Thu, 03 Apr 2003 16:32:26 GMT

Reasons not to become a scientist.

On the heels of my previous post Are doctorates worthwhile? comes Don't Become a Scientist!, another rather dispiriting view of why science today might not be the best spot for bright young people to settle into.

I became a scientist in order to have the freedom to work on problems which interest me. But you probably won't get that freedom. As a postdoc you will work on someone else's ideas, and may be treated as a technician rather than as an independent collaborator. Eventually, you will probably be squeezed out of science entirely. You can get a fine job as a computer programmer, but why not do this at 22, rather than putting up with a decade of misery in the scientific job market first? […]

Suppose you do eventually obtain a permanent job, perhaps a tenured professorship. The struggle for a job is now replaced by a struggle for grant support, and again there is a glut of scientists. Now you spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems. They're not the same thing: you cannot put your past successes in a proposal, because they are finished work, and your new ideas, however original and clever, are still unproven. It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal; because they have not yet been proved to work (after all, that is what you are proposing to do) they can be, and will be, rated poorly. Having achieved the promised land, you find that it is not what you wanted after all.

What can be done? The first thing for any young person (which means anyone who does not have a permanent job in science) to do is to pursue another career.

Think this sounds bleak and gloomy? Then you can cheer yourself up with Philip Greenspun's illustrated Career Guide for Engineers and Computer Scientists.

Now I wouldn't want to appear one-sided on this issue; I think there might be good reasons to become a scientist as well. I'll try to find counterpoints out there and report on what I find.

[Seb's Open Research]

Any job I know of requires compromises. You take a chance in any of them. What this little story says is absolutely true. Yet many scientists DO pursue their own questions. They find a way to make grant requests work. They find a way to turn the system to THEIR advantage. I did not want to spent my time writing grants, trying to wring the last penny out of every grant. So I went to work for a biotech compnay where I spent 16 years doing what I wanted. I figured out ways to make what I wanted overlap with what the company wanted. I found a path that let me explore the questions in Nature that I found interesting. It is possible but it is not something you can follow a checklist for. It requires creativity, adaptability and driven curiousity. If you have those, you have a good chance to do what you find interesting. [A Man with a Ph.D. – Richard Gayle's

ahh, the joy of a ph.d. i think i just posted my reasons for pursuing this type of degree. but it is really the same way everywhere, the real problem is that the professionalization of higher education.