Don’t Become a Scientist!

Yuhong reacts to the paper Don’t Become a Scientist! by Jonathan I. Katz. Here’s what she had to say:

Whenever I met students who want to have a ph.d., I would ask them, do you really want it if I tell you the truth? Many students tell me that a scientist can be free to think anything and achieve what they think so that is the ideal life for them. But the truth is this career has too much harshness to be free. My Friend Daniel, a pessimist, has many posts recently about it. I agree with him on this issue though.

The paper she reacts to is also very entertaining. It goes after a few myths. One of them is that if you get a Ph.D. and finally do get a professorship, life will be great:

Suppose you do eventually obtain a permanent job, perhaps a tenured professorship. The struggle for a job is now replaced by a struggle for grant support, and again there is a glut of scientists. Now you spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems. They’re not the same thing: you cannot put your past successes in a proposal, because they are finished work, and your new ideas, however original and clever, are still unproven. It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal; because they have not yet been proved to work (after all, that is what you are proposing to do) they can be, and will be, rated poorly. Having achieved the promised land, you find that it is not what you wanted after all.

What can be done? I advocate that we inform potential students of the job prospects. Katz suggest we get funding agencies to stop funding so many Ph.D.s:

If you are in a position of leadership in science then you should try to persuade the funding agencies to train fewer Ph.D.s. The glut of scientists is entirely the consequence of funding policies (almost all graduate education is paid for by federal grants). The funding agencies are bemoaning the scarcity of young people interested in science when they themselves caused this scarcity by destroying science as a career.

I like his solution, but I’ve got no idea how I could ever have an impact on the policies of funding agencies. I’m not enough of a big cheese, but if you are, please help.

I conclude with this remark Katz made in his paper:

I have known more people whose lives have been ruined by getting a Ph.D. than by drugs.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

6 thoughts on “Don’t Become a Scientist!”

  1. This sounds really discouraging. I have just obtained my PhD and am in transition to becoming a postdoc fellow. What are my prospects in academia??? I guess all that now depends on who I know and right timing.

  2. Even though I fit his “India and China” clause, I think this is unreasonably bleak for three reasons. Engineering is relatively safer, and a good alternative way to do science. Second, other careers aren’t that much better. Third, you can’t really choose your career. Your career chooses you. Sure, there is a shitload more money in medicine or law. But if you hate every living moment of work in those areas, you cannot do it. Period.

  3. If every person with a Ph.D. is expected to supervise several more Ph.D.s in a university environment, then yes, we will have a job shortage. Exponential growth like that is unsustainable. On the other hand, if most Ph.D.s are used for conducting research in public or private labs, then there could conceivably be enough jobs. The solution is more funding to labs that employ research scientists, not less funding for Ph.D. students.

  4. Cutting the phd funding isn’t the answer. Why? Because the job market is so bad spending 6 years getting paid 26k to get a phd isn’t that bad a deal. Also, I believe phds tend to make more even outside of academia. The only changes. I would suggest would be to inform people that getting a phd is a low paying job that may enhance your job prospects but is unlikely to lead to a career in academia or research.

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