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?