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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

Permalink to Comment

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.

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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.

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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 good job, and this is consistent with my own experience. The consensus is that a typical Bachelor's holder joins a research group or company as unskilled labor, and won't be regarded as anything else until they have an M.S., Ph.D. or other related degree. IMO there isn't a better path for people with any ambition, who want a career in science. Maybe the message should be that, in general, a career in science isn't a sure thing, and shouldn't be viewed as a fall-back.

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30. gippgig on March 31, 2012 2:35 PM writes...

#18: The return on education is knowledge, which is useful in many ways, not just to generate wealth. Knowledge = power.
#20: Do you think college should only be for people who want a job? (See #5.)
Are there any other readers out there who'd rather have knowledge than money?

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31. Anonymous on March 31, 2012 4:51 PM writes...

Gippgig, this has nothing to do with what I want. It has to do with what society expects. Nobody out there is going to hire a CPA who doesn't have a degree in accounting, and nobody is going to hire a doctor that didn't go to medical school. Therefore, people that want to do those things are REQUIRED to go get the proper education, which means going to college to get a degree. That is the unblinking, hard truth of it.

Whatever Utopian society you seem to live in may allow their inhabitants to sustain themselves on ideals and self-satisfaction, but those of us who don't dwell in Elysium need things like food and a place to live. And as appalling as it might seem to you and the other spirits in your realm, people here on Earth don't accept gratitude and a promise to seek knowledge as payment for those things. So we have to work, and in order to get good jobs most of us had to go to college.

In all seriousness, I do understand what you're saying, and I don't necessarily disagree with the principle of it. But it just doesn't work out practically in our society.

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32. da boss on March 31, 2012 7:52 PM writes...

@ 29

I disagree with your sentiment that BS degree holders will never obtain fruitful employment or be trusted with "higher" order tasks. I helped interview several BS process chemist folks fresh out of undergrad, and they were very, very sharp and did a great job at my big pharma company. Several of the analytical RA's I work with who have been on the job for 10+ years are as competent as the majority of fresh PhDs I have seen interview. My directors of QA and manufacturing were BS folks with a ton of experience. I know what all of the aforementioned folks earn, and it is definitely not peanuts. Some of my analytical chemistry RA colleagues are now regulatory/inspection managers or directors.

I will say, however, that the bar to getting a job is much higher in industry than in academic non-PhD positions. I have seen many techs in academic labs who are duds, whereas I wouldn't say many, if hardly anyone of the RA's I have worked with in pharma are duds. The turnover I have seen in academic tech positions is quite high, as well. For past RA hires where the fit and drive/ambition was there, they moved on to good roles within the company. However, I don't really think techs in academia can do more than just bench work - there are more opportunities for folks in industry in that regard.

Just my humble opinion.

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33. Chemjobber on March 31, 2012 8:43 PM writes...

@33:

I agree with your assessment of BS degree holders; however, how many chemistry managers/supervisors at your company are PhDs versus non-PhDs?

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34. da boss on March 31, 2012 10:03 PM writes...

CJ -

I agree with your sentiment if you are talking about synthetic organic/discovery/process chemistry. I listed some of those other examples previously to show that there were options for associates who eventually wanted to get out of the lab into quality, manufacturing or regulatory roles. I note that not all of them have direct reports, but their roles are valuable.

I partially wrote that post because I feel too many people are pushed into grad school because they are told that BS/MS level jobs are worthless. This is clearly not the case. Is it always easy to transition from an RA in the lab to another role? No, but it definitely can be done - and I have seen multiple examples of it. Also, not everyone has the ability or desire to have direct reports or run a group.

I will say that hands-down, without a doubt synthetic chemists are the snobbiest at PhD grade about where you went to school and who you worked for. I've seen multiple people quit good RA jobs to get a PhD from a second-tier school, and I wonder if they will be able to find a decent job. I hate the bias that good chemists only come from select groups - and I hate seeing that most of our PhD grade chemists come from about 10 groups. A great deal of chemists and an awful lot of their management at one company worked for Evans at Harvard. I'm sure you know what company that is.

Sorry for the rant.

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35. Kling on March 31, 2012 10:40 PM writes...

About 2 months ago I gave a talk on Biotech industry at an undergrad technology college. It was hard to be upbeat in front of those who were about to graduate and contemplating grad school. However, the kids were more savy about the potential lack of jobs they will face soon. Perhaps the economy has trained them. My advice to them is to learn as many transferable skills as possible in life, be ready to jump ship and try new things. I don't think anyone these days expects lifelong employment.

I hope the future generation will not have to face the same predicament we have now. Who Moved the Cheese should be required reading.

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36. Anonymous on March 31, 2012 10:45 PM writes...

I think what is happening here is that of all the PhD's chemistry was the discipline that in recent memory was more of a sure shot in landing a decent career in the field post graduation. Now that is not the case, and Chemistry must join the ranks of biomedical sciences and a bunch of other disciplines.

Regarding whether a PhD is worth it. I used to think a PhD was not worth it until I looked at what kind of jobs are available to people who don't have a MS or PhD or some other graduate degree. They are more plentiful, but not as interesting or stimulating. This should be a big deal for people motivated enough to get a PhD in the first place.

Chemistry PhD's at least should breathe a sigh of relief. You did not get a law degree which would saddle you with 200K in debt and probably as dismal job prospects, if not worse. PharmD's are also currently being overproduced as so many people jumped on that bandwagon, only they also payed 200K for their education.

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37. Chemjobber on April 1, 2012 1:09 AM writes...

@34: No problem! Want to rant more? My e-mail address is in the comments above -- I'd love to hear more...

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38. Hurin on April 1, 2012 11:59 AM writes...

@32, 34

Just to clarify, I don't mean to dump on people with B.S. degrees. My point was not that you can't learn as much on the job, as you can in grad school, or that people with advanced degrees are somehow sharper. I'm speaking of the way people with B.S. degrees (myself included) are often treated by their employers.

When I graduated from college (2006) I looked for a job doing synthetic work, but I was unable to find anyone who would hire me. None of the jobs listed for chemists were targeted at anyone with less than an M.S. and several years experience. I ended up being considered by a new oncology hire at my local big ten university, and I signed on with him, more because he would take me, than out of any love for biomedical science. As a B.S. with no experience, I was given the lowest salary you can make as a university employee. Most of the people doing jobs like mine in other labs were roughly my age, however some were considerably older. If you wanted you could do the lab tech gig for a long time, and a slowly increasing salary, however I never met techs who received real promotions. Additionally a lot of us were treated like shit by faculty, post docs etc. My former boss actually used to call me "skut boy" when he was pissed off at me. I still resent him for that.

A friend of mine actually got the synthetic chemistry job that I wanted out of college. I think he enjoyed his job more than I did, but he got out for similar reasons. He reports that as a B.S. chemist, he was basically given recipes and told "do this exactly", and that he was given no opportunity to troubleshoot or think about the reactions he was doing. He also tells me that this is the same way B.S chemists who had been with the company for 20 years were treated: like fry cooks of commodity chemicals.

I only have anecdotes so I don't really know the extent to which this kind of B.S. job is the norm. On the other hand I have no personal experience that would lead me to think a B.S. will open doors to creative thought about or ownership of scientific problems, except in those cases where it opens the doors to a graduate program. I concede that there are jobs available to B.S. scientists, and that they often seem to have decent job security, its just that I think those jobs are usually low-paying and boring.

As a side note, I've also encountered group snobbishness, and far be it from me to apologize for that. I think I have it slightly better than the pure synthetic folk as a polymer chemist, but the general phenomenon irks me as well. I wish I had known more about the phenomenon before I joined a research group, because I'm pretty sure I don't have the "group credentials" to ever be a research faculty anywhere. None of my academic siblings have ever done that. All of them have found jobs somewhere though, so I'm guardedly optimistic...

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39. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on April 1, 2012 5:51 PM writes...

**Don't go into science unless you want to be an academic!**

For too many people it's a waste of time when they could have gone into an area that did not require 4-10 years of post-graduate study. The purpose of education is to get a better job than what you can get with your high school diploma. Employers pay for skills and experience, not so much education.

Leave science for the geniuses and workaholics and the people that want to live in an ivory tower above all else. Life is too short to spend that much time in school.

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40. Student on April 1, 2012 6:33 PM writes...

...So what is the call to action? How can this problem be fixed?

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41. SomeGuy on April 1, 2012 7:00 PM writes...

@40

I don't think it's necessarily a problem that needs to be fixed except in terms of expectations (at least in the biological sciences - might be different for chem). Students thinking about getting a PhD simply need to be educated on 1) what their job options are coming out 2) how best to pursue those options and 3) make sure they're aggressive in doing so. And also I think knowing the opportunity costs of entering a grad program would help as well.

And, of course, the biggest question students should ask themselves is how much do they really love science? If they're the type of person who loves being in the lab, the competitiveness of the field probably won't be an issue because the motivation is there. If they're entering a grad program simply because they can't figure out what else to do with their life and/or are unsure of where they're heading, it might be better to choose another path.

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42. MathPhD on April 2, 2012 7:43 AM writes...

Math has the same problem due to the "genius exception" in immigrant law. When I graduated with a PhD there were 1000 new grads, 1000 new jobs - and 1000 incoming immigrants with both a PhD and years of experience.

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43. DH on April 2, 2012 11:36 AM writes...

The premise behind many comments here seems to be that grad school sucks and you'll hate it, so you'd better have a very good reason to go. But my stay in grad school was one of the best times of my life. My attitude was, "Even if I never get a job doing this stuff I love [theoretical physical chemistry], at least I got to do it for a few years." And it wasn't just the work that I enjoyed. We worked hard, but we played hard as well.

I concede that my synthetic organic colleagues were noticeably less happy than the rest of us. So maybe the premise of grad school misery applies in this case.

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44. patentgeek on April 3, 2012 7:10 AM writes...

#43:
For me at least, you can substitute [natural products total synthesis] for [theoretical physical chemistry], and what you wrote holds exactly.
Hard work and hard playing indeed. Many good hours in bars with my pchem colleagues, arguing over who was a "real" chemist.

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45. PharmaPhD on April 4, 2012 8:23 AM writes...

Excellent discussion. I've been in pharma now for 20 years and have done well taking a career path in clinical development (i.e., developing/overseeing clinical trials, doing submissions (writing), commercial strategy/medical affairs, etc). Having a PhD was helpful getting my foot in the door and adds some cache at work, although clinical is (rightly so) dominated by MDs. However, there are many non-MDs required to do the work and some if have proper skills do achieve senior levels. During grad school/post-doc this career path was definitely not presented as an option- and if it was discussed was generally frowned upon, but overall I have found it quite rewarding- both from a career standpoint and financially. No regrets on going through PhD training and not taking a traditional career path; it honed my critical thinking skills and provided a solid basis of scientific understanding which still serves me well. Not to say this route is for everyone, but worth considering. If of interest, I'd definitely recommend doing a post-doc that allows some indoctrination into clinical research if possible. When it comes to finding a job, take whatever you can to get your foot in the door. Once you have some experience, you'll do well if you can produce. And have an open mind, there are many options.

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