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Young, talented and fed-up: scientists tell their stories (nature.com)
248 points by danielmorozoff on Oct 27, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 177 comments

"if you pay a man a salary for doing research, he and you will want to have something to point to at the end of the year to show that the money has not been wasted. In promising work of the highest class, however, results do not come in this regular fashion, in fact years may pass without any tangible result being obtained, and the position of the paid worker would be very embarrassing and he would naturally take to work on a lower, or at any rate a different plane where he could be sure of getting year by year tangible results which would justify his salary. The position is this: You want one kind of research, but, if you pay a man to do it, it will drive him to research of a different kind. The only thing to do is to pay him for doing something else and give him enough leisure to do research for the love of it. "

-- J. J. Thompson"

I've seen this used to explain the odd dovetailing of research and lecturing.

There was a point where this made inherent sense - no one but research experts could educate new students, and students were attempting to quickly reach the state of the art. That's long past - a complex analysis expert with no training in education is a terrible candidate to teach basic multivariable calculus.

And yet the whole thing makes a sick sort of sense, because paying and tenuring a professor to teach classes justifies their presence without demanding publications. They'll muddle through intro classes without causing any real problems, and can go back to being brilliant on no particular schedule in between lectures.

Or, on the flip side, set up something like the Institute for Advanced Study. It only took already-proven brilliance, so it could justify paying people for years without any breakthroughs to justify it.

"When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don't get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they are not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come.

Nothing happens because there's not enough real activity and challenge: You're not in contact with the experimental guys. You don't have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!"

Richard Feynman, "The Dignified Professor"


This is absolutely a risk. I was thinking of Feynman when I brought it up, thanks for finding the quote!

The tenure-and-teaching model is a better one than it was ever given credit for; the seemingly irrational connection between elementary teaching and cutting-edge research has been a powerful one.

Even so, I think the IAS model is better than a lot of what we're seeing today. Now, introductory classes have been offloaded onto (poorly paid) lecturers, and professors are expected to publish consistently, even without funding. The results are hideous: not just inaction but counter-productive action.

The replication crisis is, to a real degree, a function of this paradigm. "No results" is not an acceptable justification for "no publications", so we see people using statistical trickery that has been bad practice for decades to keep up their publication count. I'd really like to see them go back to teaching and researching, but even a movement to sinecures that don't demand any results at all would be progress.

This doesn't really describe life at the IAS. Maybe in Feynman's day, but it wasn't my experience. If you're at IAS, you're continually surrounded by lots of very bright people who are trying to solve problems and understand things. Lots of conferences, lots of visitors. There's always someone to talk to or something new to learn. It's probably the most stimulative environment I've ever encountered.

Ideas that generate a breakthrough are the exception not the rule. Sometimes, like in the case of Einstein all the ideas appear in one or two years and then nothing else. Newton with Calculus was another leap.

Expecting ideas to appear, no matter what you do, is not a good idea. One difficulty is that is very difficult to estimate the probability of rare events. Perhaps having more free time can increase the probability of having new deep ideas, but that is not easy to measure. Furthermore, another key ingredient is communication with people full of energy, like P. Erdos, perhap some people can generate a hub of ideas.

Edit: Added A little more of money in the table not in the hands of political but directed to those that can do real research is a real innovation.

Einstein spent ~8 years developing general relativity. Certainly not "all the ideas in one or two years".

I think this is half-true. There's historically been a lot of cross-pollination between IAS and Princeton, which has resulted in some spectacular achievements such as the first electronic computer(the IAS machine; built a little bit after Feynman left I believe). IAS also has a lot of scholars who are working "remotely" at other institutions/colleges iirc. My general impression is that while there are a lot of slackers, there are also some really active and committed researchers, much like the rest of academia, so I'm not sure if we can reject the null hypothesis here so quickly.

He sounds bitter.

Not so - he turned down the IAS long before writing that!

The full context there is that he spent a semester exempt from teaching to have more time for research. He produced very little and was deeply embarrassed, until he eventually realized that many of his insights came from rehearsing fundamentals and talking to people in other subfields.

So he returned to teaching, and when the IAS came knocking he refused on the grounds that it was the worst environment for him to work. Certainly I think he's overgeneralizing (the IAS has seen some pretty good results since that time), but this wasn't about jealousy!

Proofing something wrong for the first time is not valued as it should be- and blunt honesty is neither. The honesty of "the results where inconclusive" is still murderous for a scientific career in some fields.

I think that was what tenure was supposed to be for.

Somewhat. Sinecures come in many forms.

Tenure's more important because it means you can say naughty but true things about the powerful without losing your job. As structured right now, in the physical sciences, a base salary won't support research.

Yes and no. In some fields, such as mathematics (applied & pure), one can squeak by without a grant, and many do. This has to do with the funding model in different fields -- math departments tend to have enough TA positions to support all their grad students, which lightens the pressure to secure funding. Of course the trade-off is time spent teaching lower-division courses vs actually doing research.

As for tenure, it qualifies one for all kinds of service. So job security is nice, no questions about it, but one has even less time for serious work (unless you are willing to say no to requests to serve -- and some of these committees do matter).

Like i said. In the physical sciences, you can't do it.

Math is not a physical science -- and you can get stunning breakthroughs without anything except a quiet room, a pad of paper, a pencil, and a trash can. (old joke: /s/math/philosophy and remove the trash can!)

This is not true if you're a microbiologist.

The funding requirements for theoretical physics aren't really any different from mathematics (and like mathematics, there's usually more than enough TA positions to go around).

Yes, that's true -- math is not a physical science in that sense. Though as another poster pointed out, theoretical physics is not so different from mathematics in this way, so perhaps the distinction is more between experimenters and theorists. (However, I've no idea what life is like for theoretical computer scientists without any kind of external funding support.)

You can do original microbiologist research on the cheap. For an extreme case, Einstein did useful theoretical physics without a lab.

Money vastly expands the scope of work you can do, but breaking new ground is often less expensive than making minor refinements to well understood areas.

PS: The real risk is will likely will go 20+ years without finding anything, but if you have tenure that should not be a problem.

You've never tried to buy a good microscope, have you?

Kitting out a lab to do publishable work in a lot of fields right now is just jaw-droppingly expensive.

Good optical microscope's are really not that expensive and last a long time. (AKA under 1,000$.) The equipment costs can quickly go up with new electron microscopes running 500k-6mill etc. But, restricting yourself to the minimum equipment 1 person needs for a specific kind of research is significantly cheaper than a more abstract lab.

Further, used equipment can often be vastly cheaper.

Honestly, time and consumables really are the biggest issues.

Any decent fluorescent scope + base + optics + laser + dichroic will run you well north of 250K. Just the objectives are 10-20K. Two photon, more like 750. You want to do funny stuff like FRET or PALM or STED? You'll spend 700 grand on parts, and a year building the thing yourself because nobody sells them.

You will not publish anything good enough to get tenure if all you have is widefield and a lamp in basically any biomedical field.

I am in no way saying this stuff is not really really useful across a wide area. Just not required for every topic type of research.

Further, the assumption is this is someone that has tenure but not funding and is thus able to take long shot risks. Think designing an artificial intestines for microbiome research, not yet another paper using E. coli.

Where are you shopping?

Florescent microscopes are in the low six figures and others are much more expensive. A confocal microscope is typically several hundreds of thousands of dollars, potentially approaching $1M if it has all the bells and whistles. Super-res and high-throughput imaging can also consume essentially infinite amounts of money.

You could probably get a usable brightfield microscope for around a $1,000 but realistically, you're not publishing much with that alone.

It absolutely is (at least in the sciences)...the problem is that the path to tenure does not value this type of work. Naturally people could switch their focus once they do have tenure. That assumes that people are not creatures of habit though. The type of people who are likely to succeed on the path to tenure in its current form are those that are focused on production. Asking them (i.e., giving them the freedom) to suddenly change their focus to big, world changing, problems once they are 'free to do so' is unrealistic. Being taught through grad school, post docs, and your time as an assistant professor that this thing is how we measure value becomes your worldview.

Just ask Peter Higgs[0]


Sorry if I'm missing the point of this quote, but it seems wrong to me that you "can't point to something to prove the money wasn't wasted".[1]

You can always do some variant of "we tried this, it didn't work; in the future, you no longer have to spend money to see if this will work." Right?

[1] Removing the triple negative: it should always be possible to prove the money accomplished something.

“To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to know. And yet those with the courage to tread this path to real discovery are not only offered practically no guidance on how to do so, they are actively discouraged and have to set abut it in secret, pretending meanwhile to be diligently engaged in the frantic diversions and to conform with the deadening personal opinions which are continually being thrust upon them.” –George Spencer-Brown in The Laws of Form, 1969

[Of course, some may disagree with this assessment; just throwing it in for your consideration.]

From a business perspective, you're right enough. Academic research is not business oriented -- and Thompson was saying that it should not be.

When discovered, there was nothing particular monitizable about quaternions, and they were not found as a consequence of any business enterprise looking for new tools -- but Hamilton didn't starve to death because he failed to capitalize on them. 80 years later, suddenly we rediscover the fact that we've solved gimbal lock and can easily describe quantum states.

The quote is referring to proof of progress, not proof of profitability, which is a separate issue.

Sadly, the much-longed-for Journal of Negative Results does not exist, giving it an impact factor of 0.

At the least you could provide video recordings of your activities.

The maxim of the software company manager: "If it takes more than an hour to do, it isn't worth doing".

I got my biomedical engineering PhD, and was a neurology professor at a top children's hospital doing brain/epilepsy research for a few years. Literally my dream job for most of my life. I left it two years ago due to many of the reasons listed, and got a job going quant/algorithmic trading at a prop firm. I have never been happier, it is a hell of of a lot less stressful, I may actually pay off my student loans before I retire, we just bought a house, and obviously don't regret it for a second. Most of my old friends at my old job are jealous; they have psych or bio backgrounds, and have more or less hit their ceilings in terms of where that skill set can take them. For engineers who know how to code (I was a core contributer to www.bci2000.org for a decade+), math is math, and it doesn't matter if it is doing real time processing of brain signals or market data.

Doesn't it feel like a waste of your talents to have society employing you full-time to make rich people richer via gambling in the financial markets rather than something more beneficial to society?

I don't blame you at all (I'm sure your quality of life is magnitudes of order better, and I'd do the same in your position) and this isn't personal at all, it just pains me that our brightest graduates are working in finance rather than something like curing cancer.

This question comes up in most discussions about finance and trading. I think it's the wrong question to ask. Academic research jobs, despite poor pay and conditions, are still some of the hardest positions to get. The demand for those jobs far, far outstrips supply. It's hard to get into a decent PhD program and then basically impossible to get a decent faculty position (or join MSR or whatever).

Candidates aren't draining away—they're being pushed away, either at the selection stage or through terrible conditions. (When taking on real firm-wide risk with millions of dollars is less stressful than basic research, you know something's gone terribly wrong!) The macroscopic problem isn't that finance and industry are luring people away, it's that so many more people want to do research than the system can possibly support.

You could argue that finance is luring away the most qualified candidates, but I don't think that's true. More importantly, since research careers are so impacted, institutions can get away with really noisy selection processes—if you thought tech hiring was bad, just look at how faculty members are selected.

The other part, of course, is that trading is not useless. I recently started a job working on supply chain optimization, and the problems we solve and the models we build actually look a lot like what certain kinds of traders do. I don't think anybody would argue that doing math to eke out a 10% reduction on spoilage at grocery stores is socially useless, and yet that's very similar to the sort of efficiencies that come out of better markets—it's just that the value is more abstract, in large part because the public markets are much more decentralized and abstract than physical supply chains.

Look, I'm not saying trading makes a marginal impact on par with basic research, either at an individual or a global level. But it's not useless, and I wouldn't be surprised if a trader at some small firm was just as useful to society as the 10,000th engineer at Google. (Not that we can really measure that.)

The markets, after all, are a gigantic, distributed coordination system running large swathes of the economy. That's pretty important too!

> It's hard to get into a decent PhD program

Is it though? I got into the (top 2 or 3) program for my field with a middling GPA and a decent GRE. Compared to e.g. law and medicine, I think it was substantially easier for a given level of 'prestige'.

> just look at how faculty members are selected

In my experience, nepotism, later-career candidates, and some shiny publications. All the talk about hiring some younger candidates, even gasp someone with just a few years of postdoc, was just that: empty talk. I've seen tenured faculty threaten to leave if their girlfriend wasn't hired (seriously, fortunately he failed), candidates get fast-tracked because they were friends with the son of one of the faculty, etc.

Out of the 30 or so people I got to know decently well during my PhD, only two of them are off to strong starts. Interestingly, both of them have parents that are well-regarded senior faculty in fields identical and quite similar (respectively). Don't get me wrong, they are both very capable and, in their cases, have earned the positions, but despite being far from naive, the degree of nepotism in science has impressed me.

> Is it though?

I think it is. That's certainly my experience with CS. You need some combination of GPA, recommendations from known researchers in the field, research experience/accomplishments and a strong undergraduate school. You don't need all of these always, but they all have an effect.

Most of the grad students I knew at Berkeley CS came in with at least one good publication and high GPAs. Similarly, some very capable people I know from less-well-known universities (in the US and internationally) were rejected from most programs they applied to. My observations combined with the low % acceptance rates lead me to believe it's definitely difficult—especially if you come from an even slightly non-standard background. And this is in a field where most people don't pursue PhDs—I don't even want to think about what Math and Physics programs must be like.

On the other hand, you can get some pretty deep (and well-paying!) positions in industry without having a degree at all, and people won't even look at your GPA. It's a lot more flexible.

> Academic research jobs, despite poor pay and conditions, are still some of the hardest positions to get. The demand for those jobs far, far outstrips supply.

Well that's exactly the problem. We as a society have decided that our brightest minds should be working in finance. I think that's outrageous, and that we should be utilizing their minds for the greater good instead. In other words, we need to increase the supply of these research jobs, and make them more attractive then working in finance.

Of course certain fields of finance benefit society. That doesn't mean their talents wouldn't be better off to society elsewhere. Also, certain jobs like proprietary trading are the equivalent of gambling and on a net basis don't make society any better off.

> In other words, we need to increase the supply of these research jobs, and make them more attractive then working in finance.

That's a fair summary. My core point was that it's far more a matter of constrained research positions rather than finance being so alluring. It's not hard to make a research position more attractive to most bright minds than finance: you just have to offer autonomy, a bit of prestige and working conditions that aren't absolutely terrible.

> certain jobs like proprietary trading are the equivalent of gambling

The proprietary trading firms I'm familiar tend to be risk averse and specialize in things like market making and arbitrage. This is probably some of the most unambiguously useful activity on the markets: it's companies like that that make things like ETFs and less liquid securities work efficiently. Without market makers, various useful but niche securities would be significantly more painful to trade in practice.

I agree.

Regarding prop trading, prop trading itself is the betting of the firm's own money for profit. I equated it to gambling because that's what it is. On a net basis, this doesn't really benefit society because it's essentially a zero sum game.

Market making on the other hand does benefit society by providing/ensuring liquidity.

Most market makers are prop trading firms, though -- I think it's incorrect to act like these classifications aren't highly correlated.

>Well that's exactly the problem. We as a society have decided that our brightest minds should be working in finance.

That's not it at all. The best and brightest people have decided what they'd really love to do is take a tenured position at a prestigious university and do research.

Since finance companies that need really smart people can't offer that kind of life they have to compensate with cash.

This says nothing about what "we as a society" have decided. What this tells us is finance is boring.

> The best and brightest people have decided what they'd really love to do is take a tenured position at a prestigious university and do research.

Except we are slowly getting rid of tenure, and "that kind of life" is in no way glamorous for 99% of researchers. You have to be passionate about research to the detriment of nearly every other aspect of your life, or independently wealthy, so live comfortably (again, for most people).

> our brightest minds should be working in finance

The amount of people who recommend that is staggering.

Lesson learnt: I need to get into finance...

We didn't decide it; it just happened. The intro to "The Big Short" covers this quite well - Lewis S. Ranieri, all that.

but what can I say? We're a culture that in 1969 went to the moon, but by 1974/5 we were cutting everything we could.

> We as a society have decided that our brightest minds should be working in finance

"society" hasn't decided anything. Under capitalism, money flows towards where it is allocated most efficiently and gets the highest rate of return, which is apparently to employ researchers in the finance sector. If you have an issue with that, take it up with capitalism.

> we need to increase the supply of these research jobs, and make them more attractive then working in finance.

Barring the revolution I vaguely implied above, these two things would require lots of money and lots of money, respectively. Have fun asking for it in 2016's political environment.

You're being pedantic. We our the ones who govern ourselves and dictate our own economic system, and this system is responsible for our current situation.

We don't necessarily have to move off capitalism. We simply need to address the flaws of capitalism, say by increasing research funding or not bailing out large investment banks every time they make awful bets.

> just look at how faculty members are selected.

Plus, they typically only post openings once a year. If you miss the fall interview rounds (to start the following fall), you pretty much wait until the following year. So, you're looking at 2 years out if you don't have something lined up after your postdoc, or if you "finish" (whatever that means) your postdoc in late winter.

Do you ever feel that maybe you shouldn't talk about things you don't understand?

Working a prop trading firm is nowhere near "making rich people richer via gambling in the financial markets".

Furthermore, the majority of software/engineering jobs out there are not doing "something more beneficial to society". How many companies are really just ad-driven, marketing-driven.

Yes, it would be nice if the entire world could focus on "something like curing cancer", but other things need to get done. And the majority of people have bills to pay.

I am very similar to the OP, except I bailed halfway through the PhD, because I realized that, in academia, I will work 80 hours a week for $40k, or I can go into finance and work half that and make multiples more.

I can now donate/spend my money to causes like "curing cancer" or "making art" and let somebody who really wants to devote their life to that craft do so.

Yes!!! You will undoubtedly make a greater impact by earning as much as you can and donating it to causes later in life.

Some people think research or science is the only path to a better society but in all honesty it may just take paying people in a poor country to plant trees.

Indeed. Research may be the thing that directly betters the society, but in current economy, one can often do more by applying their skills on the market and using the gains to fund researchers. I think things are fine as long as we have both researchers and people funding research, each working to the best of their specialized skills.

That said, research is seriously underfunded.

For some reason, I always feel like the following quote from Emo Philips encapsulates this sentiment really well (and it's a sentiment I feel quite often):

"When I was a little boy, I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised, the Lord, in his wisdom, doesn't work that way. So I just stole one and asked Him to forgive me."

Sometimes to get what you want you have to sell out or otherwise find an unorthodox means to your desired end state.

Linus Torvalds. Richard Stallman. Martin Luther King, Jr. Nikola Tesla. Dr. John Snow.

I assume this should this be read in ascending order of importance ;-).

The contributions, conditions of those contributions, and the rewards and incentives for pursuing those contributions matter vastly more than the order of sequencing.

The list is extremely partial. I'd be much happier seeing other contributions to it than sniping about significance.

Your left hand is inarguably taking, or helping take, more than your right hand is giving.

Who said anything about standard issue ad-driven, marketing-driven software engineering jobs? Wasn't the alternative in this case brain/epilepsy neurology research?

I think everyone would agree that saying "I can't believe you work at Google/Facebook/Twitter instead of curing cancer" would be ridiculous.

Yet, every time finance work is mentioned, someone brings up "I can't believe you work in finance instead of curing cancer."

Guess what? I don't want to work on curing cancer. I used to. I went to school for biomedical engineering and wanted to work on big problems. I realized I would rather do as little work as possible (but still be challenged), and spend time with my family and friends. And I'll happily give money to people to cure this problems.

And those big problems that I wanted to work on before? Well, I'm sure there's somebody that really cares about that. The best way I can help is using my time in ways that I enjoy, and giving my money to those who will actually enjoy finding that cure.

A friend of mine almost died from some disease when she was in her teens. She survived, and is now a researcher for that specific field. She has a personal interest in that research, even if it means she might have to sacrifice other things. And she was also the one who convinced me to bail from the PhD program. She said "if you can imagine yourself doing anything else, do something else."

That's when I realized academic research is long, painful work, but you have to be excited for it. If I'm not excited, I should do something else, and then give money or help increase funding to make it less painful for those who still want to be there.

I begrudgingly agree. It is similar to me to a star athlete making millions. Most people aren't happy that we value athletes over teachers, but free market, yada yada yada. I get paid well to solve puzzles every day. It's fun, and I can buy groceries without using a credit card. I wish I could make a living with a reasonable amount of stress doing research, but we have arrived at the point where we can't do that. Supply is out-stripping demand for PhDs, so prices fall.

tl;dr - Go short on PhD salaries!

Looks like the purpose of my comment went totally over your head.

I was simply addressing the absurdity that our smartest minds are incentivized to go into finance rather than work on the most difficult and important problems in the world. The modern day Albert Einstein is probably working at a hedge fund. If we allocated humanity's resources differently, then we could be so much more technologically advanced.

>the majority of software/engineering jobs out there are not doing "something more beneficial to society" ... other things need to get done. And the majority of people have bills to pay.

This is a big problem in itself.

It's less of a problem when you consider that it's not true. Most software gets written to solve a real problem. No, not at Snapchat or whatever, but at most places.

I hope you aren't downvoted for this, as this is basically my exact thought process for the last few years.

> make rich people richer

It is prop trading, so we are making ourselves richer, technically. We do a lot of charity work and donations with schools, etc.

> Doesn't it feel like a waste of your talents

Absolutely. However, I also like not having to beg my toddler to eat the food in front of him because payday is 10 days away, every credit card is maxed, and who knows how we will get to the grocery, which is what happened sometimes during my postdoc 3-7 years ago. Student loans were coming in at ~$1500/month when I'm making $2500/month. It was very difficult, and I was deeply depressed. When I finally landed that professor position, my workload got worse, and while there was a pay increase, I still wasn't going to be buying a house anytime soon. This was NOT an expensive area. We ended up living with my parents for a while (me, my wife, and 3 kids). The math just wasn't adding up, and there wasn't an end in sight. Adding in trouble getting grants, not wanting to restart the faculty job search, I started looking at industry. I applied at a few prop trading firms on whim, and mine ended up being a great fit.

I was pretty successful doing the actual research, but my particular niche (neuroscience+software methods and tools) isn't really funded by grants. I even got several rounds of good publicity for some of my PhD work, and did international interviews, etc. I was a very good scientist, but that doesn't cut it any more; new investigators are competing with established labs and members of the AAS who are submitting 30 grants per cycle. I was doing some very cool work with kids with epilepsy, which would greatly improve outcomes. I was a very valuable member of our collaboration; that research more or less came to a halt when I left, though I have been able to help out through consulting from time to time. So, what I did was in high demand and highly worthwhile, but there was a disconnect with getting the funding.

Am I being greedy? Maybe. There is that saying "you have to love yourself before you can love others." I think that might apply financially as well, particularly with regards to your family. It wasn't worth seeing my kids live in the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, going to crappy schools in crime-ridden areas that we can afford, with the added possibility of losing their dad because everyday he wonders if today is the day he drives off a bridge on the way home or something. If that means that my epilepsy research doesn't get done...then so be it. Vote for people who will increase research funding. So, when the offer came in and it was 3X what I was making as a prof, without considering bonuses, the weight of the world left my shoulders.

"Vote for people who will increase research funding"

This. You don't owe anyone anything for being smart and diligent. If you were a lone wolf and enjoying your workload there would have been nothing wrong in your previous situation if you felt it wotrthwhile yourself.

Family changes everything. Having to fight to reach ends meet is not beneficial to anyone. Raising three kids means you are responsible for their future. There is nothing more important than caring for your kids. Someone might say that you are responsible for the reduced outcomes of epileptic kids whom your research helped but that would be completely lacking in human perspective.

Humans cannot live like supermen. That's why we have organizations with long term goals and mandates to affect society wide effects. An individual can make a difference, but that individual can be anyone.

A person who claims you should have stayed in the academia can do that if they will pay your loans and provide you with a sufficient life time grant. Otherwise they are full of excrement and lack a sane perspective.

I was in virtually the exact same position as you and made the same decision about a year and a half ago. I moved from biotech and neuroscience research into fintech consulting, to be able to feed my family and send my kids to a proper school.

I certainly would have preferred research, but given that most people just go voting for the same political parties that vehemently defend the current financial establishment, I have no remorse. (Yes, I am a huge Chomsky fan...) From my POV, we are only doing what is necessary to enable our families to have a normal life in a world getting more imbalanced, without any critical mass of people seeming to notice or care.

Hopefully, people will wake up soon enough and finally stop voting the non-options they are presented with (HC vs DT...)

Thanks for sharing your story. It sounds you had good self-awareness, and made an important decision to look out for your own well-being and end an unsustainable situation. There are many who could benefit from your example.

The cost of education (Fees) are going higher. Research/Researchers are not getting funded. Where is the money going to? Infrastructure of the universities?

> Where is the money going to?

That's the big question. In addition, when a professor gets a grant, the university takes a large chunk (40-60%) for overhead.

Anecdote: When I started as a postdoc recently, all new faculty and staff had orientation together. This was the middle of the semester, and there were about 20-25 of us. Of that group, there were no new professors (beginning of semester, wouldn't be unusual), 2-3 postdocs, maybe 5 facilities people (janitor, electrician, etc). Everyone else was administration/communication/finance/etc.

Universities, particularly large ones, are very, very, top heavy (with part of that due to compliance with regulations).

We get research funding from government agencies like the NIH and NSF. You can also get private grants (e.g. I got an NVIDIA grant in 2009 to do GPU research). The funding pool has remained stagnant for years, while we are pumping out more PhDs than ever. Back in the 90's an R01 (the top NIH grant you can get, and which more or less ensured tenure) had a 33% funding rate or so. It is now in the low to mid single digits. Plus, the rules have changed, so that you cannot fund your salary off of a single R01; you now need TWO R01s to pay yourself, which is the goal, at least in a soft money position. After learning this "on the job" as it were, it didn't take long to start looking elsewhere.

You've got an incomplete model of higher-education financing, leaving out subsidies provided by government.

For the most part, both increased tuition and falling research grants are symptoms of the same underlying cause: reduced government support for higher education and R&D.

With fewer funds for education, tuition rises. But that tuition is filling in the hole created by a subsidy gap. Not increased research.

My younger brothers undergraduate research mostly focused on answering this question in the University of California system. His conclusion is that funding was overwhelmingly going to the administrative faculty and has been doing so since UC let the administrative faculty have the most say in how he universities are run.

What could be done to change this?

Typically it goes to construction / infrastructure (dorms and facilities to attract students and compete with other universities) and administrative / compliance bloat.

Athletic departments are usually completely self-funded, especially the ones that spend millions per year on coach salaries.

Yeah a lot easier to balance the books when the athletes are basically slaves...

This, is definitely a separate issue...


Working in finance and sponsoring science aren't mutually exclusive. Some open source tools that are now mainstays in the scientific Python stack originated in finance (pandas is perhaps the most prominent example). It's highly doubtful that any of these tools would have been funded using traditional grants, so... positive externalities ahoy!

Furthermore, firms such as DE Shaw and Renaissance Technologies directly impact research by funding parallel non-profit science organizations (DE Shaw Research and the Simons Foundation respectively).

So it's not really a zero sum game at all.

A lot of neuroscience and financial analysis algorithms are borrowed or transitioned from one another, e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granger_causality. That is a big reason why the transition was so easy for me. If you can develop models to use brain signals as features and predict where the arm will be in 500ms, you can do the same thing with market data.

Why are you having children in grad school or as a postdoc? And three at that..

Because I didn't want to be 60 years old with a kid in high school?

This type of question represents one of the things that really turns people away from getting into science, or makes people leave. You are expected to give up your ENTIRE PERSONAL LIFE to "the good of society" and make these sacrifices, for...what? To get denied tenure in 5 years (if you're lucky enough to be tenure-track)? This is even more true for women, though this isn't unique to academia. I was thirty years old, had been married for 6 years, just finished my PhD, and thought starting a family sounded like a reasonable thing to. And, my next two kids were born after my postdoc. So, fuck that, and anyone who thinks that waiting until you're 40 to have kids sounds reasonable.

Grad students are usually between 24 and 30. Postdocs between 27 and 40. A career in science should not be treated like the sacrament of Holy Orders. Although practically, many early-career researchers seem to adhere to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience ...

Because biology does not stop? The older the parents the riskier having kids becomes.

The last time I looked at science there was no vow of staying childless required.

I kind of like the irony of the scientific "class" becoming childless, like a priesthood. It's probably not too far from the truth. Kind of like the two couples in Idiocracy.

Yes. Especially since historically the idea of a childless priesthood is a stopgap to stop too much wealth and power accumulating for the priestly class through inheritance.

Your question comes off as as self-righteous and overly critically. Why shouldn't he have kids? Clearly, he found a way to provide for them, to a higher degree than most, I would add.

Because you can not get pregnant at 55yo. For many scientist women is a now or never.

I think people underestimate how long "making it" as a scientist takes. For most life plans, having kids while you're still in education or training is a crappy plan. For science, "education and training" can easily stretch to being a postdoc at age 40.

Waiting for kids until you're 'settled' just isn't a justifiable demand for a career that takes 30 years to become established.

Is grad school supposed to be a monastic convent?

You can have sex without kids?

The problem is that pursuing this things that could be benefical to the society, is also making you a pariah in the same society.

The market set a cost in payoff in terms of quality of life and remuneration for both roles. He made the rational choice for himself and his family. Also, there are former financial engineers like David Shaw that have taken their earnings to literally try to cure cancer.

One might argue that the market fails to price (and compensate) information goods efficiently or accurately.


I'd agree with that. I don't believe in the efficient market hypothesis. The "market" given his limited information, professorship salary, and the compensation offered him to do other work clearly showed a large spread which he was rational to exploit.

I also believe society as a whole is being shortsighted in creating such a wide spread, but its not within his power to correct it; it's societies failure to think long term and his duty is to his family first.

I was working in an area of cancer research regarding how non genetic traits can be inherited and possibly lead to various cancers.

Now I work on trying to get more clicks to my company website.

this thought process is pure brainwashing by the left

Why is wishing for a world where it would be better to help eradicate suffering rather than work to accumulate imaginary play chips bad?

Because that idea is a fantasy, it has never come to fruition and never will. Progress is made through real incentives. Wouldnt it be nice if nobody stole from eachother? Sounds great doesnt it? Then why doesnt it happen?

The play chips are not imaginary, the rich have better lives in almost all aspects.

You are confusing philosophising about a better way to live with knowledge of empirical results in politics and economy.

I know very well communism as such does not work, and that at our current stage of development we need prices and markets for resource optimization. And laws and judicial systems and so on.


The play chips are imaginary. We play by the rules due to convention, not due to a law of nature.

The rich are better off not because only a marginal percent of population can be better off, but because how the current economic system stochastically distributes the captured value from various economic processes.

Their main happiness comes not from being "better" than anybody else, but because their resources enable them to avoid the lower rungs of maslow's hierarchy of needs and focus on self actualization.

Society can change. Anything else is misogynic fantasy. USA was born out of hate of kings and aristocracy and the taxes imposed thereof, of the hate of existing status quo of hereditary benefits and cronyism of state power.

Sure, it was not better for a large category of population, but it was a society designed, that functioned differently than anything else before it, and remains functioning to this day. It was born into a world where anything else but a strong monarchy was a whimsical daydream.

Change happens. There is no reason to accept status quo if it seems unsavory. One must remain a realist and a humanist while one is at it.

Saying "nothing but the current system is possible" is delusional denial of empirically proven changes societies and economic systems can go through.

I hate to bust yer bubble :) , but the Founders were largely deeply indebted aristocrats who felt mostly a slight to their honor. That is largely why the Revolution happened.

The British Empire continued into the "sun never sets" level. The effects of the British Empire on the colonies has been a mixture of good and bad. They thought about it hard, in a John Stuart Mill way about it. They were often wrong, many were horrifyingly venal about the colonies and it all ended soon enough.

The fundamental problem is that the ability of people to be terrible is a real challenge to counter. It's simply not easy. And the classic Conservative trope is that we really don't know how we got here in a comprehensive fashion.

We live in an utterly amazing time.

I'd also dump Maslow soon. There's too much hubris amongst the rich and powerful for it to work well.

"I hate to bust yer bubble :) , but the Founders were largely deeply indebted aristocrats who felt mostly a slight to their honor. That is largely why the Revolution happened."

Sorry, I was a bit hyperbolic. I did not claim the founding fathers were anything but what you say.

From historical perspective, what they achieved, was an exceptionally good outcome. Namely - they created a new system of government that did not degenarate into a dictatorship despite the tumultuous beginnings and enormous popular and military support for some of it's leaders (e.g. Washington).

My purpose was to point out that designed changes on how a society operates can be implemented and the change can be implemented in good form. The USA was perhaps a bit too extreme example, as there are many others, less radical as well.

"I'd also dump Maslow soon. There's too much hubris amongst the rich and powerful for it to work well."

I've found the hierarchy of needs a fantastic model in simplicity and power in exploring human condition. What specifically is wrong with it?

I am flatly skeptical that changes of that scale can be designed at all. We in the US enjoy many institutions which took decades to mature to any use. It takes dedicated bureaucrats decades to fine tune such things. And most simply don't make it.

Example: there was much meddling in the 1930s with farm production. It took until the 1970s before the modern version of farm subsidy latched in - call it 4 decades. ( See the film "King Corn" for an excellent treatise)

I've just never been able to use Maslow to make predictions. It just doesn't explain things like poets at all. People who "move up the Maslow hierarchy" often become duller and duller - all the weight of maintaining that drags em down. I've known too many people who didn't know where their next meal was coming from, and for some of them, that was a sort of freedom.

I think the magic of the Founders was all the shuffling off to The Colonies of all the malcontents and radicals, in a time when that produced favorable results. You'd get more current theory at Harvard than at King's College.

I would claim the founders had a design intent. And the bureaucrats after them. As with any large systems, the design formulation and system building is an ongoing empirical process.

I would still hold not replicating a familiar monarchy or degenerating into a dictatorship was an achievement. I'm not saying anything about any other aspects.

The thing with psychological models is that they are models and as such cannot replicate all observed phenomena. Just like physical models can't. In general we can observe that poor people lack the resources for doing what they like and struggle unhappily while rich people need something else than just wealth to keep them happy - a long term goal, a hobby and so on. I think Maslows model captures this phenomena on the level of human populations. It does not explain art. I doubt no model understandable to humans could capture all facets of human life.

What the Founders did a lot was line through the word "God" and substitute "the People". This is true to the extent that Thomas Paine ( I think that's the right person ) was followed. There certainly was a design intent - that is very true. And to an extent, Canada has had a parallel model that's worked extremely well for them. Becuase the Canadian system evolved over longer spans of time, it "feels" more empirical and less ... design-ey than the US.

The US model hasn't really been all that replicated - the Parlimentary model has proved to be more common ( possibly because of the extent of the British Empire ) . The US has advanced the idea of democracy but it's done differently. I would say we do not really know why the US has worked out as well as it has.

I just think Maslow is too reductive. There are some really happy poor people out there. To my eye, a lot of outcomes for especially, say African Americans in the US depends on much more ephemeral factors - like strong family ties - than Maslow would predict.

Meanwhile, wealthy people can be quite anomic and neurotic. I've done medium well, and I spend my time as if I were a student and trying to connect with family. The people I know who have done better seem more isolated and feel more trapped than I do.

Happiness is as much a chosen thing as a matter of resources.

The best ( biggest impact ) ways in which human suffering has been relieved have largely been A Whole Lot about people accumulating imaginary play chips. An example - Alexander Fleming and penicillin - getting penicillin to large scale production and to market was a huge task. Most things are like that.

Yes - as I stated in another comment we need prices and markets for resource optimization.

The comment to which I replied chaffed at thinking there could be any other system than what there currently is. To me this is a dangerously rigid way to view the human life. Everything should be questioned, if only to find answers.

"Other systems" have had a very dismal track record so far. we're down to the gap between what people say and what they do in our system. That's a profound problem. We're limited now by artifacts of human cognition.

"Other systems" have had a very dismal track record so far.

Yes, historically we are doing pretty good. This proves sometimes changes in systems improve things. This is why questions that generally lead peoples to think of other systems should be approached with kind questioning and inquiry rather than scoffing them as rubbish off-hand - we should amswer why they often are impossible.

"That's a profound problem. We're limited now by artifacts of human cognition."

Yes, this is a very good summary of the other half of the problem. The other is figuring a dynamical model of the economy (which might or might not be impossible).

Wishing for unrealistic fantasy to become reality is just that, unrealistic.

Anecdote: Many of my high school friends and peers went on to pursue medicine. I pursued engineering. Multiple times I was asked by these people, "You're smart so why aren't you spending your life making a difference?" Your comment and its ilk remind me of that question.

I asked why is whishing for a world with different economic incentives bad. Economic incentives are malleable. That's what economic planning does.

Your friends were delusional. In the world, there is a pool of change agents driven by intrinsic drive, and some of them can make an actual difference, but I don't think there is any way to choose becoming the specific agent who matters - rather, one can only join the pool and do ones best.

As you describe it, your friends thought they asked why you don't want to be the change agent who matters (which is a non-sequitur). They could have asked why you don't want to jump into the pool and dedicate several years of your life to a possible dead end career (which they probably didn't ask).

I asked why it's bad to whish for different economic environment for those in the pool.

I may have misinterpreted the discussion before my comment, though.

The crapton of data is produced and relied on because of broken philosophy of system. That could be changed as well (I don't know how).

I got into medical research because I wanted to help people. I left because (in my assessment) that is not what is going on at all. I would tell your friends to take a closer look at what they are doing to people and how they are assessing help vs damage. Basically, this projection came true:

"We are quite in danger of sending highly trained and highly intelligent young men out into the world with tables of erroneous numbers under their arms, and with a dense fog in the place where their brains ought to be. In this century, of course, they will be working on guided missiles and advising the medical profession on the control of disease, and there is no limit to the extent to which they could impede every sort of national effort." Fisher, R N (1958). "The Nature of Probability". Centennial Review. 2: 261–274

I don't think increased R&D funding should be qualified as an "unrealistic fantasy".

Hey, we used bci2000 as undergraduates to run a little DIY BCI club - thanks for all of the work on it!

I'm kind of surprised to hear that being a quant is less stressful than being a research professor, though. I've heard that biology especially is a very "publish or perish"-y environment, but I guess I assumed that once people had a few prominent papers under their belts they might be trusted to work on something longer-term.

Glad to hear it! It was/is and awesome project. I still help present at some of the workshops, when I get a chance.

I think i'm about to follow your academical steps, can i ask you a few questions by mail? (the one i found is for an (ex?) UC professor)

Sure! That sounds about right for the email, but I use a gmail account now.

Did you explicitly search for a quant job or did it happen opportunistically?

Pretty organically. Several neuroscience guys who did my kind of research got into finance/trading as well.

I would say "stay as far away from academic research as you possibly can" is the best advice someone can get these days. It is an awful, stressful waste of the prime of your life.

From what I saw in biomed only 1/10,000 or so will end up with the time, skills, and appropriately ambitious project to allow a decent job to get done. The rest will be forced to produce BS (literally, most of it is just misinformation at this point) or quit before even graduating.

>I would say "stay as far away from academic research as you possibly can" is the best advice someone can get these days. It is an awful, stressful waste of the prime of your life.

On the other hand, spending some years pursuing a PhD can be a great time to build skills and introspect in life. I grew a lot in that time in a way I don't think I would have with a job.

Of course, if you have a very stressful advisor, it isn't worth it.

Actually, my adviser was quite laid back. As a result, I was able to build a lot of skills in order to complete my project. However, notice I said able. I had to self-teach and self-fund to do it, the academic stuff was really just an obstacle.

I think something like a basic income would allow the a certain type of person to achieve the same, and do it much faster and cheaper than getting a higher degree. I wonder if that is one reason why most of these problems started when higher education/research became less of an "elite" activity, ie as discussed in subnaughts link in this thread: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12805406

> On the other hand, spending some years pursuing a PhD can be a great time to build skills and introspect in life.

as software dev, I would never, ever, ever want to be in academia compared to the jobs I went through. much more life to be lived, much more money to spend on life to live (ie travelling around the world), and CV/skillset that gets door opened for next jobs.

you can build proper introspect in life when trekking few weeks among 8000m peaks, diving in coral reefs or anything in between, just give it a bit more than 1-2 weeks.

great PhD can be interesting experience, but for me, it would always be subpar to great job

Doing something like a PhD is a great place to find other people who might be interested in co-founding a startup!

NB That's what I did after ~5 years in academic research at a UK university and never really regretted not finishing by PhD as I had no intention of going back into research.

I strongly disagree. A PhD in the sciences or engineering is a degree in how to do research and it prepares people for careers in research or for careers that require communicating research. If a person is only satisfied with being a professor at a R1 university, then don't do a PhD, but there are a ton of other jobs that require or greatly benefit from having one, e.g, teaching universities, NASA, government labs, many research oriented groups in companies (FAIR, Google Research, biomedical companies, etc.), science policy advising, etc.

One needs to have clear expectations going into the PhD about what they are trying to do and they need to have clear communication with their advisor.

The vast majority of PhDs in science and engineering do very well and find jobs, but most don't get professorships at research focused institutions. Having realistic expectations is key, but a career in research is great.

A PhD is stressful and takes 5-6 years, but it can be a great experience with the correct expectations and a solid plan. The main problem is that most PhD students don't seem to think about those things nearly enough and have unreasonable expectations.

>"a degree in how to do research"

Well, here is how I was taught to do research:

  1) You come up with a vague idea that one thing should be
  positively/negatively correlated with another thing. 
  2) You measure some proxies for those two things that have only 
  been half-validated, if at all.
  3) You make a bunch of dubious statistical assumptions and check
  whether there was *exactly zero* correlation between the two proxies.
  4a) Your sample size was too small relative to the noisiness of 
  the measurements and p>0.05. So you ignore the result.
  4b) Your sample size was large enough, or you got lucky and p<0.05.
  So you publish saying these results support your theory or are 
  counter-intuitive, depending on the direction of the correlation.
Please do not think this is at all a critique of my institution/instructors, this is a (the?) method being taught as "science" worldwide. Basically, I have nothing to add that hasn't been said before about that method:



>A PhD is stressful and takes 5-6 years, but it can be a great experience with the correct expectations and a solid plan. The main problem is that most PhD students don't seem to think about those things nearly enough and have unreasonable expectations.

Honestly, I think the main problem is mostly that PhD students are, on the one hand, full-grown adults supporting themselves, and yet are, on the other hand, paid McDonalds wages to do the most intensive intellectual work our society has for Goldman Sachs hours.

I'm a PhD student, and I doubt I could have said it better. And depending on the field you're in, your only choice might be working as a postdoc until a suitable academic position opens up. Thankfully, there a way more options post-PhD in engineering.

I've known people (with PhDs) who worked for Goldman Sachs. They considered the work-life balance to be much better than academia (and some industry). Co-signed on the rest, though.

Damn. As a 4th year PhD student, this hit me hard. You've worded my feelings on academia better than I ever could.

Edit: I see Cyph0n has beaten me by a few minutes. Oh well.

Regarding vast majorities of PhDs not getting jobs in professorships, I think this is just true for pretty much all PhD's no matter the subject..at least anecdotally speaking. I was given an offer to teach at a community college however I declined as I just don't really like teaching. Most of my peers joined government agencies or lobbyist firms due to the nature of the field (Public Policy.)

I didn't find the PhD to be too stressful, from the jobs I left to enter education I suppose I was well adapted to stress management. That said I think it's a mix of adviser and individual's personality. I despise the work force (that is an understatement) and love learning. Part of the reason why I browse and lurk on HN as I love coming across stuff that I'm not at all oriented with. I don't think I'll become a programmer or anything..it's just I love learning even things I barely understand (e.g. Quantum anything!)

I really really wish people would separate advice by field rather than unfairly tarnish all of academic research with an incredibly broad brush. I'm a PhD in CS and while a lot of results are incremental, there is far far far less BS than in biomed from what I've heard.

In the HN spirit, where's the opportunity? How can we help improve the life of researchers?

Start ups trying to help:

Science Exchange (YCS11) https://www.scienceexchange.com/ : outsource parts of your research to companies

Instrumentl (YCS16) https://www.instrumentl.com/ : identify and push relevant grants towards applicable research

Experiment (YCW13) https://experiment.com/ : crowdfunding platform for scientific research

Transcriptic (YCW15) https://www.transcriptic.com/ : a robotic cloud laboratory for the life sciences

LabGuru https://www.labguru.com/ : inventory management and lab notebook

Lab Spend https://labspend.com/ : tracks spending and finds savings on supplies and chemicals

As a former scientist, current startup person: please stop. This is crass. Startups that sell services to scientists aren't helping with the fundamental problem (i.e. there aren't many jobs, and there isn't enough funding once you have a job). Crowdfunding is nice in theory, but just makes the problem of vanity science worse than it is right now. Crowds don't know shit about science.

If you want to help researchers, vote for people who will increase scientific funding. Much of this crunch is directly attributable to congressional budgetary cutbacks since the early 2000s:


(Oh also: encourage your local billionaire(s) to stop funding ridiculous vanity projects, and do scientific good by giving grants to researchers who are already doing peer-reviewed work. Or just encourage them to give their money to the organizations that exist and do a great job of this, like HHMI, or the Gates Foundation. How refreshing it would be to hear a nouveau riche Silicon Valley dudebro stand up and say: "I want my money to have the tiniest chance of curing cancer in my lifetime -- a task so impossibly large that even my vast wealth and gigantic ego cannot possibly tackle it alone -- so I'm making a massive charitable donation to the National Cancer Institute!" Alas...)

Frankly, crowdfunded science scares the hell out of me.

Pretty much every time I've seen it, it consists of some fringe researcher promising one weird trick to cure A, B, and C. They don't get funding through traditional channels, because actual experts recognize the subtle-but-inescapable reasons they won't succeed, so instead they go to crowdfunding to squander a bunch of public money.

I'm sure this could work, genuinely viable projects lack funding all the time, but it's generally because they weren't sexy enough for the grant committee. If the NIH thought it wasn't exciting enough, what are the chances the general public will choose it over some guy promising to cure cancer with nanomachines?


The problem with funding science is simply the size of the pot; the way it's dolled out is actually quite reasonable given all the problems it could have.

Sure, you'll have cases of grants not getting funded because it runs contrary to the prevailing wisdom, and that is bad, but the magnitude of this problem is often overblown. You can swim against the current if you're careful about it and make a compelling case, absolutely.

Compare this to the issues of having anyone other than scientific peers judging the merits of work, and you'll see the easy advantage.

I don't think this is a problem startups are positioned to address.

Start-ups are geared to return outsided returns (1,000x+) on investment within a short time. Most are wealth-extractive, though a few may present real synergies.

The principle benefits of information technology to research have been in the tools and information access side. Computers are vastly less expensive, programming and data access/analysis tools vastly more powerful. And access to knowledge, mostly in violation of copyright conditions, through Sci-Hub, LibGen, and the like, is unprecedented in all world history.

Compensation is far more difficult.

One element is that the environment of a startup and the environment of research are almost diametrically opposed. Very high-pressur,e high-stress, rapid turnaround, subject to the whims of investors and markets, is pretty much the exact opposite of what a researcher needs. There are reasons that universities buffer faculty from these pressures (or at least do in theory).

The funding and financing of innovation through the ages is an interesting study. Few innovators have directly benefitted by their inventions through the market, many, especially of the most significant inventions (take television, 4-cycle engines, and gas turbines for example) have failed entirely at business.

Alternative models of support, including sinecure (essentially: tenure), and specific prize awards, might be other options. I'm exploring this area, the history is interesting.

Markets have a strong tendency to reward gambling-type activities, especially around monopoly formation.

In the mid 90's, Caltech's David Goodstein predicted an impending "Big Crunch" in science, writing: "We must find a radically different social structure to organize research and education in science after The Big Crunch."

The essay is long but well worth reading: https://www.its.caltech.edu/~dg/crunch_art.html

My comment from a few days ago:


When I was first exposed to the research "environment" during my Diplom studies (undergraduate - graduate, early to mid 90ies), I immediately recognised that if you actually love research and knowledge, academia was the last thing you ever want to get into. No surer way to kill the spark.

Now that I've gone back to do my PhD, the only reason I can do something I consider meaningful is because I am not a regular PhD student. Interestingly, that's also the feedback I get, though as "helpful" advice that while what I am doing may be both good and important, it is unlikely to lead to success in academia. With the implication that I should stop doing it and concentrate on something more reasonable. Fortunately, I am not particularly interested in success in modern academia, so I get to do something I consider both good and important.

A related issue is that there really is no such thing as a senior researcher. Instead, professors are turned into research managers, responsible for helping their charges' careers, who then also turn into research managers. Actual research appears to be mostly a still not entirely avoidable side-effect. (And this seems similar to the way the only real way to advancement in industry is to switch to management, all dual-track equivalence rhetoric aside).

I feel for these scientists. I understand what they went through- I went through it myself during the run-up of biomedical training in the mid-to-late 90's. After being a PI at a national lab for a few years, trying to get funded against more experienced scientists (some of whom copied my ideas!) I decided to move to industry.

Now I have a job with a well-defined 20% time dedicated to research with effectively no limits on what I can do. I don't need to ask for funding- the resources I need are just expenses I charge against my company's effectively infinite budget. If I want to write a paper, I do- and those papers get cited far more highly than my previous papers, because my employer's name is gold.

My salary is high enough that I maintain a lab in my garage and self-fund most of my experiments.

This path doesn't work for everybody (the number of positions in industry that allow this freedom is limited) but in my experience it allowed me far more time to be a productive researcher than if I had tried to be a professor at a tier-1 university or a researcher at a national lab.

Interestingly, my PhD training (in biomed) turned out to be ideal for being a data scientist, and my personal interests that I pursued during my training turned out to be ideal for working at my firm. In some sense, PhD programs produce the best programmers and researchers in industry, along with teaching a fair amount of how to deal with politics, which is critical in both academia and industry.

OT: pics of lab?

I am finishing up my postdoc now. I went back to do a PhD from IT because I loved the field I was entering and ended up really enjoying my PhD. I learnt a lot, got exposed to some great minds, and raised the bar for my own standards of quality, efficiency and intellect. But now, after two years of a postdoc for a tenure track professor in the US, my academic dreams have unravelled. I am looking for jobs in industry even though I am being encouraged for academic track.

From my experience, it seems like the classic scientific research method of the old guard who I was mentored by is fading. The greats in my field would concentrate on one topic, work slowly, wrap it up, move to a new topic, and cultivate protoges. Now, the people securing tenure-track and tenure all seem to have half a dozen diverse projects to start with (to see which one suceeds and look hungry) - I see a lot of corner-cutting in their research - being bold is rewarded over detail and care.

Most of my peers whom I respect for their research output and well-roundedness haven't made the cut for academia. A cynical sure fire recipe for making tenure in academia? 1. Have a great knack for politics; 2. put yourself ahead of your students by treating them as monkeys for publishing with no regard for their scientific development; 3. cut corners (tell yourself you will fix it when you get tenure); and 4. be a narcissist - you can't afford to do anything that doesn't impact your track record positively (outreach counts!). That is not to say there are not some great people who have got positions - but the criteria for who makes the cut has changed sufficiently that it feels like it is being played by those who are willing to play the rules of the game. The worst part is that there is rarely any consequence down the line - once you have secured enough funding the community overlooks all but most severe transgressions.

I'll put my 2 cents in here too.

PhD in bioeng. Not planning on academia. Unfortunately, most of my cohort of grad students are ... blind?... to the data that we all know is out there. I'm part of 2 groups on campus that specialize in industry networking and start-ups. We do monthly happy-hours where we pay for the beer and nachos and we also bring in speakers that have PhDs in industry to talk about the transition and network with them too. We get a lot of people (30+) to show up to these events.

But they are ALL 2nd or 3rd round post-docs. Almost no actual grad-students. I've talk to them. They all know that they have no real shot, they all know the odds in the lottery. They do not care. The only thing I can think is that these 22-27 year olds really think they can out-work each other and 'make it'. Past data in their lives says that they have always done so, and the next time should be no different. It's amazing that such smart people can be so damn bullheaded. Scientists are people too, including the stupidity.

I'm curious why this field hasn't been "privatized" to some degree. Why doesn't division of labor apply? Why not have scientists go off and do their research and rely on a team that is skilled at hoarding grants or publishing works from raw data? I imagine it's probably due to some institutional barriers (e.g. you can't get funding outside of a university context).

I imagine the reason is as always - our leaders are two-faced in their support of science. They claim that it's a national issue but fail to make professorship even remotely competitive in the hard sciences. This kind of thing raises the most righteous indignation in me. We have a nation of know-nothing politicians claiming "We need more kids in STEM!" without doing anything to address the quagmire academia has become, largely because of over-competition for resources.

For all of this myopia around STEM it's largely a misnomer. No one in industry cares about climate science, geology, theoretical physics, abstract algebra, topology, combinatorics or number theory - at least not in the dollars and cents view. They may care insofar as there's a cash benefit, but not to the degree that they care about building better oil pipelines, faster algorithms and more efficient fabrics. So what we end up with is a world where Nike, Facebook and Exxon Mobil attract the best talent - a world where PhD's are basically forced to quit their jobs in order to go make money for the bourgeois.

> Why not have scientists go off and do their research and rely on a team that is skilled at hoarding grants or publishing works from raw data?

Partly because science is very specialized. If I work on something new, then it's possible there is very few people in the world that know it or will easily understand it. I couldn't have someone else write a paper or grant proposal based on it - either they wouldn't understand it, or they are a fellow scientist who wouldn't want to do it either.

The mistake, in my opinion, is making the number of papers published a metric on which you determine a scientist's worth. Just like most metric-ization of society today, it's a bad idea.

I disagree on your first point- I think that there could be someone else who could write a grant proposal for me, provided that they a) expressed an interest in grant writing over benchwork / data analysis and b) were fluent enough in the field's literature to be able to translate my ideas into bureaucratic prose more elegantly and efficiently than me. Such a hypothetical individual might have some overlap with the "scientific popularizer" roles that we see cropping up with figures like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye, in the sense that they could serve as a conduit between scientists and funding (whereas popularizers serve as links between scientists and the general public).

The issue is that this kind of idealized division of labor can't exist in the current climate- there just isn't enough money to distribute a researcher's load across multiple specialists. This results in researchers being expected to juggle advising, grant writing, committee work, publishing, coding, analysis, and teaching, which creates more stress on researchers and poorer quality results.

I do agree with you on your second point though- publish or perish is academia's equivalent to rank and yank.

As an aside, I doubt that psychology would be experiencing nearly the number of issues that it is now with replicability if psychologists were able to delegate their analysis to an in-house statistician for verification. Or maybe it would (assuming that the poor application of statistics is more of a socio-political issue, which might very well be the case).

>"the poor application of statistics"

It is actually statisticians who are at the root of the problem. There is no proper way to apply the statistics most people are taught (NHST). However, everyone tries (and fails) to come up with some way to use the stats because they can't believe they were taught to perform such a waste of time ritual. See here for a decent overview: http://library.mpib-berlin.mpg.de/ft/gg/GG_Mindless_2004.pdf

>The mistake, in my opinion, is making the number of papers published a metric on which you determine a scientist's worth. Just like most metric-ization of society today, it's a bad idea.

Nodding intensifies

It really is just a logical extension of capitalism - defining and measuring productive units so that you can optimize the means. What people fail to see time and agin is that incentivizing metrics gains is incentivizing metrics games (sorry that just came out gross and punny). It's no longer about doing good science/work/music/programming, it's about getting those numbers up so you can look good to the overseers

It's because the whole rotten mess that is academia is dying, that's why.

None of my research friends that have gone to industry regret it... Some of my friends that have gone on to academic jobs regret the decision.

I've been in biomedical research for 15 years, and I am leaving the lab atm. Many of my peers are as well. It's not a viable or enjoyable career anymore. Funding is extremely political, and proposal reviews border on arbitrary. Typically, the funding has been decided by seniority and politics, and the review is justification.

I imagine that it will get better eventually, but I can't wait for that to come to pass, and I can't in good conscience advise others to do so.

If you don't mind me asking, are you moving to somewhere in the biomedical industry?

Yes, I started my own company. Doing something that I have wanted to for a while.

Many of these people will leave for academia. Some of them have spare time, or maybe will have spare time after their kids are grown, or will be able to retire early. Then they could become citizen scientists [1], independent scientists [2], etc.

Like independent film or video games, they couldn't compete head-on with big budget research. But they could presumably make progress in areas ignored by them: longer term, more fundamental research for example.

When I was a postdoc at MIT, it was common for the grad students to want to have a "lunatic fringe" track at conferences or an "unconvential ideas" seminar. But once you're in the heirarchy/buerocracy of academia, you understand why those don't exist. Perhaps independent scientists could actually do them?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizen_science [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independent_scientist

This is why I'm a fan of open data / data sharing, and why I wish federal grants would more emphasize intermediate steps that could lead to papers rather than the production of papers themselves. The barriers to data collection are quite large (it's at least $1 million to acquire an MRI scanner in my field, neuroimaging; a huge fixed cost that most individuals would never be able to afford), but the cost of hosting those data once they're acquired is trivial. Once up on the net and publicly shared, anyone can take a crack at the the data and see what they can find.

Funding bodies emphasize data sharing more and more. However, that is along or after a publication.

No one has figured out academic attribution of data-only in a satisfactory way yet, but some noteworthy attempts exist. E.g. https://www.elsevier.com/connect/new-data-journal-lets-resea...

I understand this article is mostly about the pressure of finding grants and doing research, but the role also includes teaching. I would be curious to hear, based on the experience of others, how much of the money generated by teaching a class goes to the professor.

Something like:

% = ($ Professor paid per Class) / (Students per Class * Number of Credits for Class * $ Charged per Credit)

At least by my calculations based on my own experience, 90% of the revenue here gets sucked up by overhead with only 10% going to the person teaching. If a non-profit was run this way, it would get shut down.

Pure math phd here, now working in finance.

On a personal level I wish I could've been a research professor.

But on an objective level, in pure math the invisible hand of the market is acting correctly. There's already so much amazing pure math published, you could devote your whole life just to understanding 1/100th of the math published in the 1990s, to say nothing of the stuff published in 2016.

We don't need more basic researchers right now.

Sucks though that a lot of people (like me) have to watch a life dream crumble, though.

Do we need more finance people? I wouldn't say we "need" much of anything; we could go any which way.

So who says the invisible hand of the market is acting correctly if it makes your life dream of being a research professor crumble and forces you into finance work instead?

The problem I faced - and still am, to an extent - was that during my PhD I was given no support or really any information at all about the possibility of a life and career outside of academia. I was fortunate enough to be offered a postdoc position in the same group that I did my PhD (particle physics) before I’d actually submitted my thesis. However 6 months later I desperately needed a change and managed to find another postdoc as a research scientist in the Medical Physics department of a cancer hospital.

Medical physics research has felt more fulfilling than particle physics, but I’m now in a position where my current contract expires in around 9 months, and with a mortgage to pay and a family to support I have to decide between: looking for yet another short-term postdoc position (in a hopefully related field of physics) - ending up in exactly the same position in 2-3 years; starting to apply for grants and funding with my current research group - a very stressful process with no guarantees of anything; moving into industry / private sector - assuming that it’d be possible to find a company that had a need for the very specific knowledge base and skills that developed over the past 7 years.

Or all of the above, at the same time, while trying to continue working my current research projects.

As someone that has always had an interest in computing, data analysis and software, but has ended up approaching them from a physics-based direction, I don’t feel qualified to compete with computer science/statistics grads for most of the software development or data science jobs that I see advertised.

I'm sure that there are other fields out there that would suit me, but having never had a non-academic-research job, I'm struggling to know where and what to look for. Does anyone have any practical advice for moving away from an academic career path?

>I don’t feel qualified to compete with computer science/statistics grads for most of the software development or data science jobs that I see advertised.

I suspect you are more qualified than most oracle-developer-turned-data-scientists

Give it ago. review some of open source projects that can leverage your math or data understanding skills. Contribute to those. Use that as your experience/resume

I hate to burst your bubble, but outside of the major metros, there are few data science type jobs that are any good. It's an up-and-coming field, maybe--but as someone with a PhD and a lot of software development experience, making the transition has been tricky (am still working on it). It may be a good track or it may fizzle out, we'll see.

A few superstars will do well, the rest will be an urban myth of potential prosperity and happiness.

Your comment feels like something I could have written a few years ago. I made the transition following a eerily similar same path. I did a PhD in experimental particle physics, then a postdoc offered though a Medical Physics Program (though not actually related to clinical radiation therapy) that I took largely because it allowed me to stay in a familiar location. I was stressed and needed a change. I was reading up on data scientist and data analyst positions but did not feel confident in applying.

I started attending software meetups in my city and chatting with folks. Meeting others in person was key for realizing the given the breadth and pace of the field, there would always be something new to learn so I needed to take the job posting "requirements" with some grains of salt. Someone encouraged me to attend a recruitment night his employer was hosting, and I figured it would at least be good interview practice. I ended up getting an offer and have been a Software Engineer for three years now. While the referral surely helped, the practice of explaining my experience to programmers at these events and learning where my skills were applicable and how to translate that into the jargon of the software boosted my confidence to actually attend the event and interview.

There were some rough patches at first, being thrown into a front-end project with practically zero experience in html and javascript, but in the end analysis code and front-end code are both debugged with breakpoints, test data and when that fails printing to the console. Recently I have been dusting off my analytical skills by playing with machine learning frameworks and hope to take my career in a direction that builds off both my academic and practical experiences.

Given your background, you can easily get a job as a software dev or data scientist in a big name Silicon Valley company. Just prepare for the interview for 2-3 months with books like Crack the Coding Interview.

yeah, i left science for the reasons the article outlined.

it's a big weight off of my shoulders. i tell people who are thinking of going into science not to do so, now.

Me too. I loved it. I could not think of a better way I could have spent my 20s. But I was going broke and had to get out.

"as a young researcher moving to the private sector, he’s had to prove himself all over again."

This is true and is worth anyone making the switch keeping in mind. Commercial companies want a commercial track record before they trust you with important decisions.

i hear this is the same problem in politics. a ton of fundraising and very little politicking or whatever it is politicians use to do normally during the day.

"mediocre science", that line says it all.

The main problem with science is the lack of agile methodologies -- the scientific process is ripe for disruption.



(which may or may not bear an odd resemblance to insider trading)

Is this sarcastic?

Satire :)


Having gone through a lot of what is discussed in the article, I have concluded that academic research careers are for rich people only. I didn't even have student loans, but the pay was ridiculous given how many years of my 20s I spent in school, i.e. not making any income. Retirement is a real thing you know? So is getting old and having poor health.

The comments on the nature.com page are interesting, too. No matter how much you love your career and your research, there is more to life.

Also, you can see how climate research has become a total echo chamber--the people fighting over the scraps of funding will gladly sell their souls to a communist lie if that's what it takes to get by.

> I have concluded that academic research careers are for rich people only.

100% correct. There is a lot of artifitial barriers with the only purpose of deter the poor, introverted, physically disabled, unable to lie convincingly, or coming from incorrect countries to pass.

Maybe we should warn young people to not spending too much time doing science until reaching 50 years old or so. Science, as we understand it currently, is not much different to doing drugs. Will slurp all your money with some glimpses of a promised paradise, isolate you from friends and family, will boost your stress levels, increase your probability of having cancer and will damage your health. Your opportunities of having children or a good life will be seriously handicapped. I wonder why is not forbidden still.

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