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Don’t Become a Scientist!

August 25, 2010

UPDATE:  I know that Dr. Katz is pretty much a loony, and added a comment to the post shortly after making it, to acknowledge his craziness.  I posted this essay first because, historically speaking, it was one of the first I ever read when I first started to become disillusioned with academia several years ago.  Please don’t interpret my choice to link to Katz as anything but an agreement with statements in this specific essay – I find much of his other writing deeply offensive, and will be posting thoughts from many other, less controversial figures in the coming weeks.

“I have known more people whose lives have been ruined by getting a Ph.D. in physics than by drugs.”

Jonathan I. Katz, Professor of Physics, Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.

This is one of my favorite links describing the issues with the academic system.  While some of the statistics in the linked essay are somewhat outdated, many of them reflect the current situation.  For example, my short-lived postdoc paid a paltry $34K a year.  Add in the cost of student loan repayments, and my net take-home was essentially equal to what it was when I was a student.  Ten years of college, and I was working long hours for terrible pay.  I would have been better off getting a job at Best Buy straight out of high school, and working my way up through the management ranks for ten years.

Plus I would have gotten overtime when I worked more than 40 hours in a week.

But the salary isn’t even the biggest deal – it’s just the easiest to convince people of.  Like most of you reading, I chose science as a career due to the allure of working on interesting problems.  And I did get to work on interesting problems.  Occasionally.  This is one of those situations where my “bad luck” turned out to be good – getting saddled with a professor who basically did no work (and later got denied tenure) gave me the opportunity to design my own problem from the ground up, choosing something that genuinely interested me and pursuing it from beginning to end.  This is simply not the case for most graduate students.  Many get assigned terrible projects, based solely on available funding.  Some will spend years collecting faulty data, because the professor’s chasing a dead-end path, and they will have no say in the direction of the project.  Others will work on a project that has little mass appeal, spending years preparing them – with a set of un-marketable skills.

If you are considering the postdoc treadmill… run.  Run far away, and as fast as you can.  If you get lucky enough to network your way into an academic position without a decade of postdocs, or if you’re truly brilliant enough to land one of those jobs despite the odds being stacked against you, I applaud and envy you.  But the reality is that, for the vast majority of PhD graduates, this just isn’t in the cards.  The sooner you get out, the better – ideally before ever enrolling in graduate level classes.

  1. jdavidh permalink

    As a follow up to my posting this link – Prof. Katz has written many other essays. Most of them are complete garbage, and some are also bigoted and ignorant. I link to him not because I think he is the be-all, end-all authority on careers in the sciences, but because his essay lays out many of the very real issues facing someone with a PhD in science, and they come from someone employed as a tenured professor.

    I will post many other such links, some from people whose overall life philosophies I agree with strongly, and others who I think are basically nutjobs. The point of this diverse set of sources is to confirm that the issues are widespread and face people of many backgrounds and opinions. Dr. Katz is just one of many voices speaking out against the problems with higher education. While his voice has been also used to speak out in ways that disgust me, it doesn’t change the fact that I agree with this particular line of reasoning.

  2. aerialmeds permalink

    Are there any flaws in THIS article of Katz, however? Because I’m afraid I did not find notice anything offensive or disgusting. Unless perhaps, the drugs comment, but that too could be an OK for many.

  3. James permalink

    This specific article, I believe, is spot-on, which is why I chose to share it. It just comes with a caveat to take it with a grain of salt, because the author has said some pretty outrageous things.

    I do believe he hit the nail on the head in this case.

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