Some comments here called my attention to a piece by Philip Greenspun, "Women in Science". That's not the best title, because his points aren't so much about the position of women in science, but of everyone. And a pretty damned bleak position it is:
"Why does anyone think science is a good job?
The average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following:
1. age 18-22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college
2. age 22-30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month
3. age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year
4. age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year
5. age 44: with young children at home (if lucky), fired by the university ("denied tenure" is the more polite term for the folks that universities discard), begins searching for a job in a market where employers primarily wish to hire folks in their early 30s."
I note that this is an academic career path, for one thing, and I also note that even from that perspective it's not very accurate. Eight years in grad school? Five more as a post-doc? I'd have lost my mind long before the end of that. I know that the molecular biology people take longer than chemists, but I don't think even they take that long. As for me, I spent 4 1/2 years in grad school, and one year on a post-doc - all finished and in the work force at age 27. (Keep those figures in mind - later on he's going to tell us that I wasted my time and earnings potential).
Greenspun goes on to contrast his view of a science career with his take on some other professions. Someone with the same intelligence and drive to get hired into a tenure-track job at Berkeley, for example, would (according to him) likely be a top specialist as an MD by the age of 44. In business, at a company such as GE, this person would be "handed ever-larger divisions to operate, with ever-larger bonuses and stock options." As a lawyer, they'd be a half-million-dollar-per-year partner or "a professor at a law school supplementing her $200,000/year salary with some private work". Even public school teachers do better than scientists, he contends - by his calculations, they're making $50,000/year by the time they're thirty. I'll defer to others from those professions who can assess how realistic these comparisons are; I'll only say that I entertain grave doubts.
No, where I can speak up is in his description of my own job. His belief is that students only go into science because they have the examples of their own professors in front of them, and they don't have the foresight to ask anyone about what the profession is really like:
"Some scientists are like kids who never grow up. They love what they do, are excited by the possibilities of their research, and wear a big smile most days. Although these people are, by Boston standards, ridiculously poor and they will never be able to afford a house (within a one-hour drive of their job) or support a family, I don't feel sorry for them.
Unfortunately, this kind of child-like joy is not typical. The tenured Nobel Prize winners are pretty happy, but they are a small proportion of the total. The average scientist that I encounter expresses bitterness about (a) low pay, (b) not getting enough credit or references to his or her work, (c) not knowing where the next job is coming from, (d) not having enough money or job security to get married and/or have children. If these folks were experiencing day-to-day joy at their bench, I wouldn't expect them to hold onto so much bitterness and envy."
The average scientist he encounters is like this? Fun crowd he hangs with. I'm just imagining what a scientific meeting would be like if his statement reflected reality: hordes of shuffling, pissed-off scientists, hands jammed in the pockets of their threadbare trousers, scowling at each other as they joylessly trudge through the hallways. Off in the distance is a chortling Nobel Prize winner. . .
Of course, there's always the objection that I work in industry, far away from the salt mines of academia. And it's true, after a good close look at the academic world, I decided that it wasn't for me. But Greenspun has me covered in an appendix:
"For people with PhDs in Biology, there are a lot of jobs at pharmaceutical companies paying more than $100,000 per year. Considered on purely economic grounds, these jobs don't justify the time and foregone income invested in a PhD. There are 22-year-olds earning $150,000 per year selling home mortgages.
What about the working conditions? Surely it is more interesting to be a scientist at a drug company than to be selling home mortgages? It depends on the worker's personality. Are you introverted? Want a job where you seldom have to meet anyone new? Want to sit at the same desk or bench year after year and work mostly by yourself? Get most of your satisfaction from solving puzzles? Have we got the job for you: industrial scientist!"
Ah, that clears things up. Yes, despite his talk of pharmaceutical company jobs, it's obvious that Greenspun has not the faintest idea of what those jobs are really like. Just for the record, we work in groups, in teams, in departments over here. We have to talk to our colleagues and present our results constantly in front of rooms of people. The most successful folks in the industry are the ones with the skills to talk to, listen to, and deal with people from all the other science and business areas in the company. If you can't stand to meet or talk to anyone, your career is going to go nowhere.
My problem with Greenspun, after that otherworldly section on industry, is that I can't trust him in any of the other parts of his piece. (Can he find me one of those 22-year-olds earning 150K/year selling mortgages?) He's shown a willingness to just make stuff up and present it as fact - and you know what we scientists think about that. It's a pity, because he has a few good points to make. But despite his denials, they're buried in bitter fantasies.