Don’t Become a Scientist!

Don’t Become a Scientist!

Jonathan I. Katz

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


约拿单 I. 卡茨

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.

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.

postdoctoral salaries begin at ?,000 annually in the biological
sciences and about ?,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.



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.

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



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.


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