Monday, July 09, 2012

Don't Be Afraid of Plan C

Yes, that's me
My twitter feed on Sunday was awash with references to the Washington Post article about the difficulties many young scientists are having finding jobs. Several people agreed with underemployed industry scientist quoted at the end, saying they will also steer their children away from careers in science:

"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.


  1. My advice to students is to get a cross-training degree. At my old university, law-science is a very popular combination, and one of my classmates is now VP in a venture capital firm specialising in biotech.
    I guess the bottom line for me is that a career in science does not necessarily equal a career in research.

  2. Anonymous5:17 AM

    There's a huge cottage industry training physicists to go into finance. They're employed, but they're working on Wall Street.

    I will tell my children that as long as they are not afraid of math, they'll be employable. So far that has remained true throughout time. Individual science degrees are the same as individual humanities degrees in my mind-- you do them because you're interested, not because you necessarily think you'll have a career doing research in that topic. There's a reason I went to a Small Liberal Arts College (SLAC) instead of viewing college as job training.

    A woman on a plane once told me they hire math majors because of the way they think, not because they can do math. A good college education will train a person to think in a certain way, to think like an engineer, to think like an economist, or english major etc. These ways of processing information, problem solving, and making decisions are useful in many fields outside of their initial purview.

    Which kind of dovetails into our deliberately controversial post from yesterday-- what is the purpose of college (and who should pay for it)?

  3. mary d6:12 AM

    I have an MS and BS in engineering. I've never worked as an engineer. In fact, not that many of my classmates do. We've got teachers, finance people, salespeople, etc. We're trained to think.

    I also work at a university. Non-PhDs are looked down upon, as are PhDs that are not tenure-track, (and non-scientists, too, of course) at least in the bioscience side. They do it to themselves. You're right, nothing changes until attitudes change.

    My 6yo has an aptitude for math and probably science as well. I would not push him away from that because it's the training that matters. If he goes into science/math, there will always be a job for him, even if it's not in that specific field.

  4. mom2boy6:34 AM

    "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."

    Young/recent law grads feel the same way.

    1. I suspect almost everyone in a field that used to provide almost guaranteed "good jobs" feels this way. The rules changed out from under people.

  5. Anonymous6:42 AM

    The same thing is happening in liberal arts and social sciences, and has been for decades. I tell people to study what they love, and focus on using the content to develop skills--and then, when it is time to find a job, to focus on those skills they've developed, because they may find and love a job that they didn't even know existed.

    Regarding what I'll tell my daughter? Probably something similar. She's two, so there's no way to know what the job market, public or private, will look like in 20 years.

  6. "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 [degree] means that you failed."

    That is really good advice.

    And what @nicoleandmaggie said is also spot-on: "I will tell my children that as long as they are not afraid of math, they'll be employable." So true.

  7. Joanna8:11 AM

    This is a very interesting post to me. I am a CPA, and I can tell you that there are similar stories in my career as what you describe. Outsourcing (or insourcing for that matter) to India and China, a lack of jobs, a lack of raises for those who have jobs, long hours, and shrinking benefits. I don't know that there is a professional career path out there anymore, where these issues do not lie. I guess I have always been pretty lucky - I have never been without work, and my career path has been steady. I honestly don't know if that's luck or due to who I am - probably some sort of combination.

    But, sometimes I find my job so tedius and boring. I was never exposed to the sciences as a career when I was growing up, with the exception of my mom telling me I should be a doctor (typical Jewish mom - I had three careers available to me - doctor, lawyer, or marry one of those two). It wasn't until I was an adult, that I realized there are people out there who study plants and animals for a living. People who worked outdoors, even! People who researched things for a living. In fact, only recently has the Big Bang Theory really showed me that there is a whole other world of academia out there to earn a living in.

    I guess it's really a case of the grass is greener on the other side. It seems magical to have a life where you study the sciences and get paid to do it, instead of just read articles of interest to you in your spare time. I would love to be a researcher in some way, but I don't have the funds to go back to school as it is, let alone completely change my path. Therefore, I decided I would encourage my children to explore science (if they are interested of course). I feel like I just didn't know all of the kinds of careers that exist.

    However, after reading this, it just goes to show that there isn't any magical world like that. A career is a career. All jobs have boring parts. All jobs have difficult barriers to entry. And most likely, I would suffer an allergy attack if I spent my life outdoors studying plants and animals. So, thanks for this - it helps bring me back to reality.

    There is only one last career for me to fantasize about now - writing novels. But that is a comment for another day.

  8. My only plan regarding this with my child(ren) is to try and not discourage them from anything. DH and I talk about not wanting Evan to go into the sciences, but if it's something he loves and wants to do, we're not going to stop him. Same with anything else - except maybe drug dealer or something ;)

    I think one important thing right now is to make sure the education you're receiving is mufti-disciplinary (as kazari says above). The more transferable skills you learn, the better!

  9. I think it's interesting that there's this whole education push celebrating STEM, when in many cases the traditional job tracks associated with such things are shrinking (though I agree with Nicole&Maggie that if you're not afraid of math, your odds in life are good). There are also the parallels, as one other poster mentioned, with law. People thought law was a safe, guaranteed well-paid career. We're now learning that's not the case. Indeed, there are no safe careers. But once you absorb that, you can look at the career world differently. What skills can I learn, what problems can I solve, how can I keep reinventing myself and thinking in an entrepreneurial fashion.

    1. I actually support the push to educate more people in the basics of STEM fields, because I think we need more people who understand the fundamentals of science. But that doesn't necessarily mean those people have to work as scientists.

  10. As others have pointed out, there's a big difference between studying science in undergrad and aspiring to a career in science. Which is something we forget when teaching science to undergrads- only a tiny tiny fraction of those students have any desire to become a scientist, and that's OK. But scientific literacy is still really important in terms of employment, personal satisfaction, and being a responsible citizen.

    My husband and I are both happily (most of the time) employed scientists, so we certainly won't be dissuading our boys from studying science or pursuing careers in science. If they do show an interest in science in general I'll probably try to inject some realism by steering them towards skills (math, programming) that are universally useful and encouraging them to consider things like future employment opportunities.

    I really liked Marcia McNutt (director of the USGS)'s 'lesson to my younger self', where she tells herself to do something significant: I think this is a good way to direct a general interest in science along a path that will be satisfying and most likely have good job prospects as well.

  11. Many great points above. I'll chime in with saying I think a key point of the issue is assuming *any* path will lead to a guaranteed career in the field-of-study. Not only do economies and job markets change, but so do people's interests.
    I'm quite glad that I took some time to work in industry rather than jumping right in to get an advanced degree. I wasn't interested in going into academia and through work experience learned that an MBA or JD would have had more of an impact on career advancement than an MS in Hydrogeology. Though since then I've changed life/career direction anyway.
    I may be out of touch, but I still believe STEM gives people more options. As said above, it's a way of thinking and one that *is* valued by employers. A STEM degree can move into non-STEM jobs/careers more readily than a non-STEM degree can move into STEM jobs/careers.

    1. Your last point is a really good one- assuming the person has learned how to write along the way. The combination of solid writing/communication skills with solid math/logic skills is killer, in my opinion.

    2. From the poor writing I've witnessed from "successful" non-STEM people, I'll say that the writing skills may still not be necessary.

      That said, when I eventually land a job as a science teacher, I'll be teaching those students how to read/write in the context of science! (Er, hopefully, unless curriculum and high stakes testing pressures get in the way. :(

  12. Anonymous2:42 PM

    I'm late to this post, but I just wanted to put in my two cents. It does seem like STEM education/careers are an okay bet, but I wish that people promoting them would be more honest about the most useful skills in terms of flexibility and employment. As in, evolutionary biology probably isn't your best bet (that's me, btw), but if you throw some genomics on there you'll have a lot more options. *sigh*

    1. That is true- some STEM fields have more easily transferrable skills than others. But I think evolutionary biology probably has some skills that transfer. Organization of information and knowing how to draw reasonable inferences from sparse data? (Just guessing- my one and only evolutionary biology class was in college.)


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