More whinging on the Internet about How Hard It is to Live as a Scientist.

Sep 12 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Yup. Its hard. But no one held a gun to your head and said I'll blow your brains out if you don't get a PhD.

Life, graduate programs, the NIH, academic search committees don't care about you. It's not their job. It's your job. If you decide you have to live in NYC or Boston or San Fran, yes its going to be expensive. Did you have your head in the sand? There are other options: other grad schools, taking on debt, doing something else.

You're the best and the brightest? Sorry, that makes you the 1% only when you were in high school. But once you get to Harvard or Stanford or even the University of Louisville, you are not 1% anymore. You're in the middle of the pack. There is always someone who is brighter, someone who works harder, and someone who wants it more than you.

Why are you angry at the system? Did you not do due diligence along the way? Please don't say "no one told me". Crap. No one told you that sticking your hand in a campfire was stupid and would hurt. You figured it out. Did you ask the right questions? Oh, no one told you which questions to ask? Don't get me started. You decided to work on cancer research, or dinosaur paleontology, or human evolution? Yup, they are crowded fields. They are competitive fields. They are fields filled with BSDs.  Did you talk to anyone about options? About probabilities and likelihoods? You think your skills forsaken & discarded by the system? Someone got hired. Were they better than you? Why should the system care about you? If there's room to hire one person, why shouldn't it be the best?

So what of the "system"? Did you realize that by going to the UK, there is probably a UK PhD who didn't get a job? Did it occur to you that you were part of the system pushing someone else out? You want to go to movies, watch football? We live in a world that does not particularly value scientists and research. Athletes, movie stars and the occasional brain surgeon make a lot more money. People will pay for what they value. Other than expecting the system to respond to you, what the fuck have you done to change it?

If there is a fault, its that we train more PhDs than there is room for. But getting any job is hard: a seat in a symphony orchestra, a salaried journalism job, a TV actor, a landscape architect.  Postdoc or faculty - not different from those. The world is competitive. This has always been true, even back in the "good old days".

Yes, there is a glut, and there are lots of things wrong with the system. I do believe we are training too many. I do believe that labs are often too big and there is not enough space for everyone we train. Although, to be honest, I have had a hard time finding a new postdoc. But then, I'm not in a glamour field, or at a glamour institution or in an interesting city. Though the cost of living is really good here. And the science is superb.




2 responses so far

  • Cynric says:

    You think your skills forsaken & discarded by the system? Someone got hired. Were they better than you? Why should the system care about you? If there's room to hire one person, why shouldn't it be the best?

    I think this is the crux of the argument, personally. We are currently selecting for scientists on the basis of who can manage the high-stress, high-competition, high-mobility, low-pay culture. I am not convinced this selects for the most creative and original thinkers, but it does select for the most productive generators of science product (as judged by the editors of Nature, Science and Cell). Or at least those without personal responsibilities that limit their ability to commit long hours for low pay.

    Whether that product is the purpose of the enterprise is another issue, but I doubt that's what the taxpayer thinks they are buying.

  • [Comment from the author of the original essay.]

    Thank you for sharing my essay, My Life as a PhD Scientist – You Should Know Why Science Will Fail. I wrote the essay to raise awareness about the systemic problems that science faces. We have reached a dangerous point where the academic system is not sustainable and will not be able to retain the most talented scientists (be it through lack of research funding, insufficient support of scientists, publish or perish, too many PhDs/not enough jobs). The story of Douglas Prasher, a man who should have won the Nobel Prize but ended up driving a shuttle bus for a car dealership, is a prime example. Despite the problems, I remain in science because of the good I can do for humanity as a cancer geneticist. Leaving science isn’t the answer; changing the system is. One of the best things postdocs in our position can do is raise public awareness and inform students considering this career path.

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