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Science and Career Uncertainty

An interesting, if not novel, post on Michael White’s Adaptive Complexity blog:

The bottom line is this: a career in academic science, especially
biology, demands a lot of you in terms of training, skill, time, and
dedication, and the rewards are uncertain and in any case a long way
off. Obviously doing science is great, which is why a lot of people
still go into the career, yet perhaps we’re luring in fresh
undergraduate recruits with a little bit of false advertising: you go
in thinking what could be better than having the same kind of job
Einstein had, and then, 12 years later, it dawns on you that it’s
actually kind of hard to stake your claim to a corner of the scientific
landscape that shows potential for paradigm-shifting discoveries. You
can go through years of training, letting the opportunity costs add up,
and wind up working on research problems that are interesting, but not
enough to keep away the doubts about your career choice and the
opportunities you gave up to pursue science.

Although there is nothing particularly new here, it’s a point that cannot be made too strongly or too often. Even as policy makers continue to try to attract more smart people into science, they fail to address the main obstacle to recruiting and keeping people in the field: The uncertainty in career prospects.

It’s not that science isn’t a good career path. Most people who enter science end up, eventually, with satisfying careers. Unemployment rates for people with scientific training are quite low.

The problem is that the jobs people end up in, more often than not, are not the jobs they start out seeking, and the jobs they end up in are not very visible even to people well along in their training. The future looks cloudy even for graduate students–even for postdocs who are, in principle at least, just one step away from that tenure-track professorship most of them have been seeking (but most will not get).

And of course, the more new people enter the field–without a proportionate increase in career opportunities–the worse this problem gets.

If I go to medical school, I know I’ll emerge (after residency and perhaps some specialist training) with a good job. If I earn an MBA–just 2 years of graduate work!–I can count on employment in a good-paying, mid-level executive position. But if I graduate with a Ph.D. in most fields of science, the path to my future job is far from clear.


2 comments on “Science and Career Uncertainty”

  1. John says:

    It’s best not to count on an academic career after completion of a PhD. Limiting yourself to that leads to a lot of misery, frustration and penury. Outside of academia there are a lot of good jobs with salaries that are far better. I always think this needs to be emphasised.

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