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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: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 6, 2006

Man Hands on Misery to Man

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Posted by Derek

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.

Comments (37) + TrackBacks (1) | Category: How To Get a Pharma Job


COMMENTS

1. silvermine on March 6, 2006 9:53 PM writes...

Oh, yes, 8 years of grad school. Maybe not for everyone, but many people I know were going to be stuck with that. Most people were there at least 6. I got out after a year when it became clear I wasn't going ot be working on the stuff I wanted to -- it's one thing to sign your life away for that long making $16K a year (a pretty good stipend!) but to do that for 6-8 years on something you didn't dream about working on for your whole life? Uh, I don't think so.

(My BS is in Molecular Biology and I went into a PhD Biophysics program. Most of the other students were physics majors.)

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2. freeradical on March 6, 2006 10:10 PM writes...

NOTE: ONE OF YOUR ITALICS TAGS IS'NT PROPERLY TERMINATED.

Greenspun is a Prof at MIT and I imagine that he's run into his share of bitter scientists though no doubt he is probably overgeneralizing from a probably sparse data set.

As for being denied tenure, there were two recent cases at the University of Chicago where assistant prof's were denied tenure. One was a physicist and the other a law or economics prof, I think.

It must really suck to spend all that time grading papers, teaching classes and doing research only to have it all go down the toilet simply because someone on the committee doesn't think your work is sufficiently important.

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3. SRC on March 6, 2006 11:40 PM writes...

Want to sit at the same desk or bench year after year and work mostly by yourself?
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.

Derek,

With respect, I think you sharpened Greenspun's comments quite a bit by implying that he thinks scientists don't meet or talk with others. Scientists do mostly work by themselves, compared to those in "people" jobs (physicians, for example), which entail meeting stranger after stranger all day long. Most physicians, for example, probably meet – and interact productively with - more strangers in a day than the average scientist does in a month. Relatively brief conversations with essentially the same people really don't compare with that.

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4. Derek Lowe on March 7, 2006 8:58 AM writes...

SRC, you're right that it's not like being in medical practice, with a constant stream of people coming through. Of course, for a doctor, it's not like this constant stream of contacts are people that they can have friendly emotional contact with.

And compared to some of his other jobs - middle manager at GE, for example - becoming a lab head or group leader in a research organization is very similar indeed. I wonder how many people you meet selling mortgages?

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5. patient_etherised on March 7, 2006 10:11 AM writes...

Derek,

This reminds me of a survery I saw in Science where they found 85% job satisfaction among PhDs in biology across all disciplines.

Actually, there are two, one from 2001:
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/294/5541/396
And one from 2004:
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/304/5678/1830

Cheers

Permalink to Comment

6. JSinger on March 7, 2006 10:43 AM writes...

On one hand, sure, he's excessively bleak. On the other hand, when he talks about the typical career arc as hitting denial of tenure at 44 he's actually underestimating the problem. The average age of a first time NIH grant recipient is 42 years old!!! (Or was, a few years, ago. It's had a linear trend upwards for decades and is probably 43 by now.) Now, I don't know who all these 50 year old new faculty hires are, but that just goes to show how you can't just go by your own experience.

Also, I think the level of bitterness varies with location. In much of the country you can have a middle-class adult lifestyle on a postdoc salary, or even a grad stipend. In Greenspun's Boston area, or in San Francisco, the sacrifice you make is much starker.

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7. MikeT on March 7, 2006 10:54 AM writes...

Derek,
Thanks for responding to this ridiculous essay. I value your advice and comment.

MikeT

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8. Serkan on March 7, 2006 11:39 AM writes...

The biological sciences are definitely seeing longer grad school and post-doc times. My PhD took just under 6 years and that's probably the average these days, especially if you're working in vivo. The post-docs with whom I interacted were routinely taking 2-3 years and were sometimes taking multiple (sequential) post-docs. There's a lot of pressure to publish at least a couple of papers from your post-doc work before you go on the academic job hunt. In the end, financial considerations lured me to industry after a short post-doc.

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9. Jim Hu on March 7, 2006 12:06 PM writes...

I sent a trackback ping last night, but it's not showing up:

http://dimer.tamu.edu/simplog/archive.php?blogid=3&pid=3341

The problem, IMHO, is that Greenspun starts with some real problems that everyone recognizes...and then layers on a ridiculous mix of misinformation and exaggeration.

This is in both how bleak a picture he paints of Science careers and of how rosy a picture he paints of the alternatives. The hand-wringing over balancing career and family for women has not been limited to science jobs. In the end, some women figure out how to do it successfully, and some opt to either not have kids or leave science.

And I second JSinger's comment about location.

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10. Biophysicist on March 7, 2006 12:06 PM writes...

In my field (Biophysics/Biochmistry/Cell Biology etc.), it does take about 5-6 years to finish a PhD. I have noticed synthetic Chemists and some theoretical physics guys usually graduate in 4-5years. Depending on where you live, stipend in biological fields is not too bad ~24K.

Five years of post-doc is almost getting to be the norm plus a high-impact (Nature, Science, Cell) paper to get called for interviews at a top-20 university. Life is hard in the academic track.

Having said that, most people I have interacted with are cognizant of the hardships and are mostly reconciled with their choice of career. They are motivated by the desire of doing good science. Funding is really bad right now - so it makes it tougher but by and large we hang on.
Few who do not like it, leave for industry job - I also know of people who have gone for a MBA or a law degree.

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. . .
LOL !
Recently, I attended the Biophysical Society meeting at Salt Lake City - there were ~5000 in attentance (with a few Nobel winners as well) and I don't think I saw too many bitter scientists. On the whole, everyone seemed to be having lots of fun rushing from one talk/poster to another, meeting up old-friends/colleagues, starting collaborations, checking out new products etc.
There was some tattered clothing visible but they belonged to attendees of the Tattoo convention (believe it!) going on at the same place.
Also many of the nearby bars/restaurant would be full with meeting attendees having a good time. Quite a few enjoyed skiing before, during and after the conference (the snow was great this year).

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11. Sigivald on March 7, 2006 1:29 PM writes...

I'm sure there are 22-year-olds making 150k a year selling mortgages.

There might even be three or four of them in the entire nation, and one or two of them might do that two years in a row.

But, yes, as a comparison with being a capital-S Scientist, that's a bit of a stretch. I imagine the average 22-year-old-or-so mortgage broker is lucky to make a quarter of that... (having known someone somewhat older than 22 who was in that field, I'm pretty sure he wasn't making over 35k... and I doubt a 22 year old has any mystical ability to sell more mortgages).

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12. jtw on March 7, 2006 1:51 PM writes...

I think Phil also doesn't add in the non monetary rewards of academic science. How do you put a price on the joy of discovery, the satisfaction of untangling a thorny knot in a pathway? Of rewriting the knowledge graph?

If you look at the academic sciences from an economic perspective it's an easy conclusion to draw that it's not worth it. But most of the scientists I know, and I know a lot of them, are driven by the need to unravel things, to understand things, and not by money. It's also a bad economic decision to spend your life as a substance abuse counselor. Or someone who works with homeless people. But there's a very real satisfaction to doing what makes you happy. And that's worth more than money to some folks.

Getting grants is indeed hard. But I know a lot of sales people who hit 44 years old, still have to pack a suitcase and sell geegaws and aren't ever going to rise above their job at the moment, who face twenty more years of hotels and cold calls. If money doesn't make you happy that's a far worse future than hustling a grant...

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13. RKN on March 7, 2006 4:24 PM writes...

Professional enervation and dissatisfaction aren't peculiar to scientists, they might attend people working in any field; artists get the blues, too. IMO, it's productive work -- whatever that may be -- that brings satisfaction. Monetary remuneration is good, though not necessary to professional satisfaction, and I don't even happen to think it's sufficient.

Incidentally, I'm skeptical of the implication here regarding who is and isn't a "scientist." A medical doctor isn't a scientist -- why not? The definition seems tendentiously narrow. A doctor encounters problems (ill patients), reviews data (patient's symptoms, fluids, etc.), forms and tests experimental hypotheses (orders more tests and diagnostics), and a draws conclusions (diagnosis &/or treatment plan).

People who apply science are scientists.

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14. Jan on March 7, 2006 4:30 PM writes...

In my case I have had a wonderful career in pharma research for the past 40 years. This has been at both a large international PMA company and also at a progressive Biotech. I believe that in the vast majority of cases, most of my colleagues did not get a job in pharma 'because of the money', but most wanted a satisfying job. Perhaps somewhat idealistically we believed that we could help find new and useful medicines that would help alleviate the suffering of our fellow humans. In return, the companies generally provided us with a 'comfortable' income sufficient to support one's family's needs. Over those years, I have developed good friends both within the companies for which I worked but also in the broader pharma research community that have lasted for many many years.
I feel truly fortunate to have been given the opportunity to do a job that I love, with all its challenges for such a protracted period of time. Granted, today the pervading atmosphere in companies has changed a great deal and loyalty, either by/to the various companies/employees is a thing of the past but all in all pharma research is still a great career.

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15. Anonymous on March 7, 2006 7:55 PM writes...

Greenspun's timeline is certianly off, but I agree with his overall assessment. As a synthetic organic chemist, I spent 6 years in grad school and three years in a post-doc, both at top ten universities. Despite 12 months of interviewing I'm still looking for a job with a large Pharma company. I've settled with a crappy biotech for now. Most of my colleagues from graduate school have shared similar experiences with me.

What you 'old timers' fail to recognize is just how competitive the job market has become.

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16. Ryan on March 7, 2006 9:20 PM writes...

There are too many things wrong with Greenspun's article.

Here is one that got me. Greenspun seems to devalue all science degrees. He talks about how a school teacher's earning potential is greater than the academic scientist. While that might be true, he ignores the fact that new graduates with science degrees have some of the highest starting salaries.

for example:

http://money.cnn.com/2006/02/13/pf/college/starting_salaries/index.htm

This doesn't include the pharmaceutical positions where starting Research Associates often earn 50-60K/year to start.

Anonymous: Is that you Travis?

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17. Erich Schwarz on March 8, 2006 2:18 AM writes...

I hate to break it to you, Derek, but Greenspun's description of academia has more truth than I wish I knew first-hand.

I'm a Harvard A.B., Caltech Ph.D., both in molecular biology; I'm employed by WormBase at Caltech and so actually have some semblance of real pay and job stability. I've been working in labs for 23 years. And I have seen a lot of smart people turned, for all effects and purposes, into dog food -- damn near was myself.

My Ph.D. class median for graduation was 7 years. Not quite 9 years, but definitely enough to wipe out one's 20s. I have known exactly one postdoc in my entire life who got a job after only 3 years; practically everybody else I know took 5 or more (I was actually fortunate to 'only' take 4, but that didn't spare me some very high non-monetary costs).

I could already see what Greenspun was describing by the time I was halfway through grad school, and I realized that I couldn't, in good conscience, tell young undergraduates to go for the straight Ph.D. any more. M.D.-Ph.D., OK, but not a degree that would basically give you no real stability at all until you either dropped out of basic science or were 40 years old.

And no, I don't think this is just me being bitter. Observe the large-scale firings currently going on even in your own branch of industry, and observe the ongoing agony of Merck at the hands of a piranha pack of lawyers. Observe the ratio of applicants to positions for any first-tier university professor job (100-to-1 is utterly routine). Consider the approval rate for NIH RO1 grants: it's currently about 8%. Not 18%. 8%.

I don't know whether I would have been at the top of some alternate profession; but it is a practical certainty that I could not possibly have had less job instability and lower wages than I've in fact chosen to incur by doing science. The choice was freely made and persevered in. But I'm an utter weirdo.

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18. Tim Mayer on March 8, 2006 8:39 AM writes...

One of my secret, pet projects is to found an institute for the sole purpose of creating chemistry PhD’s. This institute will charge no fees for admission, nor will it turn any dedicated person away. It will work with local chemical companies to see that everyone in the program has adequate access to lab and instrument time. It will use chemists to train other chemists. This is a fantasy of mine, but one I like to dream about on idle days

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19. Jonathan Gitlin on March 8, 2006 10:35 AM writes...

The five year postdoc is rapidly becoming the norm, not the exception, in most bio-related fields. Chemists seem to have a much easier time of it.

The explosive growth in the number of PhDs has not been matched by a rise in the number of faculty jobs - faculty with tenure have no reason to move over for younger researchers, and industry won't touch you without 4-5 years these days, whereas 20 years ago you wouldn't have even needed a postdoc to get a job there.

30 years ago, 25% of RO1s went to scientists under the age of 35. That figure is now about 3%, and that doesn't take into account the decrease in the number of grants that the NIH is funding. Thanks to the most recent budget cut (http://arstechnica.com/journals/science.ars/2006/1/6/2373) less than 10% of grants are being funded. The system is becoming more and more fundamentally broken.

Recently, the National Postdoc Assoc. (http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/) was formed to act as an advocacy group for the legions of postdocs who find themselves doing most of the work in jobs that offer almost no benefits, very little security and very low pay.

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20. Milo on March 8, 2006 12:01 PM writes...

Anonymous:

I am very interested in chatting with you about your job search experiences. I myself am a synthetic chemist looking for a position in a "pharma field" (big or small company).

You can contact me at interfacialscience@gmail.com

(of course, any reader here with good job hunting tips can email me as well :-)

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21. sciwriter on March 8, 2006 1:49 PM writes...

jtw makes a good point-- and one that i think indicates one of many underlying flaws in greenspun's argument. the joy of discovery, intellectual pursuit and challenge is an critical factor in the equation--in fact, he almost implies that somehow female scientists would appreciate this less than a male scientist. he also neglects to point out the disparity in pay between women and men overall-- he's a professor at MIT, huh? wasn't it the female science staff at MIT that won a huge sexual discrimination suit several years back after demonstrating a repeated pattern of pay inequity?

perhaps i am biased. concentrating in physical chemistry, i was the only woman in the majority of my classes in grad school which at times could feel quite alienating. and that was less than 10 years ago.

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22. SRC on March 8, 2006 1:53 PM writes...

Incidentally, I'm skeptical of the implication here regarding who is and isn't a "scientist." A medical doctor isn't a scientist -- why not? The definition seems tendentiously narrow. A doctor encounters problems (ill patients), reviews data (patient's symptoms, fluids, etc.), forms and tests experimental hypotheses (orders more tests and diagnostics), and a draws conclusions (diagnosis &/or treatment plan).

So do auto mechanics.

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23. Derek Lowe on March 8, 2006 2:13 PM writes...

SRC, I'm kind of glad I didn't say that. But after seeing some of the the lesser physicians of my experience, I sure have thought it. The topic has been debated on some of the med-blogs, too, IIRC.

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24. Anonymous on March 8, 2006 3:00 PM writes...

So, how many PhDs here have been introduced as "Dr. So-and-so" only to hear..."So...you're not a real doctor, right?"

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25. RKN on March 8, 2006 4:32 PM writes...

So do auto mechanics.

Fair enuf. So what would you say are the necessary attributes of a professional scientist?

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26. MDH on March 8, 2006 7:29 PM writes...

This post seems to have gotten a lot of interest, which should be a testament as to the sore spot that's been hit. Derek is right about Philip Greenspun playing fast and loose with data. Previous posts have referred to data demonstrating an amazing disconnect with reality. We can't get money to do our work (in academia) but we love our job. That doesn't bother me because, as JTW points out, there are plenty of jobs that are rich in nonmonetary rewards. What bothers me is that indeed the number of years of post-doc'ing has been creeping up. In my case, as a behavioral neuroscientist, I may have finished my Ph.D. in less than 6 years but I post-doc'ed for 6 years and continued as a non-tenure track faculty position (super post-doc?) for another 4. I'm only unusual in that I've been doing this at the same place. I've seen people race through 3 year post-doc's and on to tenure track positions but my educated guess (like most of Greenspun's figures) is that these were about 10% of my colleagues. The rest of us? Moving on to new post-doc and soft money academic positions is what we are doing because the few academic positions available are going to those top 10%.

I've long admired my wife's profession where getting into medical school is the hardest step in the career. Job availability afterward is not a problem, especially for primary care. Meanwhile I've seen the number of graduate programs and students at my institution explode. Why? The simple answer is cheap labor. While this simple answer seems to be very satisfying at explaining why I've been trying to find a job (unsuccessfully at present) for two years I also think its too simple. The fact is that medical doctors are trained to be medical doctors and that's what most of them do. Meanwhile Ph.D.'s are trained to think, write, and answer questions. Most of us do that but we don't all do what our graduate school professors or post-doc supervisors do. In fact, I think the most recent figures I've seen (in Science, maybe?) is that less than 40% of us life scientists are doing academic research. What really needs to happen is to tell those graduate students what options they have and what they can do. Unfortunately, all a professor can really counsel a graduate student on is what they themselves do. Personally, I've chosen to search for a job in industry and the reasons for this are many. Of course they include money and job security (as if that exists anywhere). There are many other reasons as well such as the type of work environment. This is where my above point becomes relevant. I only learned what it was like to do research in industry by talking with industry colleagues at meetings and actually going on interviews. My boss hasn't looked down his nose at me for this decision but our department chairman certainly has. This is the problem. We are trained to do something that only a third (at best) of us will actually do. We are also preached to by those with the livable salaries that they had to suffer the years of poverty to get where they're at so we should be willing to do this also. I think there's a real dysfunction with our graduate training system. My solution is radical. I think its worth looking at the professional schools and doing what they do. Make students pay for their Ph.D. This would force professors to be teachers rather than boss's, force graduate programs be accountable to their students, free up grant money and weed out those graduate students who enroll because of idealistic visions of getting a Ph.D. or delaying getting a real job.

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27. Milo on March 9, 2006 11:39 AM writes...

MDH, I really like your comments.

I took me 6 years to get through grad school. I don't think it was because I was "slow" or "not ready to defend". Rather, I think it was due to the fact that my advisor was fighting for tenure. I can tell you that just going through his tenure fight (which he lost) was enough to make me never want to go into academics.

I like the idea of paying for the degree. Heck, most liberal arts folks that I know have to pay tuition... I wonder though, how would we ensure that enough people go to graduate school to maintain our current scientific output? Personally, I would have paid for graduate school. I have not become so bitter (about the job market) that I regret going, I still think it was worth it, even though I am in the midst of a silly postdoc.

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28. LNT on March 9, 2006 12:53 PM writes...

Bravo, MDH -- great suggestion. I can't agree more. The glut of PhD's on the market is largely due to the ease of getting into (and paying) for graduate education in the sciences. By making graduate students pay for thier education, only really serious students would enter the field, the labor pool would contract, salaries would go up. By making graduate school essentially free for all qualified applicants, we've cheapened it's value.

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29. Barry on March 9, 2006 2:46 PM writes...

Some excellent comments here. Derek, I particularly like how you homed in on the comparison of typical science careers with the best of other careers.

For a perspective on sexism in science suffered by actual women, see 'Adventures in Science and Ethics (http://scienceblogs.com/ethicsandscience/2006/03/science_and_sexism.php) and proceed through the links there. There's plenty of plain old sexism going around, even now.

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30. molbioguy on March 9, 2006 11:40 PM writes...

I'm a little late to the party on this one, but for those that are still following this thread, let me throw something out.

Everyone seems to recognize that the there is a supply/demand imbalance among PhDs in the biosciences. One can resolve this in one of two ways - increase demand or cut supply. Increasing supply requires either more private (industry) money in the biosciences or more public (government) money. Obviously everyone would like to see the former occur as it would likely be the result of an increase in revenue for the industry. An increase in revenue would imply increased research productivity - which no one seems to be able to figure out. So this option is out. On the other hand, the US government is strapped for cash, so this option is out as well. (And honestly, it wouldn't help the situation even if it did have the cash. The NIH budget was recently DOUBLED and this has not made the market any better for the average scientist. Probably worse.)

Ok, so lets look at supply. Assuming that demand is not being artificially tamped down then clearly this is where the problem lies. The majority of PhD program funding can be tied to the federal government via either the NIH or the NSF. These programs pump billions into graduate education. The assumption seems to be that if more students are brought into the sciences then more science will be done - eg: that these new scientists will create jobs for themselves. This assumption may be partly correct, but it comes at a high price for those doing the work - salaries are pushed down and competition for jobs is fierce.

So let me make a proposal: what if the government stipulated that a given percentage (say 90%) of NIH funding could NOT be used for student education. (No research assistantships, no tuition remission, no healthcare, nothing.) This would mean that any increase in NIH funding resulted in more scientist jobs. Academic labs that now fund herds of PhD students would take their R01 grants and fund professional research scientists. (So this proposal is revenue neutral to the academic sciences - thus less threatening.) Sure, the scientists would cost more, but then again I'd argue that a single seasoned professional is more productive than any three graduate students. (The students are learning, by definition.) So the government would get more science for its money, and the scientists would live in a better world. The next question is: how would the nation get new scientists if they had to pay their way through school? (The assumption is that no one would be able to afford seven years of tuition + expenses followed by a $35k a year postdoc.) The answer is that as the supply of scientists dropped salaries would rise. As the job market again became attractive to western students they'd find ways to pay for it. (Banks love to give student loans, often in excess of $100k, for law and medicine.) In short, if a well paid job is assured for the degree holder then third parties are willing to front the money - this system works well for law, medicine, and business. A happy side effect is that degree times would no doubt fall as students and their loan providers pressured universities to become more efficient with the student's time. (After all, can anyone really argue that 7 years is a reasonable time for a degree? One could finish both an MD and a JD in that period. Many US universities currently average ~7 years to a degree.)

Lastly, this proposal would allow the US to retain the best scientists from around the world. Under the current system the US trains most everyone and then keeps only some of them. Currently, the US taxpayer is funding a lot of students that came from China and will return to China when they're done. In this sense, doubling the NIH budget in the 90's may have actually helped the rest of the world catch up with the US in the biosciences. It created new students in the US without creating any new jobs for them upon graduation. Non-US universities may have been the biggest beneficiary of that budget boost - certainly a perverse and non-intentional effect.

Anyway. Think it over. What better proposals are out there to fix this situation? They probably exist, after all, this problem has been brewing for decades...

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31. molbioguy on March 9, 2006 11:56 PM writes...

In re-reading my previous post I realized that I made a mistake in saying that my proposal would be revenue neutral for the academic sciences. It would not be. It would result in a vast increase in funding as they would retain current funding levels while gaining additional money from student tuition payments. (I suppose that one could argue that this creates a revenue-neutral situation for the student as they'd have to pay off the loans used to fund the tuition. Valid point. But then again, this is the system that is used by MDs, JDs, and MBAs - and they all seem to have a more reasonable job market as supply is throttled such that reward more approximately equals the effort.)

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32. molbioguy on March 10, 2006 12:07 AM writes...

Dang, another followup. I should have referenced my citation of a 7 year average degree time for PhDs in the biosciences. It's from a study by the American Society for Cell Biology. Here it is: http://www.ascb.org/publications/competition.html

To quote:

"The median length of time between entry into a PhD program and graduation with a degree in the basic bio-medical sciences in 1997 was 7.83 years. The median age for getting the degree was 30.92 years. For PhDs in non bio-medical fields, the median age was 34.1.The median time holding a post-doctorate job after obtaining the PhD was 3.8 years. Thus, it takes close to 12 years of doctorate and post-doctorate work before the bio PhD who follows the standard post-doctorate path to enter the job market. Someone who obtains their baccalaureate at age 22 will enter the job market at about age 34-35."

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33. LNT on March 10, 2006 1:01 PM writes...

Good ideas, Molbioguy. As I previously said, I agree that there is a significant problem. But I don't hear any great public outcry from scientists to change things -- so I fully expect the current system to remain in place for many, many years to come...
I have a well paying, moderately stable job at a pharma company -- but I was lucky. I wouldn't advise any new BS chemist/biologist to get a PhD. The job market it too unstable for the forseeable future. If you like science, your best bet is to get an MS. At least in chemistry, the job market for MS candidates has been very good for at least 10 years. The job market for PhD's has been quite poor for about the same period of time.

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34. Meredith Dixon on March 13, 2006 2:51 PM writes...

My mother was a public-school teacher, *with* a master's degree, and she never made $50,000 a year in her life. Of course, she passed away ten years ago, but I don't think the dollar has depreciated all that much in the interim -- or that public-school salaries have improved. Possibly a teacher in a rich suburb in a wealthy state, with high housing costs, might make that much.

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35. AA on May 16, 2006 6:23 PM writes...

I have earned a Ph.D in Synthetic Organic Chemistry and currently a second year postdoctoral at a renowned lab at a so called world class university. I have been looking for a industrial job for about four months now. I have decided that I am still going to try to find a Industrial job until the end of the year. If I cannot find an industrial job at least a Master's level position I will go earn an MBA or a JD and leave this scientific field for ever. I might have wasted 10-11 years of my life for doing a Ph.D and a high pressure postdoc but in the end I have learnt it through experience. I would have saved my precious ten years of my life if I had read this coloumn 10-11 years ago.
Thanks for reading.

My advice:

Please dont do a Ph.D.
You can do it and come to the same conclusion that I have arrived.

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36. silvermine on November 29, 2006 3:56 PM writes...

I was a molecular biologist going for a PhD in biophysics. I think the timeline you show above is pretty accurate... which is why I dropped out of grad school after a year. I knew I couldn't do it. No way. Not if I wanted to still have a husband and ever have a family. Or even my sanity!

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37. AlchemX on April 24, 2010 1:39 AM writes...

Hmm, yet another article that describes our industry perfectly, right on this blog.

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Derek Lowe ponders this screed from MIT EE&CS lecturer and Internet Bubble entrepreneur Philip Greenspun. Greenspun takes a truism that one should not go into academia for the money, and tries to make a career in science look worse than it is to suppo... [Read More]

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