Friday, March 5

Don't go to grad school

I was checking the blog of the esteemed John Hawks, and found a link to the following editorial in Scientific American. 

Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists? 
American science education lags behind that of many other nations, right? So why does it produce so many talented young researchers who cannot find a job in their chosen field of study?

Hawks offers his two cents on the problem. Here are mine:

I don't like academia. I like research. But, I'm in the biological and social sciences, so I don't have as much experience with the systems in the physical sciences. Duly considering the limitations of my perspective, I still haven't met many PhD students in the past few years who are truly happy with the prospects of what they're doing. Some things have changed about the system, and others haven't. As a result, people are unhappy. Hence, continued change is needed.

Young science enthusiasts are brought up with the old values mentioned by the author, specifically, the image that people go to grad school, labor extensively, and then settle into a faculty position. Unfortunately, this vision is antiquated; the new truth is disguised by the system, and the old yarns perpetuated. I know too many people on their second post-doc, pushing 40, and still looking just about anywhere for faculty positions.

I like Hawks' suggestion, and they have come close to being implemented at Janelia Farm. I haven't heard the best things about how things are working there, but it is a very new institution, and might just need to mature.

Responses to the article overwhelming mention the possibilities in research outside of academia. The piece itself handles this issue with only the briefest touches, but the comments are more elucidating, particularly one from award winning Sci-Fi novelist David Brin. Maybe people do need to progress through academia to the PhD level before making a life of scientific research, but the long and winding road of post-docs that follow after are unnecessary.


  1. Ironically, the primary reason I'm in grad school is because engineering employment opportunities have largely dried up in the current economy. (Getting a fellowship at least gives me some moderate income. Alternatively, I could just do the housewife thing, but we've tried that and I go batshit insane very quickly.) I have absolutely no idea what I intend to do with the degree afterwards, since research is not particularly appealing to me.

  2. I know a number of PhD candidates who are very happy both with what they are doing currently and their prospects for the future. Not too surprisingly, they're all in engineering related fields. Personally, I'm pretty excited to start getting my PhD on next year, despite still not knowing where I'll be or what exactly I'll be doing. That said, it's certainly true that the professor track is much harder than the simple idea of PhD->postdoc->prof! I guess the nice thing about graduate work in an engineering field is you have many options when you're done... there's academia, R&D in industry, R&D in government/national labs, consulting, and even policy.

    Concerning grad school... have you figured out what the hell you're doing when you get back to the states?

  3. pfeng: Yeah, one of the big jokes last year was "Aren't you glad you're in grad school? By the time you're done in six years, the job market might just be ripe enough."

    Nepharis: Yeah, the sample might be biased since the unhappy people tend to be more vocal, since if they were happy they'd probably be find spending that time on their research. Re: engineering, yeah, I agree, non-academic research has just always been more prominent, sometimes I think its because engineering is primarily about DOING things, as opposed to some science...
    And as for what I'm doing, let's try not to make me think about that more than I already have to.

  4. I want to know where all these people are who go to graduate school with the expectation that everybody who does a decent job can get a faculty position if they want it. I don't remember meeting anybody who didn't have a pretty clear idea of how much difficulty that career path entailed. I have qualms about the over-large number of people we educated in the science, who go on to do work that bears little or no direct relationship to what we learned in graduate school, but I don't think those people are being sold a bill of goods when they start out.