The Scientific Life: insights from engineering

Jun 07 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the things engineers (who build things) say is:

Good, Fast, Cheap: pick any two

That is, if you want  the engineer to build something for you, you can have it done quickly and very good, but it will cost you. If you can only afford cheap, then it will either be done quickly, but not so good, or slowly and better.

Being a postdoc (or even faculty) is similar:

High-cost city (Boston, NYC, SF), Lifestyle, Post-doc position: pick any two

Money goes a lot further in the heartland of America, but that's not New York or San Francisco or Seattle. The NIH scale for postdocs is a living wage, above the median for a family of four in these areas. It just may not be the living you had in mind.


9 responses so far

  • becca says:

    I've yet to meet anyone telling postdocs this that:
    A) didn't think they were themselves frugal
    B) didn't make far more indulgent/"luxurious" "lifestyle" choices than *I* do
    C) had elder care responsibilities during their post-doc, or a medically needy kid, or got cancer, or had any other Major Life Issues arise during this time that put maximal strain on both time and money. Many lifestyle constraints are not reasonably viewed as "just another choice".

    That said, you are very correct that these constraints don't just operate on postdocs. There is good reason to keep an eye on the trends though. For a hundred years, Americans migrated to wealthier places. What is happening now is that people are collectively migrating less, and when they migrate they migrate to poorer places.

    There are several things going on. One is that it's a domestic version of the offshoring game- states are competing with each other to offer the most "business friendly" environments, so cheap labor has to be in cheap states that have shredded worker protections. One possible factor for some people is that the internet has changed everything, and geographic proximity isn't that crucial and people can seek opportunities in telecommuting- if you can write from anywhere, you don't need to be a writer in NYC. However a big thing that is happening is that the socioeconomic divisions between Americans are greater than they generally have been, and that these divides are intensely geographic in nature. People in NYC have much more in common with people in London than people in rural Mississippi. These divides seem to ossifying, and there is little doubt in my mind that if trends continue there simply won't be any scientists in Mississippi. The NIH funded grant game has gotten more competitive, but so has industry, and *everything else*. Ultimately, some people have a lot of choice in where they move to. But either people's underlying preferences are changing, or people are unable to move to where opportunity is. The rent really is too damn high.

    • potnia theron says:

      As someone who lives in a small-town area, this is just not true. There are many divides, and the only one is not London/NYC to Mississippi/small town USA.

      If you talk to the people barely scraping by in city areas I think they've got more in common with rural folks I know.

      • becca says:

        We agree that the economic divides are important.

        I ran across this elsewhere, and it encapsulates a lot of what I'm trying to get at in terms of in terms of divisions.

        Particularly when you've got a grad degree, you can get by pretty well within that bubble (perhaps irrespective of geography). But if you haven't noticed that most of the people in the comparatively elite education bubble are self-segregating geographically, you aren't paying close attention.

        To be completely clear- this is not about what my opinion of science conducted in flyoverlandia is. This is not about what my opinion of flyoverlandia. This isn't about what the educated elite *should* be doing and where postdocs *should* want to live. This is simply an observation that there is a rather large scale sociological phenomenon, and in no way a particular weakness of postdocs.

  • David says:

    "if trends continue there simply won't be any scientists in Mississippi."

    I'm not sure I agree with this. I understand that some regions of the country are more anti-science than others and that scientists are likely to want to live in a region that is conducive to their life, but I don't see the same trends. Many science institutes are at large facilities (I'm thinking national labs and large research universities, among others) and these are often in rural-ish areas. Also, it seems like every state wants a technology triangle since they believe that tech is where the jobs of the future will be.

    One question is, will the local areas be able to support those jobs or will the scientists be transplants. See for example,
    "The state has low unemployment and more and more jobs, but its future workforce may not be equipped to fill them. ... the state has struggled to educate the children born and raised here so that they can also tap into the economic opportunities around them. It’s a well-known but persistent problem that locals call “the Colorado paradox.”"

  • sel says:

    Another example in the "Colorado paradox" vein is ORNL. Tennessee has been in the news for a lot of ignorant reasons recently, and boy howdy is Oak Ridge rural. So, yeah, not an appealing destination for someone who thinks of themselves as a sophisticated/progressive/science-minded type and expects to end up in SF/NY/LA/Boston. Foreign scientists, who haven't been raised with the mindset that science only happens on the US coasts, don't seem to mind.

    • potnia theron says:

      There are, in my view, enough people who want to do science, no matter what, that they won't mind taking a good job in a "bad place". Again, there are choices and trade-offs. If you *must* live in a place, then you've got exactly the choice I outlines of lifestyle/scientific job.

      • David says:

        I have a NYC bias so it has been eye opening to me to interact with coworkers (I'm currently in fly over country) that consider NYC to be a "bad place." I now know tons of science people who wouldn't trade in rural life for city life regardless of cost. Something I try to keep in mind.

  • Zuska says:

    When I moved from Boston to NC (grad school) people in Boston were actively and vocally sorry for my having to go to such a backwoods existence (the Research Triangle). When I arrived in NC, people there, upon finding out I was newly transplanted from Boston, congratulated me on leaving behind the rush, rudeness, and harsh lonely existence of northern city life for the warmth, friendliness, ease, openness, and natural beauty of NC (none of which could be found in cold northern climes, surely!)

    In NC, when I visited the shore or mountains, people there commiserated with me on my sad luck to be trapped in the congested central Piedmont, while Research Triangle denizens congratulated themselves on access to all of NC plus being no more than 30 minutes drive to the best restaurants and culture.

    When I moved to Kansas City - the city of fountains, full of interesting architecture and frontier history, fancy shopping and prairie skies - it was suggested I was moving beyond the end of the earth.

    The only place I ever moved to where people did not feel sorry for my sad new life was Germany. Although then, scientist friends were of the opinion it would be the death of my career, even if it was a great place to live. They were, of course, wrong.

    Half my postdoc years were spent in Germany, and I'm grateful for that - good salary & benefits, excellent lifestyle, and a chance to see that the treadmill career life of U.S. norms was kinda stupid. Work, no matter how pleasing to the intellect, is the means, not the end.

    • potnia theron says:

      when I was a grad student in Boston, two of my roommates were PhDs in Math, who could *choose* where they went (multiple jobs offers at all Ivy League/Caltech, Stanford, etc). They could NOT believe that I was moving to the Midwest (Chicago!). I still laugh as postdoc salaries in those days were about $15-20K in today dollars.

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