This post is going to be part rant, part somewhat angst-ridden navel-gazing. It may also ramble a bit. You have been warned.
Last week, I clicked on a link to a CNN story about gifted kids. Or at least, that's what I thought I was clicking on. It turned out to be a summary of comments on a previous article about gifted kids, so I clicked away fairly quickly. Before I clicked away, though, I read part of the first comment, from someone identified as "K":
"So many "gifted" kids out there, yet so few intelligent adults making scientific discoveries, helping mankind move forward."
And that is when my head exploded. Even leaving aside the obvious objections that not all gifted kids are interested in science as a career and that there are many ways to move mankind forward that do not involve science, the comment was so offtrack that it took me a week to calm down enough to trust myself to write a rant on the subject. I fear that if I had attempted this rant earlier, I might have just typed "OMG! SO MUCH FAIL!" over and over. Or screamed at my computer. Or both.
Do people really think that the thing limiting scientific progress is a dearth of smart, talented scientists? REALLY?
Well, "K," from where I sit, I see plenty of smart, talented scientists. The problem is in finding the funding for their work. Let me tell you about the scientific job market, or at least the corner of it that I know well, which is biomedical research and the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. In brief, the job market sucks. Academia has turned into some sort of high stakes Ponzi scheme, in which the large number of trainees required to move science forward is so completely mismatched with the number of academic jobs for which they are putatively training that less 25% of them can hope to land a coveted tenure track position. It has become a market in which talent only buys you the initial lottery ticket, much like professional sports. At least the risk of career-ending injury is less, I suppose.
It used to be that industry absorbed most of the remaining trainees, providing good jobs and stable career paths. Those days are gone. The pharmaceutical industry has turned itself into a basketcase trying to meet investor expectations for growth. I can't remember the last time I read a piece of positive news about the pharma industry- mostly there are just stories about site closures and mass layoffs. Much of the venture capital that funds the biotechnology industry has gone elsewhere, searching for more certain returns. The capital that remains is busy trying to force the 15-20 year drug discovery and development process into 5 year exit strategies. This is just about as painful as it sounds. Yes, it really does take that long to develop a drug. And a lot of the drugs you think you are going to develop fail. This is also just about as painful as it sounds.
I am 40, and have had a fairly lucky career. I've only been laid off twice, and my longest period of unemployment was 4 months. And still, I do not think it is likely that I will retire in 25 years from something that closely resembles my current career. I stay in my field because when things are going well it can be a huge amount of fun, and because I believe in what my industry is trying to do- namely, discover and develop new treatments to help people who are sick. There is still a lot of unmet medical need (to use the industry jargon), and despite what some people may try to tell you, drugs are overwhelmingly discovered and developed by industry. Also, I've seen the boom-bust-boom cycle in other industries, and hold onto hope that perhaps things will improve in mine someday soon. So I don't steer people away from the industry- but I am honest about what it is like right now. When I talk to students and postdocs about career paths now, I emphasize flexibility, transferable skills, and networking.
I can hardly blame someone for surveying the sorry state of the scientific job market and deciding to pursue his or her happiness elsewhere. So where are all those intelligent adults that K thinks have gone missing? Well, a bunch of them were making a fortune as "quants" on Wall Street before the latest financial crisis, and I think quite a few of them are still there. A lot of the smart people with skills similar to mine have decided to go into "big data"- helping companies analyze and learn from the large amounts of data they are now collecting on their customers. That sounds great, until you realize that most of this brain power is currently being used to optimize our shopping experience- optimize from the company's point of view, that is. Of course, it is cool to login into Amazon and have them immediately present you with things you might actually want to buy. But I'd rather have a good treatment for pancreatic cancer or schizophrenia (to pick a couple glaringly unmet medical needs).
A whole bunch of smart folks are working on internet start-ups and mobile apps and the like. This makes perfect sense when you realize that people will happily pay $600 for an iPad that they don't really need, but do not think they should have to pay anywhere near that much for most medicines. (For that matter, they will also complain if asked to spend more than roughly $0.99 for content for said iPad, so a lot of those folks working on mobile apps are likely to be in for some rough times, too.)
I do not mean to denigrate these career paths, and I certainly don't pretend to really understand all the forces at work here, let alone have answers. (Maybe that is because I wasn't really a gifted kid....) I am finding it hard to navigate this career climate, too. This is why I am a bit cynical about Cal Newport's advice to get "so good that they can't ignore you" and build career capital so that I can trade it for the lifestyle I want. It seems that in some industries, career capital can at best be traded for the chance to stay employed. Figuring out what skills to invest in building is difficult, to say the least.
My own situation is not helped by the fact that I excel at execution in an industry that is enamored with people who have big ideas, often overlooking the fact that someone has to figure out how to break those big ideas down into manageable steps and actually get them done. My own scientific ideas rarely qualify as "big," but I am good at understanding other people's big ideas and figuring out how to make them reality. I also specialize in a field that is most useful for medium to large companies, and those are thin on the ground right now. A lot of biotechs are "virtual" these days, or are very small and trying to bootstrap their way to success with minimal funding. While small companies have data management problems, they can rarely afford to invest in solving them. I think that handling their data better might make them more likely to succeed, but I also recognize that this is similar to the argument I sometimes heard in graduate school about how I'd save a lot of money if I'd buy my toilet paper and other paper goods in bulk. This was true, but if I spent my paycheck on a year's supply toilet paper, I wouldn't have any money left to buy food for the week. Sometimes, you have to do something that is suboptimal in the long run in order to survive in the short term.
So maybe the job market is looking especially bleak to me because of my particular situation. I should also be clear: right now, my life is pretty darn good. I have a good job, paying a good salary and affording me a lot of independence and flexibility. If I could guarantee it would last, I'd have no worries. Perhaps I should just stop trying to figure out the "right" thing to do with my career, and just double down on my "save money so that job insecurity isn't financial insecurity" strategy, while trying to find ways to diversify my skills (and my income streams). But the lure of the lifestyle I wish I could have is strong and seems tantalizingly close to being within reach... and I'm a planner by nature, so I suspect I'll keeping thinking about these things. But maybe I will click away a little faster next time I find myself on a page summarizing comments on a CNN story.