Should you become a scientist?

I was happy to notice via Crooked Timber that Steve Hsu, I physicist I know from way back, has begun to blog. He’s in the physics department at the University of Oregon, although many of his posts are about economics and finance.

Steve links with approval to an article entitled Don’t Become a Scientist!, by Jonathan Katz. Professor Katz is pretty straightforward about what he means by this dramatic statement:

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.

That must be depressing to read for a young person who is considering embarking on the long and difficult road to becoming a professional scientist. A brief perusal of his web page reveals that Professor Katz is something of a nutcake, with other essays like In Defense of Homophobia and Diversity is the Last Refuge of a Scoundrel. Nevertheless, is there anything to his career advice?

The facts of the case are not in dispute: there are many more people who would like to become scientists, even among those who have made it as far as graduate school, than there are jobs for them as professional scientists. (Really here we are thinking of jobs as professors at universities, not working for industry, and the problem is equal or worse in other areas of academia.) The numbers will depend sensitively on how you define the problem, but I’ve heard that perhaps one in four people who get a Ph.D. will eventually become a professor, and that seems plausible.

Why would anyone go through years of extremely hard work (four years of undergrad, perhaps five of grad school, about four or five of postdoc on average, not to mention another six before you come up for tenure) just to have such a small chance of winning what appears to be a somewhat modest prize? It’s like aiming to become a professional athlete, except without the lavish riches, celebrity status, or the esteem of the opposite sex. One must conclude that people only embark on this path because they care deeply about doing science. Should we really be telling those people that they should hang it up, their efforts are a waste of time?

No. Of course we should tell them the truth — there aren’t many positions available, even for people with doctorates from prestigious graduate schools. But in my experience that is hardly a secret — the lesson is driven home again and again, in conversations with other students as well as with faculty. Maybe I’m wrong, but I haven’t heard any professors spinning tales of how easy it is to get a faculty job. There is some tension, of course, because we do try to recruit students to come to our own schools, or to join our groups rather than some other one. But as far as I can tell, such a student would have to live in an especially well-sealed cave to achieve a Ph.D. without having heard about how bad the job market is. And if they do understand how difficult it is, and want to try anyway, then more power to them.

In the face of an unfortunate situation, it’s nice to be able to blame somebody. Who can we blame for the fact that there are fewer jobs than people who get Ph.D.’s? Perhaps there should be more jobs. That would be great, but runs into the fairly prosaic problem of how to pay for it. Double college tuitions? The number of faculty positions is slowly growing, but I don’t see any way to make it grow so fast that it outstrips the number of people who would like to have one.

Maybe we can blame graduate schools, for accepting all of these students even though there aren’t guaranteed jobs waiting for them? I’ve actually heard people express this view in all seriousness. But let’s think about it. What is actually being suggested is to simply accept far fewer applicants to grad school, i.e. to reject half or more of the students we currently take. And this is supposed to benefit these students? “Yes, we understand that you wanted to go to graduate school, but for your own good we’ve decided not to let you get a Ph.D. It’s true, you might have been one of the fortunate ones to get a job, or you might have led a fulfilling life outside of academia, but in our judgment the odds are against you. Someday you’ll thank us.”

It’s hard to get a job as a science professor, or just about any other kind of professor. And it’s heartbreaking to go through years of effort and not achieve that goal. But not letting people try is not the answer. Nor is discouraging anyone who might want to pursue the dream of being a scientist. We should be relentlessly honest — it’s a hard road, and many will ultimately not succeed. But in my experience, this fact is pretty obvious, not at all hidden. And if someone understands this and wants to try anyway, they should be encouraged as much as possible. I have the best job in the world, and it wouldn’t be right to tell someone else they shouldn’t pursue the same path if that’s where their passion leads them.

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