Phillip Greenspun on Why Science is a Bad Job

I had seen this article mentioned previously and had posted a quick entry noting it, but I did not read the whole article until this weekend. The article attempted to address why there are not more women in science with the thesis that the working conditions are very unappealing to women. He does make the case that pretty well.

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

This is how things are likely to go for the smartest kid you sat next to in college. He got into Stanford for graduate school. He got a postdoc at MIT. His experiment worked out and he was therefore fortunate to land a job at University of California, Irvine. But at the end of the day, his research wasn't quite interesting or topical enough that the university wanted to commit to paying him a salary for the rest of his life. He is now 44 years old, with a family to feed, and looking for job with a "second rate has-been" label on his forehead.

His use of the term successful to describe this career arc is interesting. The final step does not look successful, and the salaries quoted while accurate certainly look poor compared to what many educated professionals make, but up until step 5 a scientist would say that the career is progressing normally.

The career arc looks remarkably like mine. I was 42 when I was denied tenure, but I landed in a job that I am very happy with. My stress levels are down and my salary is up. I have discussed this article with colleagues who left academic and laboratory research jobs, and they are generally happy to have left that behind.

I thoroughly enjoyed my years in graduate school and my time as a postdoc. I was completely immersed in fascinating work and the demands of family were manageable. As an assistant professor things become more difficult. I was teaching and doing research. My family was growing. Some other career path at this point would probably have been the best choice for me, but I did not know enough about my other options.

Greenspun goes on and discusses why women might find this career path more objectionable than men do, since men find it easier to delay starting families then women do. He even discusses why anyone would pursue this career path. For immigrants it can be a real improvement over the prospects in their home countries. For American men he suggests.

Having been both a student and teacher at MIT, my personal explanation for men going into science is the following:

  1. young men strive to achieve high status among their peer group
  2. men tend to lack perspective and are unable to step back and ask the question "is this peer group worth impressing?"

Consider Albert Q. Mathnerd, a math undergrad at MIT ("Course 18" we call it). He works hard and beats his chest to demonstrate that he is the best math nerd at MIT. This is important to Albert because most of his friends are math majors and the rest of his friends are in wimpier departments, impressed that Albert has even taken on such demanding classes. Albert never reflects on the fact that the guy who was the best math undergrad at MIT 20 years ago is now an entry-level public school teacher in Nebraska, having failed to get tenure at a 2nd tier university. When Albert goes to graduate school to get his PhD, his choice will have the same logical foundation as John Hinckley's attempt to impress Jodie Foster by shooting Ronald Reagan.

I tend to agree with Greenspin's argument that scientific career path is not kind to those that do not make it to tenure, and it is more damaging the longer people stay on the path before falling off. Greenspun has no solution to the problem. The system benefits the scientific establishment since it provides high skill and inexpensive labor, so there is no motivation to change it.

Perhaps things will improve. In an article at reports younger faculty are resisting the work above all else approach.

Still there is the question of how much work should be required for tenure. Embedded faculty members believe that “serious scholars chose work over all else,” while emergent professors believe there is more to life than work. In some cases, this belief is because these scholars are more likely to be women, or to have young children.

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4 Responses to “Phillip Greenspun on Why Science is a Bad Job”

  1. Some other career path at this point would probably have been the best choice for me, but I did not know enough about my other options.

    Yeah, that’s probably the story of my time in graduate school, but you knew that already! But it sounds like you did the best you could with the information you had. If my graduate career had been happier, I’d have stayed in physics until the next stage, no question. I was a true believer in physics, and there is still a part of me that grapples with having left even nine years later despite my rational side agreeing with Greenspun.

    Of course, now I know myself a lot better, and that the other high-powered careers he cites—the usual trilogy of business, law, and medicine—aren’t automatic guarantees of happiness either. I think that doctors know if they have a calling to that vocation, because it isn’t something one does just for the money. There’s a reason why lawyers are paid the big bucks: because it’s a grind of incredibly detail-oriented work. My best friend from graduate school has a sister who’s been a very unhappy lawyer for the majority of the past sixteen years and has only finally managed to negotiate her hours down to part-time so she can try writing. Business is the most flexible, but you have to find your niche where what you’re doing is worth the b.s. you’ll have to deal with.

    There is no formula that works for everyone; the best advice is the least apparently useful, which is to try to do what you love somehow. In my case, that entailed graduate school in physics at one point. Because it’s still kind of neat to read the word “eigenstate” and know what Mike is talking about…

  2. Greenspun made a point that I did not mention. Twenty year olds do not know what will make them happy at 40. Being flexible and staying informed about your options is probably the best thing you can do.

  3. Patrick Randerson Says:

    As a Physics PhD who realzied he couldn’t bear the thought of being a postdoc, what struck me was how quickly it all went sour for me. One day I had a lifelong career planned out and the next I just had a degree and a family. No resume, no network, and absolutely no idea of what to do next.

    The good news is that physics is an extremely flexible skillset and little bit of time investigating a “plan B” can really pay off in terms of happiness and comfort.

    P.S. Shout-out from a former student! Physical Analysis – ’96.

  4. I am beginning to get the impression that former physicists are happier than physicists, or maybe this blog only attracts the disgruntled type.

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