Sunday, May 04, 2008

Don't become a scientist! Philip Greenspun edition

I recently came across this essay by Philip Greenspun, which examines, in brutal detail, the negative aspects of a career in science. It goes way beyond my previous writings on the subject :-) Greenspun's essay was occasioned by the Larry Summers affair, and his main point regarding women in science is that science is such a crummy career choice that only testosterone-poisoned (overly competitive and status-driven) men would be stupid enough to pursue it. I'm not sure I agree completely with that perspective, but I like his essay quite a bit.

Some other themes he touches on: (a) sample bias; people are typically only familiar with the lives and careers of exceptionally successful scientists: In short, some young people think that science is a good career for the same reason that they think being a musician or actor is a good career: "I can't decide if I want to be a scientist like James Watson, a musician like Britney Spears, or an actor like Harrison Ford.", and (b) foreign immigration as a source of scientific talent: Science may be one of the lowest paid fields for high IQ people in the U.S., but it pays a lot better than most jobs in China or India.

Incidentally, I met Philip many years ago through a common friend who is a scientist at Harvard, at one of the many parties she hosted. (When I first wrote this post I thought she and Philip had been housemates, but she says that recollection is incorrect. I think I do remember his dog Alex, though.) At one of these parties I met Steve Pinker in the kitchen. After a long conversation about his research I remember thinking: gee, isn't that all kind of obvious? Don't you wish you understood Yang-Mills theory? I was still a kid, just like Albert Q. Mathnerd described below :-)

You might like to dismiss Greenspun's perspective on this subject, but keep in mind that the guy earned a math SB (at 18) and PhD in EECS at MIT and founded several software startups. So he's not entirely clueless about how the academic and real worlds work.

...Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States.

This article explores this fourth possible explanation for the dearth of women in science: They found better jobs.

Why does anyone think science is a good job?

The average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following:

age 18-22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college

age 22-30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month

age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year

age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year

age 44: with young children at home (if lucky), fired by the university ("denied tenure" is the more polite term for the folks that universities discard), begins searching for a job in a market where employers primarily wish to hire folks in their early 30s

This is how things are likely to go for the smartest kid you sat next to in college. He got into Stanford for graduate school. He got a postdoc at MIT. His experiment worked out and he was therefore fortunate to land a job at University of California, Irvine. But at the end of the day, his research wasn't quite interesting or topical enough that the university wanted to commit to paying him a salary for the rest of his life. He is now 44 years old, with a family to feed, and looking for job with a "second rate has-been" label on his forehead.

...Consider someone taking the kind of high IQ and drive that would be required to obtain a tenure-track position at U.C. Berkeley and going into medicine. This person would very likely be a top specialist of some sort, earning at least $300,000 per year. Instead of being fired at age 44, our medical specialist would be near the height of her value to her patients and employer. Her experience and reputation would continue to add to her salary and prestige until she was perhaps 60 years old. [A woman who wanted to spend more time with her children can choose from a variety of medical careers, such as emergency medicine, that involve shift work and where a high salary can be earned with just two or three shifts per week. She could also work from home as a radiologist reading data transmitted via Internet.]

Consider taking the same high IQ and work ethic, going into business, and being put on the fast track at a company such as General Electric. Rather than being fired at age 44, this is about the time that she will be handed ever-larger divisions to operate, with ever-larger bonuses and stock options.

A top lawyer at age 44 is probably a $500,000 per year partner in a big firm, a judge, or a professor at a law school supplementing her $200,000 per year salary with some private work. ...

What about the excitement and fun of science?

Is life all about money and job security? What about excitement and fun? Isn't that a good reason to choose a job? Sure! I love every minute of my $8 per hour job as a helicopter instructor, but on the other hand I don't say that it is a great career and I can't understand why there aren't more women helicopter instructors.

Some scientists are like kids who never grow up. They love what they do, are excited by the possibilities of their research, and wear a big smile most days. Although these people are, by Boston standards, ridiculously poor and they will never be able to afford a house (within a one-hour drive of their job) or support a family, I don't feel sorry for them.

Unfortunately, this kind of child-like joy is not typical. The tenured Nobel Prize winners are pretty happy, but they are a small proportion of the total. The average scientist that I encounter expresses bitterness about (a) low pay, (b) not getting enough credit or references to his or her work, (c) not knowing where the next job is coming from, (d) not having enough money or job security to get married and/or have children. If these folks were experiencing day-to-day joy at their bench, I wouldn't expect them to hold onto so much bitterness and envy.

...The most serious concern is that the field that a youngster found fascinating at age 20 will no longer be fascinating after 20 or 25 years. If you have a narrow education and have been earning an academic salary, it is much tougher to change careers at age 45 or 50 than for someone who was in a job where the earnings are higher and begin at a younger age. A doctor who practices for 10 years can easily save enough to finance a switch to almost any other occupation. A successful lawyer can walk away after 15 or 20 years, commute to school from his oceanfront and town houses, and become a furniture maker (my friend's dad did this).

Why do American men (boys, actually) do it?

Pursuing science as a career seems so irrational that one wonders why any young American would do it. Yet we do find some young Americans starting out in the sciences and they are mostly men. When the Larry Summers story first broke, I wrote in my Weblog:

A lot more men than women choose to do seemingly irrational things such as become petty criminals, fly homebuilt helicopters, play video games, and keep tropical fish as pets (98 percent of the attendees at the American Cichlid Association convention that I last attended were male). Should we be surprised that it is mostly men who spend 10 years banging their heads against an equation-filled blackboard in hopes of landing a $35,000/year post-doc job?

Having been both a student and teacher at MIT, my personal explanation for men going into science is the following:

young men strive to achieve high status among their peer group

men tend to lack perspective and are unable to step back and ask the question "is this peer group worth impressing?"

Consider Albert Q. Mathnerd, a math undergrad at MIT ("Course 18" we call it). He works hard and beats his chest to demonstrate that he is the best math nerd at MIT. This is important to Albert because most of his friends are math majors and the rest of his friends are in wimpier departments, impressed that Albert has even taken on such demanding classes. Albert never reflects on the fact that the guy who was the best math undergrad at MIT 20 years ago is now an entry-level public school teacher in Nebraska, having failed to get tenure at a 2nd tier university. When Albert goes to graduate school to get his PhD, his choice will have the same logical foundation as John Hinckley's attempt to impress Jodie Foster by shooting Ronald Reagan. ...


Anonymous said...

Demand and supply , demand and supply. Academia needs tons of graduate students, fewer post docs and very very few faculty. So it invites you to the game of research and very very sweetly throws you out once its extracted your ideas from you. Its got a few places for Junior Fellows and Ph.Ds at 22 , while the rest of us are condemned to our delusions till age 35

Anonymous said...

Here's a question for the crowd:

I recently graduated from the U of Texas with an MA in physics (in a purely theoretical area), and I want to obtain my PhD elsewhere, but I'm not sure if I want to even try to pursue an academic career. Suppose I decide not to pursue an academic career. Do you think it would be worth it/advantageous of me to first obtain a PhD and then look for a job, or is the job market just as good for an MA in physics? I know it depends on what kind of job I'm looking for, but I'm not even sure I know that. I plan to take a few computer programming classes while working for a PhD. (Hopefully I'll have
enough time.) Maybe this will make me more marketable.

One other concern is that I am a Canadian citizen and I will most likely obtain my doctorate at a Canadian school. Do you think I would be able to get a job in the States if I wanted to live in the US after I'm done?

zarkov01 said...

Everything stated is pretty much right on. But you cannot ignore that fact that male IQs are more dispersed than female IQs. So men as group have both more morons and more geniuses. It's the tail area of the IQ distribution that determines how many will populate those professions like mathematics and physics. There's nothing at all mysterious as to why there are more men in science.

Anonymous said...


As you search for a job outside of academia, you may find a PhD has some value in getting people to take you seriously, but probably not enough to offset the opportunity cost. Also, taking a few programming courses will not make you more marketable. Programming is a field where demonstrated experience is everything.

Anonymous said...

This subject always guarantees lots of blog comment. My own feeling is that it is too pessimistic. It isn't that hard to get a position well before age 36, and a scientist will make more than $65K. However, I agree with some of his broader points -- for example, it also isn't hard to get a position that makes multiples of that -- and I don't understand the people (men?) who attempt this career path even when they didn't make it into Stanford for grad school.

Anonymous said...

Should have said, "for example, it also isn't hard to get a position outside academia that makes multiples of that"

Anonymous said...

As usual, Americans seem to love this childish whining. Maybe it's time for people to realize that there are many smart people all over the world, and that for some people, earning 50k a year and have the chance to do scientific research is anything but a failure.

Stephen has said it before that he believes that academic departments in science should make it clear to incoming graduate students that it's REALLY hard to find a job in academia right now, and that if they choose such a career path, the chances that they will be frustrated are very high. I think that's a honest an honorable thing, and I congratulate Stephen for that.

HOWEVER, many people seem to ignore an important detail: the kind of people who choose graduate school in science, though statistically more intelligent than most, will not necessarily be excellent outside science, not for lack of brain-power, but because people who love science have a certain personality. I was recently visiting some friends at Caltech, grad students, and there's a common trait: none of them can even think of working in an area that does not involve mathematics. Maybe they are in denial...

Start telling promising Physics and Mathematics PhD's to get a job as real estate brokers, and then something very rotten will be going on in this country. Engineering PhD's find jobs easier, so one could tell students that engineering grad school could be a wiser choice, while still intellectually stimulating.

There are already too many ex-physicists in Finance. There may be job ads and all, but places working at like RenTec and D.E. Shaw don't need that many people. By the way, working in a hedge fund is hard, and while a lot of them make a lot of money, even more of them go bust. Been there, done that. If you think that a career in Science is competitive, you haven't yet seen Finance...

Some people need to realize that not everyone is meant to be a social parasite, like realtors and lawyers. People have different goals, and therefore universal solutions don't work. Right now, ANY area is likely ultra-competitive. Instead of telling students to quit, people should tell them:

- look, you wanna be a scientist? Fine, but are you aware of the sacrifices you may have to make?

- people who truly excel in their work, tend to love what they do. Whatever you choose to do, make sure you choose an area where you can leverage your skills and talents, and thus have an edge.

Personality is important too. I am the kind of person who would rather work in a small start-up in California than to work for a bunch of egomaniac retards at a Wall Street i-bank. But maybe I am as much in denial as my friends at Caltech...

Steve Hsu said...


Great comments. I think Greenspun's attitude is that the people pursuing a career in science (high intelligence and work ethic) can be very successful outside of science. This is actually his personal experience, if you read between the lines: from ubernerd math major to startup founder and guy who retired at age 37.

I agree that many would-be scientists are not suited to business per se, but if they were as analytical about their careers as they are about their research they would have no problem succeeding in the world of engineering / software / tech startups / finance / traditional professions or whatever.

Greenspun makes a nice comment about the female students in his EE courses at MIT:

What about women? Don't they want to impress their peers? Yes, but they are more discriminating about choosing those peers. I've taught a fair number of women students in electrical engineering and computer science classes over the years. I can give you a list of the ones who had the best heads on their shoulders and were the most thoughtful about planning out the rest of their lives. Their names are on files in my "medical school recommendations" directory.

Anonymous said...

Phil's point is that aspiring to a narrow vision of what an academic career is sets you up for disappointment. Not that grad school is a bad thing. He got his Ph.D. when he was thirty-something, and is an all-around successful guy.

Putting all of your eggs in one basket, especially when that basket doesn't hold very many eggs [so many fall off and break], is not a very well informed plan. Smart people should be able to see that, and then plan around it.

Anonymous said...

I think Greenspun gives a worst-case scenario for the academic track. Most professors do not get denied tenure. Also, I think it's ridiculous to complain about the salaries; professors get paid a lot more than the average person, and are likely to have spouses who are in high-income professions. While they might not be in the top percentile, they are doing well financially and can live a solid middle class life.

I also think that he seriously overstates the extent to which people go into the profession to prove how smart they are. A lot of people truly like their subject, and are willing to risk having to switch careers at some point. And it's really almost never as late as 45-50. Even so, there are plenty of options. If one can code, one can do that. One can start taking actuarial exams at any age. If you look at the least successful people in any career, their situation will be awful, but this idea that ex-academics often have no future is ridiculous IMO.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that to some extent
the Greenspun version relates to the ones who have given themselves to the dark side. But some of still prefer to be jedi. Even if takes 800 years to learn.

Anonymous said...

Virtually everything Greenspun says is true.

Students only choose science because they are misinformed. Faculty at colleges are under no pressure to tell students the truth because they need the students just to survive. They also make up stuff like "science is a noble profession" when the mostly successful people work on war contracts or trying to cure diseases like AIDS so people can behave even more irresponsible. How is science noble when it is used to serve immoral causes or ignoble people? Furthermore, scientists hardly ever get to do science these days because they have to teach several classes, deal with university politics, or spend time writing one grant after another in hopes that they will be one of the ten percent who get funded. If somebody has to put up with all this, they may as well get paid nicely for all the training they undergo.

Don't screw up your life like I did mine. Stay out of science. Go to medical school or just work doing something you like that benefits YOU the most. The US is a self-centered society, and the irresponsible, immoral, liars, etc. almost always win.

Science will literally ruin everything you want in life if you pursue it when you are young. Wait until you are fifty to start studying science. The problem is that our society thrives on irresponsibility, especially the irresponsibility of the young.

Anonymous said...

"A lot more men than women choose to do seemingly irrational things such as become petty criminals, fly homebuilt helicopters, play video games, and keep tropical fish as pets (98 percent of the attendees at the American Cichlid Association convention that I last attended were male). Should we be surprised that it is mostly men who spend 10 years banging their heads against an equation-filled blackboard in hopes of landing a $35,000/year post-doc job?"

One of the reasons men go into science is not because they are just outright irrational but because they think it will be a good career field and they enjoy studying science. The media, our politicians, our pundits, and our economists have been lying for decades to the extent that many of them accept the notion that science is a good career field as an unquestioned dogma; they don't know that what they are saying is false. It's difficult to pick up a newspaper or to listen to talk radio or NPR and not hear the bromide that we need more scientists. I think many people really have no idea just how bad the career prospects are for people who get science degrees.

Of course, it isn't as though other career fields aren't glutted either; MBAs and lawyers are a penny-a-dozen and many are unemployed or underemployed-involuntarily-out-of-field. We even have too many patent lawyers today since many people fled science for law school and now they can't find work as patent lawyers.

Anonymous said...

I got my bachelors in biology in 2008 with the intent of working in the ecological biology research field. To find a job that pays reasonably, I have to work for the DOE as a research associate in a temp full-time position which I landed by chance because I fell into the position by refusing to continue to work as an intern for another season. I left behind everyone I knew for that internship and the opportunity to make 10/hr doing something that was designed for undergrads.
Now I look for other opportunities in my field and I find positions for post-master's and post-docs in my field that pay less than this temp job. Maybe the DOE is the only organization that hasn't learned that nobody cares about my field. That's what it comes to, there are no jobs in some of these science fields because there is no money in these science fields. People don't care about anything my field has to offer. Instead of research about the environment, people just want to make unguided decisions. For every wind farm that goes up, populations of birds are decimated. The people who go into my research field do it because they care, not just because they enjoy a pursuit of knowledge. I am not thinking of leaving science, because nobody else does. There's no opportunity to care if there's no funding and senior scientist and companies are simply interested in exploiting you so you can fulfil and agenda. "Check this box is some research or something was done." "Check this box if it wasn't."
Doesn't matter either way, decisions are made and science is not funded and ignored by my backward religious country.

Jonny said...

This is getting more and more relevant in the U.S.. Science is becoming a field people should run away from, the B.S./M.S. is a dead end career wise. Advanced education does not help much either. A PhD will just suck your youthful energy away so your PI can publish an article for a narrow peer group. You'll end up with little besides three letters. Even coming from a top institution is only slightly helpful (I'm at one). Going to industry used to be a good alternative to academia, but U.S. industry is quite different now. Most scientists can count on about ten years before a lot of them start getting booted from the field entirely. Those who make it into management will be at the MBAs and CEOs mercy still and will most likely not make it to retirement. As a scientist you have very little power in things, because you spent 10 years training for something that is way to narrow. You will have fallen substantially behind your peers who have become much more worldly and diverse in their skill set over those past ten years.

I was once incredibly optimistic and loved doing lab work. But now, with some age and having to deal with trying to get an actual job (finally) I find that I'm practically worthless in today's economy. If you have loans, then you'll be even worse off, since working for a lower salary may not be an option. Science just doesn't provide a good return on investment, become a doctor, we need lots more of those. Other fields give you more chances to interact with people and are likely more enjoyable in the long run. Get the bachelors if you must, just stop there and focus on another field. Don't become a scientist, PhDs are just govt pawns for research grants and have little use beyond that function in the U.S. these days.

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