Yesterday is was a flailing piece that tried to justify the existence of for-profit scientific publishers, and flailed like a beached fish.Today, it’s an article about scientific careers that asks researchers to just accept that society will treat them like crap.
Steve Caplan says that academic research looks like a Ponzi scheme. This charge that is so well known that Ph.D. Comics has parodied it:
In the next paragraph, Caplan anticipates my reply: entry level positions always outnumber the managerial positions at the top. Nobody calls this a Ponzi when it occurs outside academia. Perhaps the problem is that outside academia, you can make a comfortable career in middle management. In academia, there fewer opportunities to have a long term career in the middle of the pyramid.
Yet despite saying academic research looks too much like a criminal scam, Caplan won’t bite the bullet and say that we are producing too many graduate students. According to Caplan, the problem is that we aren’t doing a good enough job at getting people to leave academia.
The problem... is... general failure to inform students (as well as post-doctoral fellows) of their career options and train them for a wide variety of scientific careers, including the many opportunities that exist outside academia.
The reason that people typically embark on doctorates, though, is to become professors. To join academia. To be a working scientist. It’s no surprise that they don’t want to leave because that’s what they set out to do. It seems pointless and a little cruel to get people into programs, then spend a lot of time telling them they will probably have to take on jobs that they didn’t sign up for.
Are other professional programs worrying about this? Are medical schools running workshops on what career options their med students have for when they fail to become physicians? Do law programs train their students for the many career opportunities outside of the legal system?
My first idea... is to provide far better training for students. Many universities are already employing career development plans to help their graduates prepare for a wide range of science-related jobs.
My question is whether that “wide variety of scientific careers” are careers that need a Ph.D. to do. I suspect not. Instead of putting people through an academic wringer that was designed to create professors, let’s create new programs and training that are not doctoral programs. Let’s get those people out in those science-related careers faster and more efficiently.
It’s Caplan’s second recommendation that makes me mad, though.
I am of the opinion that despite dwindling academic job prospects, this country and the world needs more scientists with PhD degrees, not fewer. Although for the most part careers in science are unlikely to lead to high-paying salaries, society benefits greatly from churning out more scientists with advanced degrees. Critical thinkers who have a working knowledge of the intricacies of scientific research can be the very best ambassadors for science. Whether they become politicians, businesspersons or leaders in any other occupation, their support for science could be the key to the future of science. So in some respects, I almost view a graduate degree in science as a form of national (or international) service – poor pay, but something to be proud of and with great benefits for society as a whole.
Screw. That. Noise. I am so sick of the “Joining the monastery of science” and “Science is a calling, you shouldn’t do it for the money” memes. This “scientist as monk” meme is hurtful and deserves to die a flaming death.
As I’ve mentored students, and watched them consider graduate school and scientific careers, it’s become clear to me that a major reason that they don’t want to go into graduate school is because they want to live their lives. They see continuing in university as something that will interfere with them from meeting people (including potential partners), travelling, having families, and enjoying themselves on their own terms.
In other words, I’ve seen that many bright, hard-working students who could get doctoral degrees do not want to be monks and nuns for science. I don’t want to be a monk for science. I set on this path because I thought it was a career that could offer me some long-term stability and a way to keep a roof over my head and food on my plate.
We cannot simultaneously:
- Call for more people trained in science, and;
- Say people trained in science should be willing to leave the profession they want to join, and accept a crummy standard of living regardless of whether they join the profession.
These two things are not compatible. You want more scientists? Then FUCKING PAY US. Other professions are not stupid enough to fall for self-immolation, and scientists shouldn’t be, either.
Photograph of Charles Ponzi, originator of Ponzi scheme.