Science Careers Blog

January 26, 2009

Opportunities in Times of (Financial) Crisis

I've been thinking a good bit about the recent economic downturn. There is no doubt that it is, on balance, a very bad thing for job-seekers. But, I've asked myself, are there any bright spots?

So far I haven't thought of many, but here are a couple. First, if you don't already own a home, your housing costs could be significantly lower. It's a scary time to buy real estate, but if you've got the courage you should be able to buy a house for significantly less than you could have a year or two ago. If you're really disciplined and not too choosy you can probably pick up something really cheap. And if you qualify, mortgage rates are very low. Furthermore, as real-estate prices fall, the cost of rentals does, too. An acquaintance even suggested recently that this is a good time to find free house-sitting gigs, though I don't remember how he arrived at this conclusion.

In an employment context, right now state and private universities are really struggling to deal with endowment losses and state-revenue shortfalls. Many universities are laying off workers--though most layoffs, so far have been restricted to staff. Many faculty searches, however, have been canceled.

Yet this is one time when it's good to be on soft money. Because, although recent NIH budgets have not been kind, soft money promises to be abundant over the next couple of years. Read our recent entry on the science provisions of the draft stimulus bill.  Anyway, while there may not be much money for hiring new faculty, there should soon be plenty of money floating around to pay postdoc salaries. This might be a good time to hunker down and enjoy a reasonably stable postdoc paycheck.

Another good employment target is community colleges. In times of economic struggle, more people turn to cheaper community colleges, where they can save not just on tuition but also on housing costs (by continuing to live at home). Furthermore, when unemployment rates climb, governments often turn to community colleges to administer vocational retraining programs. Somebody has to teach all those new students--so maybe you can supplement that postdoc income with a part-time gig at the local 2-year college.

In the private, non-educational sector, there's this: When, as now, companies lay off lots of workers and hiring freezes are in place, temp agencies and contractors often do well. That's because there's still basic work to be done that was one by those employees, and people on contract usually aren't covered by a hiring freeze.

There should be some winners in key industries in the coming years. Venture capitalists are interested in investing in energy companies, especially when there's a prospect of some public support. There's been talk of more public-private partnerships, an approach to innovation the Department of Energy has long favored.

Last but certainly not least, lean times are good times to have less but enjoy your time more. Many scientists will have to come to terms with the reduced value of their labor in a market that can't make good use of it. As the value of labor declines, the relative value of non-remunerative pursuits--hobbies, spending time with loved ones--increases.

I once spent several years in a combination of un- and under-employment, the result of a forced move to an economically (and scientifically) under-developed area. We were hardly rich, but we kept ourselves dry, warm, and fed. But at the time I was too young and stupid to take advantage of my leisure. I indulged my guilt over not working, and took every opportunity to bind myself to one pointless project or another. I realize now that I squandered the last bit of extended leisure that I'm likely to have before I'm old.

This might be the best advice I have for dealing with bad economic times. If you're forced to take a break, enjoy it.
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