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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 17, 2005

Don't Become A Scientist?

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Posted by Derek

Over at Sean Carroll's "Preposterous Universe", there's a post on a physicist's advice to students who want to become scientists. Don't even try, he tells them. No jobs, no money, no thrill, no hope. It's depressing stuff. Carroll is a physicist himself, so he has quite a bit to say on the topic. (Link found via yet another physicist.)

Reading the whole thing, though, I was struck by how far from my own experience it is. The drug industry's going through a rough patch, for sure, but there are companies still hiring. And although we've had some layoffs, and more are in the offing, there are still thousands upon thousands of us out here. We're gainfully employed, working on very difficult and challenging problems with large real-world implications. (And hey, we're getting paid an honest wage while we're doing it, too.)

That's when it hit me: the article that Carroll's referring to isn't warning people away from becoming scientists. It's warning them away from becoming physics professors. Very different! Those categories intersect, all right, but they're not identical. There are other sciences besides physics (no matter what Rutherford said), and in many of them, there's this other world called industry. (The original article doesn't even mention it, and Carroll disposes of in his first paragraph.)

Some of this is (doubtless unconscious) snobbery - academic science is pure science, after all, while industry is mostly full of projects on how to keep cat litter from clumping up in the bag or finding new preservatives for canned ravioli. Right? And some of it reflects the real differences between physics and chemistry. To pick a big one, research (and funding) in physics has been dominated for a long time by some Really Big Problems. The situation's exacerbated by the way that many of these big problems are of intense theoretical but hazy practical interest.

I am not knocking them for that, either, and I'll enter my recent effusions about the weather on Titan as evidence. I'd love to hear that, say, an empirically testable theory of quantum gravity has made the cut. But that kind of work is going to be the domain of academia. I think that it's a sign of an advanced civilization to work on problems like that, but advanced civilization or not, it's not likely to be a profit center. Meanwhile, chemistry doesn't have any Huge Questions at the moment, but what it has are many more immediately applicable areas of research. Naturally, there are a lot more chemists employed in industry (working on a much wider range of applications.)

Many of the other differences between the fields stem from that basic one. Chemistry has a larger cohort of the industrially employed, so the academic end of the business, while not a jolly sight, isn't the war of all against all that you find in physics, astronomy, or (the worst possible example) the humanities. The American Chemical Society's idea of worrisome unemployment among its members would be clear evidence of divine intervention in many other fields. So those of us who get paid, get paid pretty well. And we don't do three, four, five-year post-docs, either, which is something you find more of in fields where there aren't enough places for everyone to sit down. Two years, maximum, or people will think that there's something wrong with you.

All of this places us, on the average, in a sunnier mood than the physics prof who started this whole discussion (whose article, to be sure, was written four or five years ago.) I was rather surly during grad school, but for the most part I'm happy as the proverbial clam. As I've said, if someone had come to me when I was seven years old and shown me the work I do now, I would have been overjoyed. Who can complain?

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry)


1. PacRim Jim on January 18, 2005 12:24 AM writes...

People seem to adopt a political orientation before they are trained as scientists, so supposedly dispassionate scientists seemed to be confirming existing biases rather than discovering anything new. Science has been so politicized that I always ask myself who is making the claim and which publication is publishing it, before I know how trustworthy it is. The scientific method has been compromised by political dogma.

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2. John Johnson on January 18, 2005 10:13 AM writes...


I'm sure Galileo would concur with your last statement.

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3. markm on January 18, 2005 8:57 PM writes...

I switched from Physics to Engineering nearly 30 years ago, because those problems were already becoming clear. Physics has become largely a sort of high-tech government-funded navel gazing, or else it's training that's used to work on something that's related but not quite physics (astronomy, for example).

The last new physics discoveries with practical applications were nuclear power and semiconductors. The "science" part of these was pretty much completed in the 1950's. You might be able to get nonacademic work in these fields with a physics degree, but what you'd be doing is engineering rather than science. (A simple definition of the difference: Scientists make something new happen a few times in the lab. Engineers make it work every time, outside of the lab, and then look for incremental improvements.)

Basic scientific discoveries in Physics started to peter out about the same time, basically for lack of reasonable ways to test new hypotheses. Particle physicists spend their lives seeking billions of dollars to build more powerful accelerators that possibly might give them a flash on the detectors that they interpret as the signature of a "new particle" with a femtosecond half-life. This interpretation of the detected signature is supported by statistical analysis showing that, although this signature can happen by pure chance, it's unlikely to happen by chance as many times as it was seen in the experiment, and by a long chain of deductions from the standard interpretations of other ambiguous experiments.

Or the physicist can try to consider the universe on a grand scale. Telescopes are cheaper than accelerators, although still way beyond private incomes. But if you think particle physicists might possibly be building a house of cards, you really won't be impressed by the kind of "confirmation" that can be found for a theory of the universe.

Of course, the final question is where you want to work and how you want to earn your income. Academia is almost the only place where you can get a salary for attempts to do basic science in physics and still be allowed to publish your discoveries - if any. So if you like campus politics and being a professor, go for it. Or if you like drawing a government salary to work in secret on better ways to create instant glow-in-the-dark parking lots -- I don't want to hear about it. Otherwise, a career in physics is not for you.

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4. DV Henkel-Wallace on January 19, 2005 1:34 PM writes...

I think Katz misses the point. Being a professor is surely not for everyone (and is hard to generalise: its nature varies radically by field, institution and time).

Derek, some great professors would hate your job.

When I was an undergraduate I thought that being a professor would be the life for me, but later I learned otherwise. Fortunately not the hard way! I still remember my epiphany: sitting in my advisor's office one February morning, looking out his window at the frozen Charles River, and realising not only that he hated his job but why. Sure there were many professors whom I admired and liked and who loved their jobs, but I eventually understood that a faculty position ought not be in my future.

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5. Daniel Newby on January 19, 2005 5:36 PM writes...

markm said "The last new physics discoveries with practical applications were nuclear power and semiconductors."

That's way too pessimistic. Off the top of my head, I can think of high-temperature superconductors; cheap, reliable lasers (it took lots of research to make them more than just curiosities even among laboratory scientists—the HeNe laser is especially clever); Fourier transform spectroscopy and imaging; mesostructured carbon such as buckyballs and nanotubes; miniature transmuters for nuclear medicine; liquid crystal displays; atomic clocks; and many others. A practical physicist or physical chemist can write their own ticket.

And besides, some people can't not be physicists.

"A simple definition of the difference: Scientists make something new happen a few times in the lab. Engineers make it work every time, outside of the lab, and then look for incremental improvements."

So where does the magnetron fit, then?

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