Don't become a Scientist!!! Please read this article.

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cancelled20080417
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Don't become a Scientist!!! Please read this article.

Postby cancelled20080417 » Wed Jan 09, 2008 10:22 pm

"Don't Become a Scientist!

Jonathan I. Katz

Professor of Physics

Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.

[my last name]@wuphys.wustl.edu


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 career.

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 celibacy.

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 rest.

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. "

physicsdude
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Postby physicsdude » Wed Jan 09, 2008 10:36 pm

<edited>
Last edited by physicsdude on Mon Feb 11, 2008 7:26 pm, edited 2 times in total.

cancelled20080417
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Postby cancelled20080417 » Wed Jan 09, 2008 11:34 pm

Is it true that grad school stipend is > $25,000 per year? where did you get this information from?

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fermiboy
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Postby fermiboy » Wed Jan 09, 2008 11:39 pm

Cmon, RG, you don't think any of us on this board are aware of the difficulties of "making it" in academia? I know the road is hard, I knew it when I switch my major from EE to physics as a freshman. We are all aware that our skills could be used to make more money elsewhere. I, for one, would rather pursue what I love instead of chasing dollars. In the end, we can always leave physics and do something else, but you can't leave something else and then do physics. I don't want to spend my life wondering "what if?" so I'm chasing my dream. If I don't make it, the consolation is that all the fall back careers pay much better!

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fermiboy
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Postby fermiboy » Wed Jan 09, 2008 11:48 pm

Did you see this idiot's other articles on his web page? He's a paranoid war mongering, hate spreading homophobe. Not that this has anything to do with his argument, but it does bring into question his motivations.

physicsdude
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Postby physicsdude » Wed Jan 09, 2008 11:53 pm

<not there anymore>
Last edited by physicsdude on Mon Feb 18, 2008 4:54 pm, edited 1 time in total.

cancelled20080417
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Postby cancelled20080417 » Thu Jan 10, 2008 2:14 am

fermiboy, i did not mean to post this article to discourage anybody on this forum. I only wanted to know what you all guys think about his argument since I am an international student and do not know much about the job prospect in the US in Physics.
I checked this Prof's homepage and saw his picture, he looked like a vulture( no offense) and I decided not to look at rest of his profile, hahaha

vk5qa
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Opinion

Postby vk5qa » Thu Jan 10, 2008 7:54 am

I think he has some valid points. To be perfectly honest, from my experience there are plenty of positions open for newly minted PhDs. We've had several candidates you've got barely a few years of post-doc experience apply for openings at our University ad they're usually considered just as seriously as the more experienced applicants.
He seems to believe what he writes. I think he's unnecessarily pessimistic and probably wrote this piece after a particularly bad trip :D

rohan
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Postby rohan » Thu Jan 10, 2008 8:39 am

what ***..... ok this dude sucks!! if jerks like him are going to be sitting at uw... i think i'd better take a long hard look at whether i want to go there or not

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quizivex
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Postby quizivex » Thu Jan 10, 2008 1:25 pm

I was about to say the same thing vk5qa did, that this guy does have several justified gripes against careers in science. Even though the overall post may appear too cynical and fails to mention any of the positives in a science career, it really is alarming how much worse off we will be if we pursue science as opposed to one of the other opportunities available to us. Many of the downsides this professor explains were already noticed and discussed long ago on posts on this forum.

<deleted for anonymity>
Last edited by quizivex on Mon Jan 14, 2008 1:14 pm, edited 1 time in total.

physicsdude
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Postby physicsdude » Thu Jan 10, 2008 3:10 pm

<edited>
Last edited by physicsdude on Mon Feb 11, 2008 7:27 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby quizivex » Thu Jan 10, 2008 4:25 pm

@ Physicsdude

I am the last person who would say that only scientists from top schools are any good nor would I say she was any more deserving of the position than the other 11 candidates who I knew nothing about. I don't know how good or bad she is, but she did in fact get the job.

I realize that scientists from average schools can often be just as talented and successful (or unsuccessful) in their careers as those from top schools. I only referred to this lady because I think coming from a top school itself proves at least some level of ability, whereas coming from an average school you need to look at the whole resume of the candidate to get an idea how good they are... Anybody can get a PhD in physics from somewhere.

My point was that it's scary that you can be an extremely talented and/or hardworking person in science but only have the bleakest job opportunities. I go to a depressing school, and while I considered becoming a professor as I started college, I knew I could never spend my career at a sick place like this. We all know how difficult it is just to get into a place like Caltech let alone complete the PhD. They use graduate textbooks for their undergraduate program, geez. And to think that after enduring the brutality of such a graduate program, probably taking 6 or more years to finish, and then having to work as a postdoc slave for however many years only to be rewarded with a 1 in 12 chance to become and ASSISTANT professor at a place that will make you depressed if you aren't already so, is so scary I don't know how you could disagree.
Last edited by quizivex on Mon Jan 14, 2008 6:11 pm, edited 1 time in total.

physicsdude
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Postby physicsdude » Thu Jan 10, 2008 6:28 pm

<edited>
Last edited by physicsdude on Mon Feb 11, 2008 7:27 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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quizivex
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Postby quizivex » Thu Jan 10, 2008 8:11 pm

I just mean that there are schools out there who will pass everybody just so they can continue collecting money from them. "C's get degrees" is a common proverb at my school.

In graduate school, things are a bit different because students in science don't usually pay tuition, but there are similar situations. Some departments will pass incompetent students simply so they can get cheap labor out of them in the lab and get them to TA general physics courses and thus themselves won't have to teach.

When I said, "Anybody can get a PhD in physics from somewhere," I just meant that there are places who will not weed out the students who don't belong. That's not to say that any given moron could walk in and get a PhD, but that it's possible. Furthermore, when you have small programs with oral qualifiying exams given to one person at a time, there's a lot of favoritism in determining who passes and who fails.

By "average school," I mean the kind of school where having a near perfect GPA doesn't mean much because it just tells the committee you're better than the "average students" around you.

physicsdude
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Postby physicsdude » Thu Jan 10, 2008 9:22 pm

<edited>
Last edited by physicsdude on Mon Feb 11, 2008 7:28 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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fermiboy
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Postby fermiboy » Thu Jan 10, 2008 10:15 pm

Actually the most rampant grade inflation occurs at places like Harvard, Princeton, etc. There is no way that Johnny Silverspoon's parents are going to shell out 50 K a year for a C average, and these places know it.

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quizivex
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Postby quizivex » Fri Jan 11, 2008 9:44 am

I looked up the term "grade inflation" and it refers to the increase over time in the average grades given out at an institution. So if the average GPA at XYZ school is 3.2 in 1980 and jumps to 3.4 by 2000, that's grade inflation. And whether that's caused by an overall improvement in the students or by lowered standards at the school is what causes debate.

Is that what you guys mean when you mention grade inflation? Or were you referring to just the tendency for these elite schools to give everyone high grades? I think you meant the latter but wanted to clarify.

Ok maybe grades from every school are meaningless. Maybe when I said "average school" I should've referred to the quality of students. At an average school, you'll find a handful of excellent students surrounded by a swarm of mediocre students who are only in college to get a degree and fool around. This environment is not good for the better students.

I apologize for posting so many negative comments on this forum and really don't want to discourage anybody on here (neither does RG who started this thread). I've had an awful college experience and it helps to try to see before I take the next step whether this experience is just a result of what school I'm at or what field I undertook. I think it's the former, but seeing how difficult it is to become successful in science sometimes makes me doubt there will be any improvement later in life. I hope everyone on this forum finds what they want in their career :!: :!: :!:

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twistor
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Postby twistor » Fri Jan 11, 2008 1:55 pm

Usually when people refer to grade inflation they are referring to that fact that schools will set the curve so as to make everyone pass, or assign grades in such a way that a lot more people get A's than they really should.

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will
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Postby will » Fri Jan 11, 2008 6:41 pm

Something to keep in mind is that this guy is an astrophysicist. Not knocking the breed, but the tightness of money and jobs in that area is unrepresentative of physics as a whole.

Also, if you're looking forward to grad school as a grueling, hellish experience with no light at the end of the tunnel, well, you can certainly make it one, for sure. I know plenty of grad students who actually enjoy what they're doing though, and those amazing jobs that all your friends who didn't go to grad school are supposed to have? They don't.

physicsdude
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Postby physicsdude » Fri Jan 11, 2008 6:50 pm

<edited>
Last edited by physicsdude on Mon Feb 11, 2008 7:24 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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grae313
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Postby grae313 » Fri Jan 11, 2008 8:01 pm

I read this article a long time ago, and I agree that it is "highly questionable" to say the least. By the way, that's Washington University, NOT UW, wich is in Seattle. The guy who wrote that is crazy. Besides, I want to work in industry and the baby-boomers are starting to retire. My half-sister got a starting salary of >60K last year doing solar panel research for industry with her physics masters.




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