students and with foreigners lured by the American student visa...

Then, the group comprising post-docs is a) partly unsuitable for employment (weak American students) and b) partly unavailable for employment (student-visa holders).

If we take this last sentence to be true, then the prospects for a non-weak American student are potentially better than Katz claims.


Anonymous said...

Additionally, I am finishing up my J.D. from a reputable top-tier law school, I can assure you that no matter where you go, there you are.

People should pursue their passions, not some abstract idea about financial security.

The most financially "secure" people in the world are, in a broad overgeneralization, either doing something they love doing, or miserable, or breaking lots of laws.

Prediction of financial security is a pipe dream.

Person A is just as likely to succeed or fail at a broad spectrum of many endeavours.

Encouraging people to not pursue their passions in lieu of pursuing financial security at a pro-school like bschool or law school or med school is, to put it bluntly, the worst advice I have ever heard.

Absent hard evidence, I would still wager there are dramatically more non-practicing law grads than there are unemployed doctorate holders in scientific disciplines - even as a percentage of the overall group.

I'm never going to practice law. Going to law school was still a valuable experience. Life is knowledge and information.

After law school is done this upcoming Spring, I'm off to my old undergrad school to pursue a phd in physics. FACE!


Anonymous said...

What about your children?

I'm a phd physicist who loves his work... but is dreading the day when he has to tell his kids they'll be going to UMaryland instead of Princeton because daddy loved his work too much. Grass is always greener, I guess... but... when you're 34 and trying to raise a family on what amounts to a lower-middle class scientist salary... you have a tendency to wonder why you didn't chose the path of the lawyers who process the paperwork for your patents. After all, they make a lot more money on my intellectual property than I do.

Steve Hsu said...

Anonymous: I quoted your comment in a post on 9/12/06. See there for more discussion!

Yeehaw: yes, bad career prospects are causing some American students to steer clear of physics. But the supply of talented foreigners is still very high, and institutions here will get the successful candidate a green card, so student visa is no obstacle. It is getting rare to find US-born candidates for faculty jobs these days. We had a search recently in which the entire short list was comprised of candidates from the EU, India, China and Russia. Great for America, at least for now.

Anonymous said...

It does seem like science is a good way for people from the developing world to get ahead. The rich world certainly doesn't have any kind of monopoly on intelligence, hard work and creativity... and these are virtually the only things needed to excel at science.

So why is it that bright indians are not excelling at other, more lucrative professions in the US (e.g., law, banking)? Perhaps this is happening to a greater extent than I realize, or... perhaps success in these fields depends to a greater extent on knowledge of local customs, etc. It's certainly not a language issue given that well-educated indians speak english more correctly than americans.

Also: should we care if native-born americans are fleeing science?

Many in academia don't see this as a negative. I'm not convinced that I do. Of course, it's troubling for the future if American institutions fail to attract the best and the brightest foreigners. However, with more and more money to be made these days in services like finance, etc. does it really matter if we lose our technical edge? I think it does, but I'd like to hear from the other side.

Also: why do patent attorneys do so much better financially... on average... than the researchers/inventors who patronize them? Does this tell us something about what our society values, or is it purely a function of "labor market forces" (i.e., that foreigners willing to work 80 hrs a week for $30k and a visa have more trouble entering law than they do entering science... so the wages in the legal profession are safe from globalization for now)?

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Anonymous said...

You are lost. It's not about the money.

Anonymous said...

of course it's "not about the money." Still, scientists are manifestly underpaid given what they provide to society. Further, at least in the US, non-citizen technical people are ruthlessly exploited by the post-doctoral system.

Anonymous said...

People should study whatever makes them happy, because they enjoy it, not because of the pay. If what they studied doesn't get them good enough pay to survive, there are many other jobs out there where they can be paid(Janitor,Clerk, etc). But, at least they went to school and enjoyed learning/doing what they wanted.

Anonymous said...

My suggestions are that the problem arises from the perceptions of both the foreigners (visa holders) and the US citizen. I believe that self expectation is what make one realizes whether he is successful in life or not. My cousin who never finished a single year in college is dreaming to make 30k a year, and that applies to many of these foreigners who come to the US to get their PhDs.

A good example is a great post-doc working in our lab who is actually making twenty times more than he would make in Moscow. Trust me; he loves everything about the post-doc system in the US. He won't believe if I would tell him that 'there is actually someone complaining about the pay. But on the other hand, US student who spends more than a decade in higher education and ending up with 30k is an insult, no matter what your interests are.

It’s the bologna of these highly level paid researchers, patents law holders, CEO's of biotechnology companies who feed from the umbilical codes of these lower paid post-docs that disgusts me. "Do what you love or you will not be happy." My question is; what is happiness?

My main point here is, US students who pursue PhD careers, in all fields, we need to speak up and put a stopper on this bull shyte. The major problem that we really need to focus the most is to awaken those PhD students especially in sciences, who can not stand up and say a "word" If we stand up and say something rather than writing these blogs after blogs after blog, we will keep writing them until we run out of vocabularies.

Anonymous said...

This comment may be a little old but I think the blog may still be relevant to today. I started in Physics as an undergrad, did well and got grades (liked it too!) and wondered why my friends in engineering were sweating so much (I did have a little bent towards electronics as well so I kept up with what they were doing).

I inquired and found that they had to meet minimum requirements to get into the engineering professional program and that it was "tough" thereafter. Coming from a family of laborers (Dad was HVAC installer and grandfather was painter), I knew something was up, and after doing some research on jobs as posted by the AAS (american astronomical society - I was intensely interested in Astronomy), they were honest enough to say that not everybody who gets a PhD in astronomy has a job in it. Further research suggested that physics really doesn't kick in until grad school, where people work as hard as anybody for many years, and then go on to find postdocs which are basically the "McJob" version of science (i.e., slave/temporary labor).

I was careful and took both cirriculums until deciding after (one summer) of working at telephone operating center and meeting people with undergrad degrees in science that it would be a tough road and I really, really needed a job doing something technically interesting when I graduated (thanks for the offers to be a management consultant or museum curator or telescope operator - I have a mind that wants to investigate, create and design!). I switched to Electrical engineering, was forced to take such sundry classes as Economics 101 where I then fell in love with physics from the standpoint of finance and realized that free market is a dynamical system too. Don't get me wrong - I applaud and contribute myself to philanthropic programs but at the end of the day our economic well being is based on people making wise decisions about money. And that goes for physics grads, scientists of all measures and humanitarians as well.

That was 20 years ago and I have once in a while regretted the chance I passed up to do research in nuclear physics or astronomy, but only as long as it takes to pull my wallet out to pay for the latest week of groceries!! The great part is, I actually do a little research in science, publishing papers in what real academics would call "obscure" journals, but nonetheless, science it is when all have a say and can be objectively evaluated (and this is what the internet allows).

Short answer - Economics 101 was the most important class I took. The demands of society place a price on goods (and services) that cannot be bowled over by any philosophical thinking. Physicists and astronomers were in huge demand when we didn't understand the atom or needed to get to the moon reliably. What do we really NEED today? Take a look at all the diseases and microbes that are mutating and creeping up on us, look at our energy problems. Does it make much sense to pursue the incredibly abstract when the Roman army is bearing down on us like the Greeks (please - no discussion about the loyalty to science - if the Greeks had survived with some military might we might not have lost all the treasures in Alexandria)? Abstract is important, but first things first - let's figure out the really big problems and how to stay alive!! And yes, I know that E=mc^2 lead to some great things but for every one of those there is just a million, hard core workers tackling the "basic" problems which are quite necessary!

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