09 October 2009

Face it: Being a scientist can really suck

ResearchBlogging.orgThere’s a refreshingly honest quote in this blog post, to which I’ve added some emphasis:

“People were questioning why there weren’t more women in science, and I had to point out that we are not going to be banging down the doors to enter a profession that just sounds so awful,” said Wu, who just completed her doctorate at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke.

The article goes on to talk about the importance of peers, time management, and stereotype threat, all the while ignoring the elephant in the room:

Science careers don’t have a lot going for them.

We have this weird Jekyll and Hyde relationship with young scientists. We tell them over and over that we want more people to enter technical careers. But then we sip the potion, and unleash upon them academic hazing rituals that go on for over a decade.

As another example, I just read an article by Villarejo and colleagues that looked at the development of students’ career interests and decisions. There’s much to be learned in this study, but there is an interesting moment. Here, the authors are Dr. Jekyll:

One novel finding of this study that deserves attention is that many individuals who chose careers as biomedical Ph.D.s had serious misgivings about the practical disadvantages of their career choice, in terms of balancing work and family and the financial insecurity they see as endemic to a career as a science researcher. Although they persevered despite these concerns, the same characteristics repelled others.

Now watch them sip the potion in the very next sentence...

Future studies should explore the personal characteristics that allow some individuals to pursue research careers despite the obvious drawbacks.

Suddenly, BAM! You’re dealing with Mr. Hyde!

Rather than what you might think would be a message to try to address real, recognized problem problems with the scientific career path, they argue for doing a better job of selecting the brave and crazy who succeed by pushing through the pain barrier.

It’s crazy.

The paper lists things that made science careers unappealing:

  • Difficulty of getting a good job

  • Other jobs pay better

  • Getting a Ph.D. takes too long

  • Lack of sensitivity to family concerns

No real surprises in that list.

BenchFly blog had a very similar take on completion rates for doctoral programs:

From the statistics, the article goes on to conclude:

“These data underscore the need to pick a graduate school wisely.”

REALLY?! That’s what those data mean? Not, why have less than 60% of students obtained a Ph.D. in under a decade?! Not is a 24 to 34% dropout rate acceptable?! ...

(I)n the bigger picture, this feels like a doctor telling a boxer “The solution for your headaches is Alleve” instead of “stop getting punched in the head.”

The problem with fixing this problem is that it’s about widespread cultural assumptions, which are invisible to most people. It’s like asking back in the 1950s, “How do you make sexism go away?” Many people then wouldn’t agree that it was a problem.

People who want to be scientists are not stupid.

Students in research labs look around them. They don’t see prospects for a lot of money for them. They see post docs in holding patterns, eking out a low pay existence. They see supervisors who spend huge amounts of time writing and administering grants, not doing science. And, perhaps more than anything else, they see people working their arms to the bone.

If anyone is being stupid, it some of us who are in the field now, since we seem to be the ones who are unwilling and unable to acknowledge this.

Additional: Lest you think all is gloomy, make sure to check out the follow-up post.


Villarejo, M., Barlow, A., Kogan, D., Veazey, B., & Sweeney, J. (2008). Encouraging Minority Undergraduates to Choose Science Careers: Career Paths Survey Results Cell Biology Education, 7 (4), 394-409 DOI: 10.1187/cbe.08-04-0018

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hey Zen,

I completely hear you. I saw your follow-up post and also agree that there are great things about being a scientist- as you point out. I think the big problem is that we seem to think that just because there are some "pros", the "cons" can be dismissed. It's kind of like saying "it's good enough" instead of "it's good, but it could be way better." In my opinion, we're just being scientists! We're analyzing the profession and seeing what's wrong. Now to the work of improving things!

Thanks for the blog quote!

(from BenchFly)