09 July 2012

Scientists are the new artists

A Washington Post article from the weekend looks at current job prospects for scientists. It ain’t pretty in the United States. Ends with this quote:

Haas, the former drug company chemist, has even harsher words. She plans to “get out of Jersey and get out of science” when her daughter graduates from high school in two years. “She’s very good at everything, very smart,” Haas said of her daughter. “She loves chemistry, loves math. I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her.”

And that’s the sort of reaction that parents reserved for when their kids said they were going to try to become artists or actors: “You’ll never get a job doing that!”

The good news is that admonitions from parents are only occasionally effective. And people do get jobs doing “that.”

I am thoughtful about what career advice I should give, however. Our institution puts a lot of effort into encouraging scientific careers. We have undergraduate research programs, funded by HHMI and NSF (thanks, guys!). We have high school internships. We have HESTEC, with tons of events aimed at even younger kids. (Our mission is different from other universities, though. We have many Hispanic students. Part of these program are tied to efforts to increase representation of Hispanics in science.)

Obviously, I owe it to students to let them know what the real deal is about this career. Should I actively discourage them from pursuing a scientific career?

I don’t think so, mainly because of the stage our students are at. We don’t have Ph.D. students. In theory, we could have post-docs, but nobody does. We have undergraduates and some master’s students.

A student graduating from our program who wanted to become a full-fledged lead scientist with a doctorate is probably ten years away from completing their training. Six years for a doctoral degree, four years for post-docs.

A lot can happen in ten years.

Admittedly, the long terms trends are not good. But trends can reverse sometimes.

It is important that people considering science understand how far off their goal is. They need to weigh the prospect of that long training period versus doing things right after finishing their bachelor’s degree.

I would still encourage students to consider science as a career, with the caveat that they not commit the Concorde fallacy. Make sure you have a getaway plan going in.

External links

U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there

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