An article in Slate on science PhDs and scientific employment has been creating a stir among people who think about such issues. (This topic has come up around here a few times, naturally). It’s titled “Is a Science PhD a Waste of Time?”, and I’ll spare you any suspense and tell you that the author’s answer is “No”. Scientific unemployment has been exaggerated, says the article, and the degree is pretty much totally worth it.
Chemjobber has his own response to all this, and he brings numbers and citations (rather than anecdotes of unnamed people) to the discussion. But it’s the whole thrust of the article that he finds hardest to deal with:
I find Mr. Lametti’s essay very frustrating. It is suffused with youthful optimism, which is no substitute for a cold look at the facts. I am surprised at the apparent non-existence of the unemployed scientist, and that there doesn’t appear to be anybody older than 35 or so in his essay. Wrestling with the damage caused by layoffs or outsourcing don’t seem to be worth his time; you got your Ph.D.! Isn’t that wonderful? (You should be able to find another job in a snap!)
Nothing against youthful optimism – I keep some (well-insulated) for use in times of need myself. And if someone really does feel like a career in research is right for them, even after getting well into grad school, they’re probably right. If you’re a fit with this sort of thing, there may well be no good substitute for it. But anyone who’s pursuing that career needs to be as clear-eyed as possible about it and about what’s going on in the real world. Optimism and lack of information (willed or not) – that’s a recipe for trouble.