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Don't Become a Scientist. (wustl.edu)
83 points by aneesh on Feb 23, 2008 | hide | past | web | favorite | 91 comments

I have to agree with this wholeheartedly. I'm just finishing up my undergrad in molecular biology. I've been working in a lab doing research for the last year and a half, and it sucks. As an earlier comment had pointed out, the post-doc I work along side only makes $40,000/year. He's in his 50's and has at least 30 published papers on everything from cancer research to stuff the lab is doing now on BK virus. For the last year, he's been trying to find a different job, preferably in the private sector and that pays more, but hasn't had any luck. The work is repetitive and boring, yet you must constantly stay focused. While it may not seem like it, it's very easy to lose track of which tube you're adding a chemical to, or which chemicals you've already added.

The bureaucracy is ridiculous. My PI doesn't do any of the research along with us. He just sits and writes/revises papers and applies to grants all day. Most of the time, he has no idea how the experiments we're doing even work.

From my research experience and from the experience of others around me, I knew research was not the field to go into. That's why I'm working on a startup now and possibly going into an MBA program. Science is a great undergraduate major, just don't expect to be able to do anything with it when you graduate.

If you want to do research, at least in biology, don't get a PhD, get an MD.

A dissenting view

It's true that, as the article and many commenters have said,there are lots of bad places, and bad cultures within academia.

So what? There's also some great groups and great cultures within academia. If you want to go the academic path, the thing to do is to make sure you end up in such a place. So far as I can see the way to achieve this is:

(1) Do a lot of research before you join a group. Just because a group looks great from the outside (brand name University, famous prof) doesn't mean it'll be a good experience. Interview former members; tour the lab; ask hard questions about the culture - what do people love about their jobs; what do they think is the worst thing about the culture; what do they think about their career prospects? Follow up on these questions in detail - most people love to talk about their careers, and if they won't, it often means that they're not happy. If you get defensive responses, or a refusal to respond, that tells you what you need to know about the culture. Don't look back.

(2) Iterate until you find a group that looks excellent.

(3) Mentally, when you join a group, think of it as being on probation. After three and then six months, ask yourself "Am I having fun? Is what I'm doing making a difference? Is the culture here genuinely good?" If the answer to all these questions isn't yes, get out, and go join another group. This is hard to do - you'll get a lot of advice to the contrary - but 9 times out of 10 the results are a major improvement.

I'm leaving academia now, after PhD, postdocs, being a tenured prof, the whole nine yards. It was tough at times, but overall, it was an asbolute blast.

If the article at the top of the thread is atypical of a tenured professor, this post is absolutely typical. I've heard this speech a million times. If you ever need to hear it again, ask any professor to give it to you and they'll happily oblige.

Undoubtedly, most tenured professors are having an "absolute blast". Why shouldn't they be? They are the end product of a rigorous system of selection for their particular set of personality traits. If you're not the kind of person who adores being a researcher to the exclusion of all other thoughts -- if you are not either a truly diehard optimist, or the most stubborn person you'll ever know -- you won't make it to where this guy is.

The career advice here is good, solid advice, as far as it goes. But the parody of this would be fun to write, and might contain equal amounts of truth. ("(2) Iterate until you find a group that looks excellent, or until you discover that all the excellent groups have a waiting list, at which point you need to either quit grad school, apply for a personal fellowship and win it, or work for whoever has the grant money to pay you.")

No time for extensive parody today, though -- besides, the guy at Piled Higher and Deeper has covered that ground better than I ever could -- so I'll leave you with this caveat: Very, very few of the people you interview with in a research group will ever tell you that your academic career is a waste of time and that you should just leave, even if it's true. They've got a very strong incentive to recruit you, so that you can apply your inexpensive intelligence and energy to their projects. They've got an incentive to be careful what they say to you, because if word gets back to their colleagues that they are discouraging prospective students it might derail their careers. They also have an even bigger incentive to keep fooling themselves.

And, you know, academic scientists really don't like pain. They're not drill sergeants. Taking starry-eyed optimists, most of whom remind you of yourself, and kicking them in the chest is not a lot of fun. It's for their own good, but it feels like euthanizing puppies. It's just so much easier to encourage them to follow the same path that you did, and to let time and nature and bureaucracy take care of teaching them the harsh realities of life.

"Very, very few of the people you interview with in a research group will ever tell you that your academic career is a waste of time and that you should just leave, even if it's true."

It's true that they'll rarely say this explicitly. Ultimately, it's the potential grad student's responsibility to dig and find out what kind of a culture a research group has. This is a difficult thing to do, requiring considerable self-confidence and tenacity. Still, in my opinion, if someone is not willing to do this, then they really should consider some path other than academia.

"(2) Iterate until you find a group that looks excellent, or until you discover that all the excellent groups have a waiting list, at which point you need to either quit grad school, apply for a personal fellowship and win it, or work for whoever has the grant money to pay you."

You seem to be implicitly assuming that the world owes you a position in a good group. It doesn't. If you can't find one, then you shouldn't work for whoever has grant money to pay you. You should go and do something else - like start a company.

You seem to be implicitly assuming that the world owes you a position in a good group. It doesn't. If you can't find one, then you shouldn't work for whoever has grant money to pay you. You should go and do something else - like start a company.

Now we are getting somewhere! :)

I'd like to second Michael's point. My research is genuinely exciting. It's enthralling for little kids, grandparents, and everything in between. More importantly, I find my research fascinating.

The career path is challenging. Salary/hours worked sucks. Multiple moves are required for the two postdocs and a permanent job. There are serious politics.

The question is ultimately personal. Is academia worth it?

If you are an independent thinker and don't care much about what your peers think, then I don't think academia is a good choice.

I think it's no coincidence that startup founders tend to be more of the rebellious types.

I completely disagree with your first sentence. At least in the physical sciences. There is a spectrum of academics out there, that map to a spectrum of different personalities. Some work on stuff few people care about, some work in the mainstream and some pioneer the mainstream. There are pro/cons to all three types.

Personally, I do not know many startup founders. But, the basic underlying principle of success (that I've gathered from news.yc) is "build something people want." So startups are there to provide services. Necessarily, founders do care what other people think.

Academic scientists don't necessarily have that constraint.

How can you get funding as an academic if you work on something few people care about? How can you attract PhD students? How can you publish in top conferences/journals?

Of course it's hard. Harder than people who aren't trying can imagine. Chance of success is low. But there are a number of success stories.

Perfect example: the search for extra solar planets. Twenty years ago, Geoff Marcy, a prof at a teaching school, SF state, begged for telescope time. Now he's a prof at UC Berkeley, and (I think) PI of a roughly trillion-dollar space mission.

Marcy is a multiple-sigma deviation. His success is rare. Careers in academic science have a very poor risk-adjusted payoff, worst than startups. Would I rather be the guy who pioneered planet finding or one of the google guys? Don't know. :)

Unless a person needs specialized equipment or materials, why go into academia for research in the first place? It's easy enough to become financially free so you can spend all your time researching. The internet is there if you need to collaborate.

Unless a person needs specialized equipment or materials...

That is a pretty huge caveat. If you're lucky enough to be a mathematician, that's easy to say. If you're a molecular biologist... brace yourself for the sticker shock.

And it depends on your goals. If your goal is to enlighten yourself, you don't need to be an academic: you just need a decent library that gets all the Nature journals, a pile of textbooks, a local university full of grad students that like to talk about their work, and time. But if your goal is to do original work, you've got bigger financial problems.

Do you know why this is the case? The most ground breaking science has been relatively inexpensive. Has all the low hanging fruit already been picked?

Anyways, in today's world, I see the real need lying in integration, not more and more specialized research. I think this is reflected in the discouraging stories above.

> Do you know why this is the case?

Open a lab equipment catalog. What do you suppose the availability of grant money to most purchasers does to the prices? Also don't forget that the delivery of anything chemistry-related to a private residence is all but banned under American law.

Awesome. Not only does this guy disprove the rule that all tenured profs are hopeless optimists about becoming a prof, but he's even more of a pessimist than I am! I mean:

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

Um, no. Really, no. Spoken like a guy who hasn't really known many people whose lives have been ruined by drugs.

The situation is bad -- everything this guy says is true, basically -- but I don't think it's that bad. In particular, if you have Ph.D.-level skills in a technical field you can step off the academic treadmill at any point and get a job. It may not be the kind of job you get to brag about, but you probably won't starve.

There are people I know who have endured years of continuing depression because they were unable to become tenured professors. But there are also people I know who are depressed because they aren't bestselling novelists, professional musicians, lottery winners, or Bill Gates.

The secret is to be realistic. Study science as an undergrad, then switch to engineering (this is now my standard advice to young techies.) Get a Ph.D. only if you really love doing research so badly that you're willing to endure indentured servitude. Do not plan to become a professor. Make sure to spend your Ph.D. years drinking as much beer as possible with the smartest people you know, and enjoy yourself!

"There are people I know who have endured years of continuing depression because they were unable to become tenured professors. But there are also people I know who are depressed because they aren't bestselling novelists, professional musicians, lottery winners, or Bill Gates."

Granted, but science is totally unlike music, writing or gambling, in that that the best-case payoff is still quite meager. Wanting to become a professor is a good bit different than wanting to become a rock star or professional athlete.

Too many smart kids start into grad school thinking that a professorship is a reasonable, attainable career goal, depending entirely upon your motivation and intelligence. When they (almost inevitably) fail, it can lead to a crisis of confidence that goes much deeper than simply failing to become the next Kanye West. After all, everyone knows that rock stardom depends heavily on luck...but a professorship depends only on intelligence. If you ask me, it's a cruel game.

> but a professorship depends only on intelligence

Myeah, but personal relationships and contacts play a big role. Along with where you live. Einstein was kept out of academia before his big year, right? How close were we from losing him altogether?

My writing wasn't totally clear. That sentence would be better if it read "a professorship ostensibly depends only on intelligence."

Way past.

To be fair, its not like drugs come up and ruin peoples lives. Losers just take drugs on their way down.

Do you want a professorship?

Who, me? Heck, no! I'm not convinced that I ever did, although at certain times in my career I used to claim that I did in a half-hearted fashion. The thing is, when someone asks you why you're studying physics they expect a more conventional answer than "because I haven't gotten bored with it yet".

I once flirted with trying to find a role as a non-tenured "member of the technical staff"... I even did an experimental postdoc with that goal in mind. I eventually concluded that my enjoyment of doing science (as opposed to "reading and writing about science", which is rather more fun) wasn't really high enough to overcome the relatively low pay and the fact that I'd be subordinate to an academic bureaucracy throughout my entire career. In other words: if you like being a glorified postdoc, it may well be possible to do it forever, but you have to like it a lot to stay happy doing it for forty years.

What he really means is not "don't become a scientist" but "don't get a job as a professor." The two are by no means identical. There were scientists long before there were research professors (that concept dates from about 1870) and there are still plenty of scientists who aren't professors.

Like being a writer, being a scientist depends on what you do, not who pays you.

How can one do relevant science without the support that comes from a research institution? Research professor (I clump lab researchers into the professor term) is certainly a new thing. So is "big money" science (a consequence of WWII.) As a result of the research prof and "big money" science, the days of ben franklin and his kite are long dead. (ben franklin was a great scientist.)

Academia is setup to provide support for scientists: it provides smart people to talk to. It provides money to pay the bills and run research labs. Where else can I receive this support?

One path is to take a 6 year detour, build a startup that pays me $30M, and then run my own research program. Honestly, that seems even harder than two postdocs.

meh, Einstein worked in a patent office. Galois failed the french public school teacher's exam. Grassman spent an eternity teaching middle school. The Wright brothers repaired bicycles. The academy spent most of its time telling these people they were wrong, and then, maybe, embraced them once they didn't have any choice.

Eh... I would debate quite a lot of what he said. This is a very field-oriented problem. For instance, in Psychology, the majority of graduate degrees go into counseling. Of the more research oriented people left, there is a vast array of fields available; Neuropsych, Cognitive Psych, Industrial Organizational, and so on. These are fields with public and private sector demand... If you're good, and you publish it is quite possible to land in a tenure track position is 2-3 years. The biological sciences, which my ex went into, are likewise diverse with high (unless you study ichthyology) demand. Finally, know that all academia, like startups, is a dice game. Brilliant is less than half the battle. Being right often counts for nothing. Hardworking, with force of will and personality, and in the right place at the right time (which is not always luck) play an awfully big part of every success. Even when you get in, you can easily end up the flunky of someone with similar credentials, but more success. But hey, that's life, right?

psychology is a science now?

My feeling is that there are two diverging branches in "psychology"; one that should promptly rename itself to a sub-branch of neuroscience, and the other into a mixture of philosophy, history, and sociology. Who disagrees?

I can't wait to see this rebranching happen, but alas, it's the establishment.

Philip Greenspun had a great article about this as well: http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science

I can only speak from my own experience. If you're genuinely sure you're not in it for the money, you really enjoy the area you're working in, and you're prepared to work in a way you find interesting rather than simply doing what will bump you quickly up the career ladder - then academia might well be the best job that anyone will pay you to do. A lot of people find that they don't really enjoy one aspect of this and / or can't make the necessary compromises to make it enjoyable - then it becomes just another job, not much better or worse than most others.

From the government's (and the country's) perspective it makes sense to keep the imbalance between PhD's trained and PhDs hired because graduate students that don't go into academia go into industry. A lot of great companies have come out of disgruntled grad students.

I think the thing we need to figure out is how to deal with the period after a Masters and before a PhD. This is the period where you start doing real research and you learn to work on your own. This period is what makes grad school such valuable training. This is also the period in your life where you are still young and hungry to make an impact. Unfortunately, it's almost easier to stay in school and finish your degree, but once you finish it you're 30 and the hunger and energy are gone. Also, you've already put so much time into a PhD that it's too late to turn back from a career in academia.

Maybe we should redefine the Masters to include some research work.

"you're 30 and the hunger and energy is gone."

If anything you know a lot more in your domain of expertise and are in a better position to start a co. Plus you're hungrier -- grad students make very little money. A formula for startup success.

"Maybe we should redefine the Masters to include some research work."

Actually the Masters does in fact include research work. At least mine did.

In practice, it's hard to completely change course and take on even more risk once you are finished with your Ph.D. Often it's the dropouts that start companies and the PhDs that join them.

In Physics, a Masters typically means 2 years of coursework and passing some set of exams. Most of us join a research group about 1 year into grad school but it's hard to do real research until your classes are done.

Often it's the dropouts that start companies...

It is probably easier to start a company on the side as a grad student than to wait until you graduate. Grad student salary sucks, but the flip side is that it can be a pretty awesome day job. The guy who pointed out that 50% of the average grad student's 60-hour week is spend playing WoW is pretty much on the money. You can go months at a time doing only 20 hours of research a week, or even 10, and still not get fired.

Of course, you're not getting paid much, but you're surrounded by lots of other smart young people who aren't getting paid much either, so it's kind of fun. And you certainly aren't going to graduate if you don't do a lot of work -- but if your preferred exit plan is to found a startup and drop out, who cares about that?

It's actually rather hard to fire a grad student. The adviser pays the student very little, but in return (s)he is expected to graduate the student. A student who is fired by Professor X three or four years into a Ph.D. program is well and truly screwed. They might sue. They will certainly tell every grad student they know, and they in turn might tell all the first-year students, who will avoid working for Professor X like he had the plague. So, once you've gotten established as a student in a research group, it's not so hard to spend six months or a year doing only 20 hours worth of work per week. Your adviser will roll her eyes a lot, but she's not likely to take action until you've accumulated a really solid, long-term record as a slacker.

"It's actually rather hard to fire a grad student. The adviser pays the student very little, but in return (s)he is expected to graduate the student. A student who is fired by Professor X three or four years into a Ph.D. program is well and truly screwed. They might sue."

...which is why the question rarely arises. The faculty have devious ways of eliminating students that don't make the grade. Why fire people, when you can just collude to make their lives so miserable that they choose to quit?

Do it properly, and the other students will just assume that the problem is a personal issue. If you're a successful researcher, it won't scare anyone away from your lab.

+1, painfully true. :) This is, indeed, the technique, and I have seen this done more than once.

Can you elaborate a little on these devious ways?

The basic principle is that your advisor has control over everything, and you have control over nothing. Need an important collaboration for your next paper? That won't happen without your advisor's support. The same goes for access to specialized equipment or supplies (the budget can become very tight when your PI doesn't like you). At most schools, your PI also controls your funding; you can expect to TA more often if s/he doesn't like you.

Your PI knows the weaknesses in your research and knowledge better than anyone, and can use this to your disadvantage. I've witnessed faculty who aggressively attack their own students during examinations (a truly disastrous scenario). More often, advisors will simply fail to defend their poor students from unfair attacks by other faculty. Departmental lectures, defenses, oral exams, etc. are remarkably subjective affairs, and one bad comment can snowball into an event that will add years to your time in grad school.

Another very common tactic is for the PI to hand out the best research projects to favored students. There's nothing so demoralizing as watching a first-year grad student get an publication in Science or Nature (by being assigned to an already successful project), when you've worked for years on failing experiments. I've seen this happen too many times to count.

Like I said, there's no way to list all of the different ways that your PI can make your life painful. It's just an extremely unbalanced, unregulated power relationship, and with any creativity at all, an advisor can use that power to destroy you.

This is true. While PI's can't always fire you gracefully, they have many ways to make you wish they had fired you.

So, ultimately, if your startup-company moonlighting starts to eat too much into graduate research time, you're going to have to fish or cut bait: Either keep your adviser happy, or take the necessary leave of absence.

Note that (most) graduate advisers are not evil people. I suspect that many of them will quite happily grant you six months off to pursue your startup-company dreams... if the timing is right (hint: don't ask until just after the Nature article is submitted) and after they explain to you that your publication record and your graduation time will be set back by a year or more. Oh, and you probably won't be given the plum projects ever again, since your adviser knows that you have one eye on the door... those are the breaks of the game.

One very special caution: Your adviser may try to enlist your help in his startup company. Be very wary of this situation, or of any potential adviser with a history of this. You want your adviser to be unambiguously focused on helping you graduate and get a better-paying job... or as unambiguously as possible, anyway.

"Often it's the dropouts that start companies and the PhDs that join them."

I don't agree with your statement. I think we hear more stories of dropouts starting companies because they are rare and make interesting stories.

For instance: 1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Warnock 2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irwin_M._Jacobs 3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Samueli

. .

Since there are a lot more degree holders than dropouts, it's probably mathematically true that there are more PhDs starting companies. I wonder what percentage of dropouts start companies vs. percentage of PhDs.

That is basically what I was driving at in my original post. If you are a PhD candidate 3 years into grad school are you more likely to start a company by dropping out or by staying in school?

Don't be misled by the promise of freedom in academia. It's not like that at all.

What is wrong with it?

Unless you get a faculty position at a stellar university (highly unlikely nowadays), the teaching will be depressing. And your research will suffer as a result since you will be in no mood to do it.

Also, unless you plan to do everything yourself for research, you will need to get some funding. But whether you get that funding depends on whether your peers -- competitors actually -- like what you plan to do.

Finally, the fact that computer science tries to be a science severely limits your creativity -- at least if you want to publish in respectable conferences and journals.

Actually, the teaching is depressing even at stellar universities. I'm a postdoc at such a place. Last semester, I taught "Calculus for kids who don't care." This semester, I'm teaching "Poker and craps for kids who don't care."

I suspect the only way to avoid this is to work at an engineering school (not necessarily a top one).

"I became a scientist in order to have the freedom to work on problems which interest me."

I thought a more reasonable path to this would be to join a startup or three, get rich and then spend the rest of your life getting a PhD, working on interesting problems, etc. No? ;)

Since one out of ten fail, that wouldn't be the best strategy.

If only one out of ten failed, that would clearly be a great strategy. I think you meant 10% succeed.

Even if that stat is true, it isn't useful. It doesn't mean your chances must be one in ten, and it doesn't mean that the overall rate can't or won't rise in the future.

Assuming you meant "9 out of 10 fail", and that the average failure takes a year, including recovery time at a real job to replenish your finances and find a new idea...

That means you've had 6 chances just by the time your colleagues have finished grad school. 0.9^6 = 0.53, so you have a 47% chance of being a multi-millionaire by the time your academic friends are even entering the rat race. Compare that to the article's "If you're 95th-percentile lucky you might get a post-doc position, then you have a 50-50 chance of getting a tenure track position." Your odds are about 10 times better with the tech startup.

Then consider that at a minimum, you should expect 2 years of postdoc and another 6 years before getting tenure. That's now 14 years of training before you can actually work on what you want. 14 startup attempts with a 90% failure rate gives you a roughly 80% chance of success. The startup path is starting to look mighty good...

and plus, having started and failed at 5 startups, you learn a lot! your chances for the 6th one will definitely be higher than 10%.

Those are awesome odds compared to the "standard" way, apparently.

They would be awesome, however they're backwards. 9 out of 10 are likely to fail, averaged across industries. Perhaps more.

>[... in contrast] a lawyer [begins working] at 25 and makes partner at 31

A very low percentage make partner, lower than the tenure percentage.

Becoming a partner: Work 80 to 100-hr weeks for 5-10 years (M-F,S-S 10-10) Sacrifice balance in your life Lose your friends If you're good enough, they'll ask you if you want to (take a loan) and buy into partnership

Science is disillusioning. I used to have a 2nd job doing programming work for bioinformatics researchers. I did this off and on for about 4 years: 2000-2004. I had two reasons for doing this - I harbored a desire to do 'science' and contribute to the grand body of human knowledge. I hoped the contacts I made would help me get into a good graduate program. The other reason was money - I worked in my spare time and made an extra 70 grand a year doing this. Note to hackers: if you want a really easy job that pays pretty well, makes you appear smart on your resume, and gives you a lot of free time to work on side projects, I highly recommend befriending the PI of a well-funded university research group that needs a programmer.

The reason I was brought in was because in addition to the research paperwork, the grants I worked on required some software artifact to be produced. The grad students and post-docs working on the project were unable to write software, so I was the hired gun. What I produced was crap, but I'm not sure that mattered. It just had to survive a demo at the end of the year and get to the grant renewal stage (in startup speak, 'next funding round.')

I'm not sure if the other researchers were actually unable to write software, or if they were just uninterested in doing so. It was strange to me, since the department I worked for was pretty much 'bioinformatics' - the point of which was to design software tools for biological research. It seemed like people should want to know how to make software, since it was...uh... kind of important to what they were doing.

The day to day environment was much like "The Office", only it was in a "lab", and it was seldom funny. The lab had a laboratory area, with test tubes and fume hoods and whatnot. The main workspace, however, was essentially a cube farm, except instead of out in an office park somewhere, it was above the university hospital's food court.

Most of the people working there were like people working at any big, lame bureaucratic institution, only they had or were obtaining PhDs. Most of their time was spent surfing the web, sending email, and attending meetings. I have never worked anywhere else where people attended so many meetings. I once worked at a giant megacorp for a year, and would lose my mind when I had to go to three meetings a week. At the research lab, they had on average three meetings per day. Journal club, data sharing, data club, journal sharing, guest lecture, team status report meeting, department status report meeting, grant status report meeting, etc. I'm familiar with the horror stories about post-docs working 100 hours a week, but if other programs are similar to the one I worked for, 40 of those hours are spent in meetings, 20 hours are spent wasting time on the internet, 10 hours are typical office chatting, 15 hours of going to classes and lectures, and then maybe 15 hours of actual work... but I'm skeptical that anyone spent 15 additional hours doing work. Normally everything was queued up until the very last moment, then people would spend a couple feverish days slapping something together before a presentation.

I shuffled around between a few different projects and was able to do most of my work offsite. I learned about some cool ideas, but didn't really feel like I was contributing to much of anything. On the last project I spent more time at the lab, simply because I was tired of working at home. Aside from a couple strange aspergy maniacs, most of the people seemed very depressed. One woman finished up her PhD and was planning on moving back to Europe to run her parent's bed and breakfast. Two others were really hoping to get into dental school.

I'm not sure what the people were being trained to do. The wet lab work was supposed to be done by PhDs, but could have easily been handled by undergraduates. Indeed, anything that required advanced knowledge actually WAS done by a young indian female undergraduate who seemed quite harried after being stuck in the lab while her post-doc and grad-student peers were off at another journal sharing. The software work simply wasn't done by anyone in the lab at all - it was all done by hired contractors like myself. It seemed that the only practical training that people received was in reading journals and applying for grants. The most 'successful' guy in the program was hired for $90,000 by a pharmaceutical firm where his job was to read and organize various journal articles...

I could go on and on about this, but the longwinded 'point' I wanted to make was that I agree with the article. I worked in a hot field at the time with a lot of grant money, and it was very bleak and depressing. And, before I get the chorus of people telling me that things are different at good universities, all of this work was done at that other university in Cambridge, the one down the street from MIT with a square named after it.

Remember that some labs are more dysfunctional than others. Yours sounds pretty bad. My own experience at the same big crimson-colored university was considerably less bureaucratic -- we lost only about half a day per week to meetings, although there was still plenty of paper to be shuffled, between the grants and the articles and the manuscripts and the review manuscripts and the insane procurement process. And morale was rather higher, though perhaps not an order of magnitude higher.

The "wasting time on the Internet" factor should not be underestimated. Remember, the only reason we're all here is that Tim Berners-Lee spent a lot of his time fiddling around with the Internet instead of doing his physics research.

I'll add that the bureaucracy depends heavily on the size of the group. Biological research (in particular, anything that includes the word "systems" or "-omics" in the grant title) has been succumbing to an empire-building mentality for a long time. These programs tend to be large, highly bureaucratic, and well-funded (they're also, not incidentally, the groups most likely to have the resources to pay a staff programmer).

Small groups are much more dependent on the productivity of each researcher. For example, it's not uncommon to see labs of 10 people publishing at roughly the same rate as groups of double or triple the size. Just like startups vs. big companies, the communication overhead of a small laboratory is much lower, and responsibility of each member, correspondingly higher.

the research group had both "systems" and "-omics" in its title!

What can I say? I'm psychic. ;-)

I wonder if the Biotech field is this depressing. I thought that it would be different with all that's happening in the field.

Anybody have experience in Biotech that cares to comment?

Most research labs I know come very close to your description of them.

There are, though, a few exceptions here and there, but it will cost you time to find them.

Although I agree with nearly everything he says in this essay, it's worth pointing out that he has written several other pieces that would make most normal people question his grip on sanity. At the very least, this guy is eccentric. Also, the numbers he cited are from 1999, and are getting a bit dated. NIH post-doc stipends are now roughly $40k/year (including in the most expensive cities, like San Francisco); grad-student stipends are around $25k per year.

Everything else is true, in my experience. If you start a PhD in the physical or biological sciences this year, you'll spend 5-10 years in grad school, barely making ends meet at $25k a year. Then, if you're incredibly lucky (think 95th-percentile lucky), you'll get a stellar paper that will set you up for a post-doc in a superstar lab, which will give you a roughly 50/50 shot at a tenure track position somewhere (don't count on living in a city, or even a place where your significant other can find a job, however, because you're now living at the whims of the academic system.)

Your post-doc will take 3-4 years, and will pay you less than you could have made right out of an undergraduate CS program, in exchange for more risk and longer hours. You'll be expected to work nights and weekends, and in case you lack the drive to do it, there will be some guy from China with a J-1 visa sitting next to you. He's probably living in a boarding house right next to the university with ten other post-docs, and he's willing to work 100-hour weeks for a shot at a job in this country. That's your baseline.

If you're astronomically lucky, you'll get a faculty position -- hopefully not at Podunk U -- where you'll be paid significantly less than that undergrad CS major (who is now probably making over $100k/year, buying a home, getting married, etc.) You'll be competing for grant money in an insanely tight market (the funding rate for NIH research grants is well below 5% now), and evaluated by established faculty who will torpedo your proposals if it helps their own chances. At the end of six years of insane work, you'll get a shot at keeping your job. If you get tenure, you can settle down to a lifetime of below-market wages, while working relaxing 50-60 hour weeks.

Of course, if you choose to leave academia after grad school, the prospects are equally dismal. The rare position that requires research experience is essentially set aside for friends (you hear a lot about "networking" on the science job boards, but little practical advice on how to actually do it), or for people who have been poached from other companies by recruiters. Meanwhile, once you have a PhD, you're untouchable by most employers -- considered too theoretical and expensive for "practical" work. Ultimately, most people with advanced degrees in the sciences spend years teaching courses on contract, or jumping between dead-end, low-paying jobs, hoping to start something that resembles a career.

At the very least, this guy is eccentric.

He'd have to be. Nobody gets anywhere in academia by rocking the boat. It's an intensely political business; even after you have tenure, you can still lose your research funding (which kills your "summer salary", lowering your take-home pay by 25% or more), your lab space, your future publications in prestigious journals (which can be anonymously torpedoed by your peers) and, most important of all, the services of the talented grad students and postdocs who actually do all your work for you.

Meanwhile, once you have a PhD, you're untouchable by most employers -- considered too theoretical and expensive for "practical" work.

This depends a great deal on what your Ph.D. is in and how you treat it. I've never had this problem, but I got my Ph.D. in EE, with a focus on semiconductor device fabrication. Nobody ever accused me of being "too theoretical" and there are actually quite a few industry employers that specifically look for such Ph.D.s.

A very smart friend of mine studied theoretical solid state physics, but then got a job right out of school as a process development guy at Intel. Voila, his "theoretical" reputation was instantly laundered away!

Of course, if you spend the five years after getting your Ph.D. "teaching courses on contract, or jumping between dead-end, low-paying jobs" people will begin to conclude that you're hopelessly in love with the academic lifestyle. And that's too bad. The academic lifestyle is fun in many ways -- for example, your ambitious and hard-working colleagues from China and India are often really nice, really smart people! -- but it's a terribly one-sided romance.

"This depends a great deal on what your Ph.D. is in and how you treat it. I've never had this problem, but I got my Ph.D. in EE, with a focus on semiconductor device fabrication."

Agree. I was trying to be careful to speak only of the physical and biological sciences, because I know from experience that job market for engineering and CS is different.

I don't think that anyone tries to spend their post-doctoral years hopping between contract jobs; the problem comes when you simply can't get that first job in your field, and you have to do these things to make ends meet. Before you know it, you're stuck in a cycle, and people start to believe that you're "in love with the academic lifestyle". This happens to scientists more often than most people think.

Meanwhile, once you have a PhD, you're untouchable by most employers

Who needs employers?

People who are broke from grad school. :-/

Most PhDs in technical fields get paid tuition and a stipend.

On the order of $15-20K/year. It's hard to save money when you've got a poverty-level stipend.

His comment implied that grad school is like undergrad where you accumulate lots of debt.

60K debt in student loans from undergrad is a world of difference from "wish I could save more".

My comment implied that there are people who are broke from grad school.

Last time I checked my bank account, that's still true.

The many grad students I've known aren't close to rich -- but aren't broke because of school at all.

Most earn ~6 figures when they graduate, unless they go into academia where income growth is slower but benefits are better.

By the way, this isn't true for chemists. My roommate's a chem major and has interned all over the place; the scientists he works with apparently had little trouble finding jobs (here in NJ, anyway). Of course, their research centers on perfume or toothpaste...

Are the prospects this bad in math as well?

Yes. In my year, we had 12 people entering at Rutgers.

2 graduated in 5 years, and got good postdocs after 1 year (one went to UIUC, I'm at Courant). We are the only ones who have a real shot at research oriented tenure track.

1 dropped out in the first year, 2 more have or are dropping out with a masters (1 after 4.5 years, 1 after 6).

3 more will graduate after 6 years, IF they can find a job (50% odds). One guy has a wife, and hopes he can find a job in the NYC area (he's looking at a 4+4 teaching load). I know other people who have such jobs: none like them.

1 more is potentially a long termer (he hopes to graduate in 7 years).

The only major difference is that you will probably not be a technician (as described by this guy), you will do your own research from the beginning. You can also survive without grants, though it will hurt your career.


The only difference (but a big one in my view) is that you are an independent researcher from the very beginning.

Why independent?

I don't understand the question.

Sorry, my question is: why are math researchers more independent than others?

What I meant is that as early as in grad school you start working entirely on your own and your advisor is just that, advisor. He is not going to prove your theorems for you. As far as I know in other fields it takes a while to reach this level of independence.

Thanks a lot for your reply; I'm starting studies on maths and I was very interested on this.

Why is this post dated 1999 with a May 2001 reference?

Nobody respects the lone, eccentric time-travel researcher...

That's what I was thinking...this physics prof is doing better than he thinks. He's just so bogged down in bureauacracy that he has been unable to publish on it yet...

If I most value learning and research, what do I lose if I do not become a member of academia?

But science is so much fun! It's kind of like going to college for free--I get to take interesting classes. And work on startups on the side.

There are other professors who recommend research and are actively pitching people to join:


Money isn't everything

I think that one of the things this article was getting at was that it feels like one is not captain of their own ship when they do science as a career. Ie, no matter how hard or much you work you won't get your due rewards.

but it comes pretty damn close.

What a disgustingly bourgeois article; check out this quote:

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

Interesting indeed!... The post was made in 1999 and a few things have changed since then

The author writes that the conditions in India and China are "worse", which might have been true in 1999, but certainly not today! See http://www.rediff.com/money/2008/feb/20apac.htm Interestingly, academic jobs are on the rise as well with burgeoning of new grad schools/research institutes. The demand-supply curve in India is skewed in other direction. Finally, (this is an information gathered from a few senior professors, haven't found any web resource yet!), the success of grant proposals in India is of the order of 60-70%, much higher than that in the U.S.

Though, it's still a fact that academia is not looked as a 'lucrative' career option yet.

(Well, as a supplement to an earlier post, there are a bunch of hilarious webpages by Philip Greenspun. See http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/)

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