|Yes, that's me|
"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.”"
It made me stop and think: what would I tell my daughters?
There is no denying that the scientific job market is incredibly tough right now. The assumption that many scientists of my generation had- that if you were good enough, an academic position could be yours- is now completely false. The statistic quoted in the article, that only 14 % of bioscientists land professorships within 5 years of completing their PhD, makes that clear. To be honest, the assumption was already wrong when I was leaving grad school almost 15 year ago, but I think the situation has gotten worse over the years.
There is also no denying the fact that the industry job market has been shedding jobs at an astounding rate lately. I have obviously never bought into the idea that an industry career was a lesser option than an academic one, but I do think that having a strong industrial job market helped absorb some of the pressure produced by the incredibly tough academic one- and that strong job market is gone, replaced by a much different one, more prone to booms and busts. This has hit a lot of fields hard, but I think it has hit chemists like the one quoted in the article especially hard. They were once at the top of the pharma totem pole, with a well-paying, stable job practically considered a given if you got your PhD from the "right" place and were willing to relocate to New Jersey. They now face a reality in which pharma is contracting, biologics are siphoning away a growing slice of the resources, and a lot of chemistry work is being outsourced to China and India.
So I agree, the scientific job market is grim. As I mentioned in my post with advice about how to break into industry, right now, you can do everything "right" and still struggle to find a job. I do not blame young scientists at all for feeling like they have been left holding the bill after the collapse of a giant Ponzi scheme.
But there is also no denying that for me, getting a PhD in science was a great move. I like the career I have now, and that career would not have been possible without the PhD, even though many of the positions I've held did not really need me to have that level of training. Others did, and for others still the PhD was required to be hired, if not to do the work. I also look back on my experience in graduate school as a mainly positive one, which expanded my knowledge and built up my confidence. Even if I'd never held a job that used the skills I acquired during my graduate studies, I do not think I'd regret the time I spent getting my PhD. Certainly, if I eventually decide to make a career change and leave science (something I am considering, for reasons unrelated to the job market situation) I will still feel like having a PhD helped me get to where I want to be in life.
I am not sure where people like me fit into stories such as the one in the Washington Post. I am no longer doing scientific research, but I often use the scientific knowledge and solid reasoning skills I built up during my graduate work and in subsequent positions. I do not run a research group, but I do run a group. Strictly speaking, I am not doing the work I trained to do, but I view my current work as a reasonable (and satisfying) progression from my training.
However, I am also not convinced that my current career path will carry me through until retirement, which is at least 25 years away. I haven't decided what that means to me, but I think that I've picked up plenty of transferable skills along the way, starting back in graduate school, so the fact that I may need to reinvent myself sooner or later doesn't really bother me. I also don't think that the situation would be much different in most other careers. We live in interesting times, at least from a job market standpoint, in which a lot of the things that previous generations could count on are changing.
I can understand why all of this bothers other people, though, particularly younger people who have not had a chance to build up the career experience and bank account that I have. There is a reason that "may you live in interesting times" is considered a curse, not a blessing. I don't know what the solution is. I've heard suggestions for more permanent staff positions in academic research, and those suggestions sound reasonable, although I do not think that we should kid ourselves: professorships will still be seen as the ultimate goal, and those who want one and don't get one will probably still feel the sting, even if they get a stable position with decent pay and benefits.
I have no clear solutions for industry, either. Our system for paying for the development of new drugs is in a bit of a shambles, and there is enough blame in that to cover all the major players: investors who demand unrealistic growth from such an inherently risky industry, pharma executives who chase that growth in destructive ways, venture capitalists who follow fads in biotech, biotech executives and founders who don't know what they don't know about running a business and fritter away millions in venture dollars, industry scientists who don't like the realities of being in industry and help to fritter away those millions of dollars, governments who refuse to come to terms with the health care costs associated with our aging populations and unhealthy lifestyles, and the general public that expects miracle drugs but seems offended by the idea that someone will have to pay for them. I don't have personal knowledge of other science-heavy industries, but I suspect that those who do could tell similar stories. These are complex industries, run by fallible human beings. Of course they aren't perfect.
Is the answer to shrink the supply of scientists? I don't know. I am uncomfortable with a free society trying to dictate career paths to its members. But I do think we need to be more honest early in the education process about the odds of landing a true "scientist" job, while also purging the silly and outdated judgment that having a science PhD (or M.S. or B.S.) but a non-scientist job is somehow a failure. Someone with an English Literature degree who goes on to do well in a completely unrelated field is considered a success. Why do we insist on viewing science degrees differently? Academic scientists at all levels need to resist any temptation to sugar coat the situation in the interest of recruiting more hands for their labs. And industry scientists- and "sort of scientists" like me- need to be more open to retraining people rather than just moaning about how we can't find the candidate with the exactly perfect combination of skills and background.
Students pursuing or considering degrees in science are, by and large, quite smart people. Given the full and honest story, they will probably be able to work out for themselves whether or not they think a particular course of study is worth their time. The article mentions that physicists have a lower unemployment rate than other scientists. I can remember when that was not the case. It is certainly not the case now because there are more positions in physics than in chemistry or the biosciences. I strongly suspect that it is because the bottom dropped out of the physics job market many years ago, and the supply of physicists has adjusted itself accordingly. I'm sure that if you asked someone doing a physics post doc during that contraction what he or she thought about it all, you would have heard a story of angst, anger, and confusion similar to the ones we're hearing from chemists and biologists now. For that matter, I personally witnessed the initial impact of the boom in offshoring in IT and software engineering. I listened to many a rant about the disappearance of supposedly guaranteed jobs, and strategized with many friends- including the one who is now my husband- about how to stay employable in the new environment. Major changes in job markets suck to live through, no doubt about it.
So what will I tell my kids if they show an interest in pursing a career in science? They are young enough now that the only thing I can say with confidence about the job market they will face is that it will be different from the one we have now. But I doubt the days of stable jobs in unchanging industries will come back. I think I will tell them to pursue whatever subjects interest them, but to keep an eye on the market for the skills they are learning, and to always be open to the possibility that they will need a plan B. Or even a plan C and D. I think that if you told the idealistic young woman I was when I headed off to graduate school what I am doing now, she would say that I'm on plan C- maybe even plan D. But I have a great life, and no regrets. So go ahead and get that PhD if you enjoy the work, but don't do it with an expectation of a guaranteed job in your field at the end of it. Those days are gone and unlikely to return- although you might get lucky, like I did. You won't know if you don't try, and there is no harm in trying if you enjoy the journey and not just the outcome, and can block out the internal and external voices telling you that changing careers after getting a PhD means that you failed.
But that is advice for kids who are 2 and 5 right now. I'm not sure I have any advice for the people caught in the churn right now, other than to keep your chin up. The struggles you are facing aren't saying anything about your scientific skills or intelligence. And don't be afraid of plan C. It might be a pretty sweet plan.