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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 30, 2012

Grad School Opportunity Costs? Not to Worry!

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Posted by Derek

Some of you may have seen this graduate student's comment in the Chronicle of Higher Education on his neuroscience PhD. He's worried about the job market, but takes the attitude that he can, in the end, do all sorts of things with his PhD. But what makes him so laid-back, I fear, is that he's not trying to make a career in the sciences:

To some people, this state of affairs has all the trappings of a pyramid scheme. Graduate schools and principal investigators take on too many students because they are inexpensive, work hard, and help to get papers published. At the same time, the graduate schools and investigators know full well that not all the students can move up the pyramid. In this view, the university is not an educator so much as a scientific sweatshop.

This all sounds like a horror story: Toil for years in obscurity, only to emerge from that dark tunnel onto a bridge to nowhere. But as I plan to leave academe to return to a full-time writing career, it is clear to me that this seductive explanation of supply and demand does not jibe with my experience as a doctoral student in the sciences, which has been full of teachable moments that I know will benefit me regardless of the specific work I pursue.

Chemjobber has a very good post on all this, to the effect that (1) getting that degree was not without its costs, in money and (especially) time, and (2) for many of those alternative careers, a science PhD would not have been the most efficient path, to put it mildly. Check out his take and the comments he's attracted, and see what you think.

Comments (45) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School


COMMENTS

1. Anonymous on March 30, 2012 8:12 AM writes...

Good for him - he knows what he wants to do with his career, and he is taking every learning he can out of the PhD process to help him along the way. I hope his post inspires a few more people to broaden their horizons

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2. Dr Jimbo on March 30, 2012 8:27 AM writes...

Surely every career in an organisation is a pyramid scheme? There are always fewer positions at the top than the bottom. Not every lawyer gets to make partner.
I suppose the difference in academia is that there are relatively few permanent positions at the lower levels.

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3. DJ DrZ on March 30, 2012 8:33 AM writes...

This is not biomedical sciences it is all of them. I remember when I was in college (late 80s) there was a dire report from the NAS that we were facing a shortage of Ph.D.s and plese everyone go to grad school. Well, for once, we listened to the NAS, but didn't realize that globalization superceded their recommendations.

In my field (NMR), I completely agree that grad school is a ponzi scheme. There might be ~20 jobs a year in NMR for Ph.Ds, yet some of the biggest labs have 10 or more Post-Docs alone (some with 5+ years of PD experience). Grad school "embiggens" only PIs and the lucky few who might find a job in their field.

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4. Rick Wobbe on March 30, 2012 8:59 AM writes...

Great post and discussion over at Chemjobber. There are a couple of noteworthy things I've seen enterprising freshly-minted Ph.D.s do with their nice, crisp degree, especially one from a top-tier institution. One is become an industry analyst for an investment firm. Along with a stable of Key Opinion Leaders, young Ph.D.s from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, etc. make lovely accessories for the conference room of any firm that wants to add the appearance of gravitas to their decision making.

But my favorite example is the physics Ph.D.s who went to work for financial firms and investment banks as "quants", designing financial weapons of mass destruction. Forget discovering the Higgs Boson, creating financial instruments with a notional value 10-times the GDP of the whole planet that could bring on another Great Depression, now THAT's a highlight on any CV.

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5. patentgeek on March 30, 2012 10:29 AM writes...

Focusing on $$ opportunity costs is a mercenary's view of life. The opportunity cost of enjoyment regarding how one spends the irreplaceable resource of time is what matters. Life is not something to be pursued with efficiency and green eye-shades; it is something to be lived.

It is stunning that a graduate student with a can-do attitude regarding his life is pilloried for it. This speaks volumes regarding why America is in the state it's in.

I'm nearly 60, and recently entered a part-time graduate program in biotechnology. I'm spending my own money, and will possibly retire before I'm done. I'm doing it purely because I love learning and science, and those things provide enormous gratification. This is money and time well spent, to me.

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6. bbooooooya on March 30, 2012 10:36 AM writes...

"Forget discovering the Higgs Boson, creating financial instruments with a notional value 10-times the GDP of the whole planet that could bring on another Great Depression, now THAT's a highlight on any CV."

Not sure, but I think I detect some sarcasm there?

It is a pity that we collectively as a society have decided that we value trading electrons back and forth (which, at its root, is all trading is) to such a greater extent than we do endeavors that have real value (you know, sciency stuff).

It would be nice to think that those you really contribute the most to society, without whom we could not live without, also receive the best wages. Maybe explain that to a farmer.....

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7. Grad Student on March 30, 2012 10:45 AM writes...

Everyone talks about opportunity cost of a PhD, but no one ever talks about the low financial risk. If you want to be anything other than a scientist, then there will be a more efficient path to that career - a path that does not involve the 5+ years of slave labor. But most of these efficient paths involve very expensive masters programs. An MBA will give you $100k+ debt, while most PhD students graduate debt free. If you are not sure that you want to be a scientist, a PhD may still make sense because (1) it will give you plenty of time to figure out your future career; (2) it opens a lot of doors; and (3) unencumbered by debt you can get any job that makes you happy, whether it pays $45k a year or $120k a year. If you have a massive debt, you are forced to find a high paying job, even if you hate it.

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8. Student on March 30, 2012 10:49 AM writes...

I've done a lot of research on this and to sum it up...it is basically a pyramid scheme with a lot of supporting factors. A great writeup was done here:

www.nber.org/~peat/PapersFolder/Papers/SG/NSF.html

Congress also had a House subcommittee meeting on this, with "expert" panelists including a VP of HR claiming they can't find talent...

judiciary.house.gov/hearings/hear_10052011_2.html

As a biologist I will be in my 30s and still be considered a "trainee" with a PhD, no retirement benefits, and making roughly $40k/year. Why can't PhDs look after their own like MDs, PharmDs, DDS, etc??

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9. Chemjobber on March 30, 2012 11:40 AM writes...

Grad student:

While I agree with you in a normative sense, it's pretty apparent that many grad students and postdocs choose to overconsume and rely on credit (short- and long-term) due to incorrect predictions of future income. I know it happens -- I've done it.

Permalink to Comment

10. Hap on March 30, 2012 12:16 PM writes...

5) I don't think the problem is "can-do" attitude (though some of us have a shortage of that) - it's that careers in the sciences have been (and are being) represented as one thing (financially stable) when they aren't. If you get a Ph.D. in Romance languages, you know what you're in for and can plan accordingly. I don't think that's what's happened in the biological sciences, though. If people love chemistry, or think they might and want to find out, grad school is a good idea - it just may not be a financially enhancing path.

"Can-do" attitudes can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from "separation from physical and economic reality" attitudes - considering the amount of problems known with the academic Ph.D. environment and subsequent employment, there probably needs to be a lot of evidence to decide which is accurate.

The other problem lies with the "alternative career" scenario. Alternate careers are alternate for reasons - there may not be many positions, they may involve diverse scientific and psychological skill sets, they may involve things that are interesting to few people, they may involve little chemistry, or they may be poorly situated to return to chemistry if one desires. They are certainly right for some people, but to assume that they will be right (or even available) for most seems to be incorrect.

A separate question is whether an oversupply of Ph.Ds is good for society. Dr. Stemwedel pointed out that society probably gets a reasonable amount of publications for its money, but their reliability and utility for generating jobs or useful things may be overvalued by that measure - the combination of poor reproducibility and patent encumbrances may mean (though schools and some research say otherwise) that inventions based on grants may not be translated well into money and useful things for society as a whole. Whether finding useful things and understanding more about science is worth the money (or whether society's interest in an educated and rational populace could be achieved more cheaply or better another way) is something I don't know how to answer.

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11. Hap on March 30, 2012 12:27 PM writes...

I think in terms of education, science grad school is mixed. Many advisors don't have the time or infrastructure (or sometimes desire) to teach their students, classes are generally seen as an obstacle to more lab time, and sometimes people aren't concerned with how to do research well (not always, but sometimes). In addition, the well-known "sometimes student, sometimes employee" phenomenon that schools commonly use for grad students (to minimize their costs) does not contradict the perception of grad school as a place to labor and to obtain results (cheaply) and not a place to learn. (The fact that the two blur into one another in science makes it harder, if not impossible, for one to distinguish the two, and if one is looking at poor job prospects and is already sufficiently embittered, well, you can guess what one will probably conclude.)

Permalink to Comment

12. Anonymous on March 30, 2012 12:41 PM writes...

Hap,

"it's that careers in the sciences have been (and are being) represented as one thing (financially stable) when they aren't." I agree, and it's been going on for decades - remember the "divine right of chemists" jab by the ACS president in the '80s? (A post in Chemjobber 1.5 year ago recalled that in anger.) The perpetuation of this to maintain a supply of slave labor in academia is rotten, I do not doubt.

None of that excuses criticizing Bardin for the misdeed of actually daring to decide for himself how to spend the only life he'll have.

Choosing what to do with your life in a career, based on your forward projections for 30 years, was always fraught, and is almost nonsensical in a world that is morphing at ever-more-rapid speed. I follow one rule only: I only do what I find to be fun. That guide has never let me down.

Permalink to Comment

13. patentgeek on March 30, 2012 12:41 PM writes...

Hap,

"it's that careers in the sciences have been (and are being) represented as one thing (financially stable) when they aren't." I agree, and it's been going on for decades - remember the "divine right of chemists" jab by the ACS president in the '80s? (A post in Chemjobber 1.5 year ago recalled that in anger.) The perpetuation of this to maintain a supply of slave labor in academia is rotten, I do not doubt.

None of that excuses criticizing Bardin for the misdeed of actually daring to decide for himself how to spend the only life he'll have.

Choosing what to do with your life in a career, based on your forward projections for 30 years, was always fraught, and is almost nonsensical in a world that is morphing at ever-more-rapid speed. I follow one rule only: I only do what I find to be fun. That guide has never let me down.

Permalink to Comment

14. Anonymous on March 30, 2012 12:43 PM writes...

(1) it will give you plenty of time to figure out your future career

I would sincerely hope that people bright enough to go to graduate school would spend time figuring out what they want to do with their lives BEFORE doing something as significant as grad school. Nobody else goes to medical/law/nursing school to "figure out" what they want to do. This is a contributing factor to the oversupply of PhDs.

(2) it opens a lot of doors

No it doesn't. Plenty of evidence to the contrary floating around this blog alone.

Permalink to Comment

15. Anonymous on March 30, 2012 1:09 PM writes...

@7

I made the mistake of thinking that I could save a bunch of money on student loans by getting a PhD, instead of going to medical or dental school. If I went the dental or medical school route, my student loans would be paid off, I would be working for myself, never worrying if I would be employed next month, and enjoying my weekends at the beach house. Instead I am in my 40's, sending off resumes on a daily basis, hoping any kind of response, and worrying about how I will pay the mortgage.

Permalink to Comment

16. gippgig on March 30, 2012 1:31 PM writes...

There are 2 important points that are almost universally ignored.
1. The purpose of college is to get an education, not get a job or a degree.
If you want to learn you should consider college (there are many other ways to learn; also note that many colleges have made their courses available on the internet (for free) so you may be able to get a college education without going to college - of course, that doesn't work if you want to do lab work); if you aren't interested in learning you shouldn't go to college.
2. Only a fraction of the population needs to work to produce everything we need.
Many if not most people shouldn't get a job. There are plenty of worthwhile things for people to devote their lives to other than generating wealth such as creating, helping others, or discovering (i.e. science).
The question here should be what you want to do with your life. If your goal is to get rich you shouldn't pursue science. If your goal is to unlock the secrets of the universe scientific research is for you. If you want to do some of both choose scientific development. Above all, keep in mind that the main object of life is to be happy.

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17. Anon on March 30, 2012 2:28 PM writes...

These days, the only PhD worth getting is a MD/PhD. If your research career doesn't take off you can still hang a shingle in clinical medicine. It's a fiercely competitive route, but the closest avenue to a "sure thing" for newly minted Bachelor's students with an interest in biomedical research.

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18. Jamie on March 30, 2012 2:41 PM writes...

It's funny how the academic intelligentsia are desperately infiltrating this site.

The sunny, delusional and insanely optimistic mindset of @16 is reflective of the ‘tenured for life crowd’. (or they’re on prozac).

People are forking up 40K/year for an undergraduate education. They are doing so, for a good stable job. The fact that the vampiric academics are attempting to paint an education as being separate and distinct from a job is typical of their manipulative mis-direction. This insulates them nicely from any responsibility for their unemployed, debt ridden students.

Hungry people are rarely happy. Unemployed people are even less happy. The notion as @16 puts it,

“There are plenty of worthwhile things for people to devote their lives to other than generating wealth such as creating, helping others, or discovering (i.e. science).”

is nonsense. Education is an investment expecting a return.

The process of educating scientists in the USA has completely broken down. Since we can simply import foreigner students to work at any wage and under any conditions (note FOXCONN), there need not be any career path at all. There need not be any pyramid of occupational progress, nor any ladder at all.

The career path had become a ‘career discontinuity’.

A yawning gap exists between the lower 99% and the top 1% academics; who occasionally pull someone up across the void to join their ranks.

Meanwhile, the country chokes on the losses induced by their imported spy students.


Permalink to Comment

19. Chemjobber on March 30, 2012 3:12 PM writes...

None of that excuses criticizing Bardin for the misdeed of actually daring to decide for himself how to spend the only life he'll have.

patentgeek, if I did that, I certainly didn't intend to.

Here's my read of Mr. Bardin's essay: I'm okay with how I've spent my time in graduate school (and my fate), and if you look at things my way, we all should be. It's the second part of the essay (as I see it) that drew most of my concern. I don't think it's the wrong way to tell people to look at the world, but I view it as potentially incomplete.

I think your critique is important and I'd love to hear more about it, here or offline. My e-mail is chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com. I welcome you to tell me where you think I went wrong, both in my post and in my blog in general.

Cheers, CJ

Permalink to Comment

20. Anonymous on March 30, 2012 3:44 PM writes...

1. The purpose of college is to get an education, not get a job or a degree.

That's interesting, because I'm pretty sure that most jobs these days that aren't pure physical labor require a college degree. If you'd like to prove me wrong by successfully landing a CPA/teaching/etc job without a degree, I'll be happy to offer an apology.

Many if not most people shouldn't get a job. There are plenty of worthwhile things for people to devote their lives to other than generating wealth such as creating, helping others, or discovering (i.e. science).

Well when the rent comes due, I'm sure your landlord will accept this as payment.

Permalink to Comment

21. Hap on March 30, 2012 3:44 PM writes...

Everyone has to live their own life, by their own decisions. I don't want to pillory someone for making similar decisions and liking them (and their potential outcomes). I think that the expectation that others should decide similarly is what draws the ire. If you feel you've been sold a bill of goods that wasn't was advertised and someone tells you that you should like it and that more people ought to follow suit, I don't think most people are going to receive that well.

College as a professional certification (particularly if employers don't want or care about the intellectual tools that it was supposed to equip graduates with) is very different from college as a place of learning (without the expectation of certification). The expectation of employment is driving tuition costs to where employment (at high wages) is necessary to pay for school - when the link between expectation and reality breaks, there are (going to be) problems.

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22. Scared of the real world on March 30, 2012 5:48 PM writes...

ummmm, let's not forget that the vast majority of people in "grad school" are just hanging around cause they're scared of the real world. They never have a hope of being contributors or even competent scientists for that matter. Really think the prof's want these clowns around wasting their grant dollars on experiments that no one is sure were even done correctly. There's a reason why only a select few, from even a more select few labs ever get jobs. Now that the "job" of scientific place holder in "let's blind them with science so we can flog and IPO" doesn't really exist anymore, there are even fewer "jobs" out there. It's all for the best though, only those that truly make significant contributions will be recognized, and so it should be. REAL science will rise from the ashes.

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23. SomeGuy on March 30, 2012 7:42 PM writes...

My career path has gone academic research tech -> grad student -> academic postdoc -> scientist at mid-sized, established biotech. I never really expected to be an industry scientist, yet jumping to industry has been - by far - the best career decision I've ever made. I'm able to do science at my current job I would never have been able to do in academia, largely because of cost. And instead of writing grants and progress reports, I'm generating massive amounts of data - produced more in six months in industry than in three years as a postdoc.

The point I'm trying to make here is that while I disagree with the author that academics try and scare students into staying in academia, I do think many academics have no clue about how wonderful industry can be (at least has the possibility of being at the right company) and therefore don't consider it a viable option for their students. I really had no idea what industry would be like until I joined and I was quite nervous about making the jump. But my PI was completely supportive of my decision.

I also disagree with the notion that one should just get a PhD for the sake of it. One of the things that's kind of been a shock since coming to industry is just how valuable having a PhD is here. In academia, everyone has a doctorate or is working towards one; you work in a lab with other grad students and postdocs under a professor while most techs have at least the desire to go to grad school someday. In industry, having a PhD is gold and really the only way one can advance up the ranks. However, that's somewhat offset be the fact you lose 7-10 years of earning potential to get there. There are techs in industry who've been there for a decade or more and earn a lot more than the average postdoc (plus stock options and bonuses). That's a huge opportunity cost right there.

Nice link. Makes for good discussion.

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24. ReneeL on March 30, 2012 7:42 PM writes...

"(1) it will give you plenty of time to figure out your future career"

The worst chemists I've known are those who went to graduate school because 'they didn't know what they wanted to do' once they got their bachelor's degrees. Aimless about what they wanted to study and which professors they wanted to work for. And aimlessly taking 7+ years to get their degrees. These are also the ones who have contributed to the chemist oversupply, though they certainly had no intention of doing so.

My feeling is that a person should have a good idea of what interests them and what sort of career they'd like to have, before going to graduate school. And being realistic about one's career prospects, as well.

I don't buy the line that universities and ACS are now touting, that of 'well, if there aren't enough research jobs when you graduate, there are all these alternative things you can do'. I think it's simply their conviluted way of keeping the graduate student pipeline filled.

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25. Pharmadude on March 31, 2012 7:17 AM writes...

I can understand where this guy is coming from. I did a 10 year sentence for burglary and that time in jail was a great learning experience for me. Everyone in jail just whines and moans about when they are getting out, complaining about the food and stuff. But I focused on lifting weights and reading all the classics. It was a great educational experience for me, free of distractions that the normal world offers. Now I'm very well read and in great physical shape. I think both these attributes have really helped me later in life, especially in the working world. You never hear me complaining about the size of my cubicle at work!

Permalink to Comment

26. Pharmadude on March 31, 2012 7:28 AM writes...

Oh, I forgot to add that being in jail gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. In mean time, I got free room and board and left with NO debt.

Permalink to Comment

27. MIMD on March 31, 2012 9:22 AM writes...

In terms of over-qualification, in the field of Medical Informatics (computers in medicine), having no degree can be an advantage...

From major recruiters in the field from about a decade ago-

I don't think a degree gets you anything," says healthcare recruiter Lion Goodman, president of the Goodman Group in San Rafael, California about CIO's and other healthcare MIS staffers. Healthcare MIS recruiter Betsy Hersher of Hersher Associates, Northbrook, Illinois, agreed, stating "There's nothing like the school of hard knocks." In seeking out CIO talent, recruiter Lion Goodman "doesn't think clinical experience yields [hospital] IT people who have broad enough perspective. Physicians in particular make poor choices for CIOs. They don't think of the business issues at hand because they're consumed with patient care issues," according to Goodman. (Healthare Informatics, "Who's Growing CIO's.")

This applies to a lesser but still significant extent in Pharma. Most of the IT personnel in pharma lack biomedical backgrounds, and may have (at best) a Bachelor's degree in some business computing related area. Have an MS or PhD in CS and/or scientific field? You'll probably not be hired into today's Pharma IT shop.

Think I'm making this up? See the recent job posting for a "Clinical informaticist" at this link by a major healthcare chain, HCA, which is typical, and looks at the educational requirements section.

Permalink to Comment

28. eugene on March 31, 2012 1:06 PM writes...

Thanks for the laugh Pharmadude. You forgot to mention that going to jail, I mean grad school, in another country lets you learn the language and local culture, letting you add 'communication skills' to your resume. Plus the jail conditions in other countries are often much better. Your professor closing the door and window shades and screaming at you for an hour, I mean prison rape, is not something that society at large makes fun of and is a meme that appears as a joke on television shows in other countries.

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29. Hurin on March 31, 2012 2:06 PM writes...

Sure, grad school has an opportunity cost attached to it, but it is worthwhile to consider the other opportunities you've missed out on.

I started my own post collegiate career as a lab tech in a biomedical lab, because I was skeptical of grad school. This job got me a starting salary of ~20K, and all the ordering/waste management/sample prep duties for the lab I worked for. I was able to do some research, however I was not generally treated as though I should be capable of thinking (my boss dictated most of the experiments I should do directly to me) and I had no prospects for advancement.

When I went to grad school, I received an effective pay raise (my salary at my initial job had been relatively stagnant) due to the lower cost of living in my new town, and I was encouraged to think and take ownership of my work. In many ways I am happier now, even with the often oppressive work week.

If there is a real need to discourage people from pursuing doctoral work in science, then maybe it should be focused at undergraduate pre-meds. For those of us with an interest in a career in research, I think advanced degrees are clearly superior to bachelors, however I wonder what will happen to the (roughly 75% of my) students who try and fail to get into med school. No one who I have talked to thinks a B.S. in biology or chemistry will get you a very