Being a science career realist

Apropos of yesterday’s quote about the science job market, here are some key points that anyone interested in pursuing a science career should keep in mind:

1) The number of independent research positions in academia, industry, and government has always been less than the number of qualified individuals who desire those positions, but the scarcity of such positions is much more severe now than it was 30 years ago, particularly in the biomedical sciences1. Whether we have the right number of independent research positions is a different issue. The purpose of independent research positions in not to provide employment for people who want such positions, and so the fact that many people want independent research positions but don’t have them does not indicate that we need more of these positions.

2) The PhD is designed to train people for the scarce independent research positions in academia, government, and industry. Independent means here that you conceive of, propose, and execute (or at least supervise the execution of) research problems – a PI or its equivalent in government and industry. A PhD followed by a postdoc is a good training path for independent research careers in academia, government, and industry.

3) A PhD program is a very wasteful way to train people for other types of research and non-research positions – it is too unfocused, it takes too long, and it comes with very little job placement help. Unfortunately, there aren’t many other training options, particularly if you’re interested in a career in biology. It is probably a good idea to keep the PhD focused on training for independent research, but this means that we should have other types of more focused training programs for people who want to do science, but who do not want to compete for the above-mentioned scarce independent research jobs.

4) In academic science departments, the number one role of graduate students and postdocs is to serve as a labor pool for established independent researchers. In exchange, students get a valuable degree and usually very good training in how to be independent researchers, but not necessarily good training in how to best compete for those scarce independent research jobs. Training for other types of science jobs is negligible, and students generally have to explore other career options on their own.

5) Only very late in the grad student/postdoc training process do aspiring scientists usually realize just how unlikely it is that they’ll land an independent research position. While not all grad students and postdocs want such positions2, independent research is generally all they have been trained for, and it comes as an unpleasant surprise to realize that, after 5+ years of hard work and training, they are largely on their own when it comes to seeking out other career options.

6) Despite 3) above, with a PhD you still have good career prospects, although you need to face up to the fact that you might have also had such career prospects without the heavy opportunity costs you paid while getting a PhD. There are many interesting, stimulating jobs out there for you, but it takes effort to find them.

7) Those who train graduate students and postdocs are generally not authorities on career options that don’t involve independent research positions. Most academic departments are failing their students by failing to do more to help them explore various career options **early** in the training process, but department faculty are for the most part not the people who are qualified to help students explore other career options. Universities should find appropriately qualified people, and do more (such as actively seek out companies interested in offering internships to grad students) to put students and postdocs in contact with potential employers as early as possible.

8) If you really, honestly, genuinely do want an independent research career, then by all means, go for it. But realize that competition is very intense, and being a good scientist with a demonstrated ability to independently generate and implement new ideas is not enough. You have to not only be an excellent scientist, the kind of scientist you are happy being – you also need to be a careerist. Big names and lots of publications go on your CV. Creativity does not.

Take John Baez’s career advice seriously:

“On Keeping Your Soul” (after reading the snippet below, go read the entire thing)

The great thing about tenure is that it means your research can be driven by your actual interests instead of the ever-changing winds of fashion. The problem is, by the time many people get tenure, they’ve become such slaves of fashion that they no longer know what it means to follow their own interests. They’ve spent the best years of their life trying to keep up with the Joneses instead of developing their own personal style! So, bear in mind that getting tenure is only half the battle: getting tenure while keeping your soul is the really hard part…

1. Go to the most prestigious school and work with the best possible advisor. A good advisor will give you a hot topic to work on where you can get results that people will find interesting. A good advisor will be so famous that merely being their student will cause people to be interested in you…

2. Publish. Publish papers that get definitive results on fashionable subjects, so they’ll get cited. Publish papers that open up promising new lines of investigation. Publish papers that people can actually read – but don’t tell anyone else this trick, or everyone will start doing it, and then where will you be? Publish papers that show you have your own research program. Publish papers that create a shock wave the moment they hit the archive! But most importantly: publish.

3. Go to conferences. There’s an infinite number of conferences, and you should go to them. Give lots of talks, chat with lots of people, make connections, find out where the jobs are, find out what people are working on, find out what people will be working on…


2. If you don’t want an independent research position, for the love of God, don’t do a postdoc!

Some additional reading:

The Washington Post: “U.S. pushes for more scientists but the jobs aren’t there”

Paula Stephan, How Economics Shapes Science

Cosmic Variance, “Subtleties of the Crappy Job Market for Scientists”

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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