Saturday, January 7, 2012

Rebuttled to a Cynical, Irresponsible Article

I found a link someone had posted on Facebook to an article written by a Professor of Physics from the esteemed Washington University. The title was "Don't Become a Scientist!" I found it to be greatly misleading and informed from too narrow of a perspective. I felt obliged to make my e-mail rebuttal public lest his article be successful in shying away students from the sciences. His article:

Don't Become a Scientist!

Jonathan I. Katz
Professor of Physics
Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.
[my last name]

Are you thinking of becoming a scientist? Do you want
to uncover the mysteries of nature, perform experiments or carry out
calculations to learn how the world works? Forget it!

Science is fun and exciting. The thrill of discovery is unique. If you are smart, ambitious and hard working you should major in science as an undergraduate. But that is as far as you should take it. After graduation, you will have to deal with the real world. That means that you should not even consider going to graduate school in
science. Do something else instead: medical school, law school, computers or
engineering, or something else which appeals to you.

Why am I (a tenured professor of physics) trying to discourage you from following a career path which was successful for me? Because times have changed (I received my Ph.D. in 1973, and tenure in 1976). American science no longer offers a reasonable career path. If you go to graduate school in science it is in the expectation of spending your working life doing scientific research, using your ingenuity and
curiosity to solve important and interesting problems. You will almost certainly
be disappointed, probably when it is too late to choose another

American universities train roughly twice as many Ph.D.s as there are
jobs for them. When something, or someone, is a glut on the market, the price
drops. In the case of Ph.D. scientists, the reduction in price takes the form of
many years spent in ``holding pattern'' postdoctoral jobs. Permanent jobs don't
pay much less than they used to, but instead of obtaining a real job two years
after the Ph.D. (as was typical 25 years ago) most young scientists spend five,
ten, or more years as postdocs. They have no prospect of permanent employment
and often must obtain a new postdoctoral position and move every two years. For
many more details consult the Young Scientists'Network or read the account in the May, 2001 issue of the Washington Monthly.

As examples, consider two of the leading candidates for a recent Assistant Professorship in my department. One was 37, ten years out of graduate school (he didn't get the job). The leading candidate, whom everyone thinks is brilliant, was 35, seven years out of graduate school. Only then was he offered his first permanent job
(that's not tenure, just the possibility of it six years later, and a step off
the treadmill of looking for a new job every two years). The latest example is a
39 year old candidate for another Assistant Professorship; he has published 35
papers. In contrast, a doctor typically enters private practice at 29, a lawyer
at 25 and makes partner at 31, and a computer scientist with a Ph.D. has a very
good job at 27 (computer science and engineering are the few fields in which
industrial demand makes it sensible to get a Ph.D.). Anyone with the
intelligence, ambition and willingness to work hard to succeed in science can
also succeed in any of these other professions.

Typical postdoctoral salaries begin at $27,000 annually in the biological sciences and about $35,000 in the physical sciences (graduate student stipends are less than half these figures). Can you support a family on that income? It suffices for a young couple in a small apartment, though I know of one physicist whose wife left him because she was tired of repeatedly moving with little prospect of settling down. When you are in your thirties you will need more: a house in a good school district and all the other necessities of ordinary middle class life. Science is a
profession, not a religious vocation, and does not justify an oath of poverty or

Of course, you don't go into science to get rich. So you choose not
to go to medical or law school, even though a doctor or lawyer typically earns
two to three times as much as a scientist (one lucky enough to have a good
senior-level job). I made that choice too. I became a scientist in order to have
the freedom to work on problems which interest me. But you probably won't get
that freedom. As a postdoc you will work on someone else's ideas, and may be
treated as a technician rather than as an independent collaborator. Eventually,
you will probably be squeezed out of science entirely. You can get a fine job as
a computer programmer, but why not do this at 22, rather than putting up with a
decade of misery in the scientific job market first? The longer you spend in
science the harder you will find it to leave, and the less attractive you will
be to prospective employers in other fields.

Perhaps you are so talented that you can beat the postdoc trap; some university (there are hardly any industrial jobs in the physical sciences) will be so impressed with you that you will be hired into a tenure track position two years out of graduate school. Maybe. But the general cheapening of scientific labor means that even the most talented stay on the postdoctoral treadmill for a very long time; consider the job candidates described above. And many who appear to be very talented, with grades and recommendations to match, later find that the competition of research is
more difficult, or at least different, and that they must struggle with the

Suppose you do eventually obtain a permanent job, perhaps a tenured
professorship. The struggle for a job is now replaced by a struggle for grant
support, and again there is a glut of scientists. Now you spend your time
writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are
judged by your competitors you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your
effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on
solving the important scientific problems. They're not the same thing: you
cannot put your past successes in a proposal, because they are finished work,
and your new ideas, however original and clever, are still unproven. It is
proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal; because
they have not yet been proved to work (after all, that is what you are proposing
to do) they can be, and will be, rated poorly. Having achieved the promised
land, you find that it is not what you wanted after all.

What can be done? The first thing for any young person (which means anyone who does not have a permanent job in science) to do is to pursue another career. This will spare you the misery of disappointed expectations. Young Americans have generally woken up to the bad prospects and absence of a reasonable middle class career path in science and are deserting it. If you haven't yet, then join them. 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.

If you are in a position of leadership in science then you should try to persuade the funding agencies to train fewer Ph.D.s. The glut of scientists is entirely the consequence of funding policies (almost all graduate education is paid for by federal grants). The funding agencies are bemoaning the scarcity of young people interested in science when they themselves caused this scarcity by destroying science as a career. They could reverse this situation by matching the number trained to the demand, but they refuse to do so, or even to discuss the problem seriously (for many years the NSF propagated a dishonest prediction of a coming shortage of scientists, and most funding agencies still act as if this were true). 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.
My rebuttal:

Dr. Katz,

Although you make some interesting points, my personal experience
contradicts several of your claims. You make a great case for predicting
struggle in the PhD route to an academic position, but you greatly underestimate
the possibilities in industry. The hastily thrown in statement, "there are
hardly any industrial jobs in the physical sciences," is just ludicrous.
If you've stayed in academia for your career and had no intentions of
leaving, it's understandable that you're not aware of the plethora of
opportunities in American industry, but it's irresponsible to make these claims
in an article that very well may shape what a young person decides to do with
their lives without offering at least some data to add perspective.

Personally, I obtained a bachelor and then master of science in
physics. I then chose to stop because I wasn't interested in academia for
many of the reasons you highlighted (post doc trap, bulk of work writing
proposals and scrounging for funding...) as well as the fact that I was not
passionate enough about any single area to devote the next few years of my life
to, which in turn might pigeon-hole me in the job-search. After all who
would pay the salary of a PhD scientist for thin film work if their thesis was
on Lithium boro-hydride complexes for use in hydrogen storage, or some equally
as obscure topic? So you get the advanced degree to show you're capable of
more than bachelor work and get your name on a few research papers from a
variety of subjects to show you're adept at solving a broad set of complicated
problems. I was immediately approached by a high-tech company, told to
look at the three positions they had open, and apply for any and all that I was
interested in. I found out later that these three positions had been open
for around 8 months and they were having trouble filling them. I took one
and it's turned out to be a fantastically rewarding experience.

While I agree that there are many problems that stem from a broken funding structure that tinker with the supply and demand of educated people, physicists and other scientist also get a great advantage that you've overlooked: I have graduated
with my two degrees having zero debt. I didn't go to a university as
highly regarded as WashU (for this reason among others), but I learned from the
same texts, had ample opportunity for funded research at even the undergraduate
level, and the department that was desperate for good students picked up the
tuition costs of all graduate students and a portion of many undergrads.
Their desperation for students had disadvantages, mainly in that they
lowered standards to insure that even poorly performing students passed, but my
friend in law school will have between $100k-$200k in debt at the same age.
If you were to calculate our live-time earnings, especially given that my
extra stock/retirement contributions get the benefit of time to compound, I'm
sure I will come out even or significantly ahead. Also realize that lawyer
income distributions are heavily bimodal and many law students are unlikely to
get the lucrative jobs that skew the averages yet they'll have comparable debt.
My particular situation may be an unrealistic expectation for all
students, but there are ample opportunities to graduate with advanced science
degrees with minimal debt in comparison to non-science degrees.

You are correct that there are many possible dead-ends and one must be aware of them when making such far reaching decisions, but they certainly
aren't unnavigable. If one hopes to carve a niche in industry, they
merely need to keep the perspective that their college experience is meant to
train them in a skill set that an employer would deem desirable and isn't
necessarily an outlet just for intellectual curiosity. If one makes a
decision to focus their time on some spin-off from general relativity, then they
shouldn't be surprised when the industry jobs they're qualified for are less
than the material scientist. My job title doesn't contain the word
"Physicist, " and I'm not solving deep mysteries of the universe, but I'm in an
intellectually stimulating environment surrounded by very bright people, have a
vast landscape of interesting problems with the autonomy to choose among them,
and a healthy salary at a young age that might discourage my hypothetical wife
from leaving. So please, be careful in discouraging young people from
going into a potentially highly rewarding field just because challenges exist.
Although discouraging them from trying is one route, a less cynical
alternative is informing them of these traps along with ways around them to give
a healthy perspective.
Judge for yourselves...

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Katz was kind enough to reply. He said:

    I warn people against the Ph.D. (which you did not get). The Ph.D.
    leads (by indoctrination, if not by choice) to an academic career,
    which is the dead end I describe. There are very few industrial
    jobs for Ph.D.s. I am glad you chose a more successful career path.

    J. Katz