Friday, March 18, 2005

 

New NASA director signals shift to old STAR WARS program

Continuing a major shift in the United States government resources, now NASA is poised to become a new stalwart for weapons research, specifically the multi-billion dollar missile defense effort. On March 11, the president named Michael Griffin the new NASA director. Dr. Griffin clearly has excellent technical qualifications, being a physicist with a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, and having managed major war-related research efforts in academia, industry, and government. While it is laudable that Dr. Griffin supports the space exploration "vision of the president", the man has a darker side, literally, as he is a major supporter of STAR WARS, i.e. spending billions of dollars of taxpayer money in what the majority of the scientific community considers an impractical technology (with the sole exception of early launch-phase defense systems). So, Dr. Griffin is nothing more than the newest Darth Vader, at the service of the evil emperor! Or if you like, a new Dr. Evil (laugh here if you have a sense of humor). The whole Moon and Mars thing is just Public Relations to distract from their plans to develop missile defense technologies. That is, because STAR WARS needs so much money that they will have to reach for NASA's pockets.

While NASA was created as a public relations icon of the Cold War by using missile technology for civilian research, it is now clear that its $20 billion dollar yearly budget will be increasingly channeled towards super-rockets for missile defense, or so it appears, judging from Dr. Vader's background and experience. This signals the end of the golden era of NASA Science: the great observatories led by the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope (itself also a test-bed for spy-satellite technology). Many people do not realize it, but in this golden era, NASA technology has been used to date the Age of the Universe very accurately, discover new mysterious matter and energy in the Universe, and in general make great discoveries that have just mind-boggling importance for human knowledge. Many important science projects will be gone in a few years thanks to the new war mongers, unless the projects are somewhat related to weapons, defense, or spying. Reality is echoing fiction once again. To quote the wise Yoda character in the STAR WARS Episode II movie: "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

 

Academia creates personal-life nightmares for scientists

Young scientists are facing cruel working conditions in academia, which have been worsening due to the explosion of the postdoc system. Academic science has become an unsustainable, unacceptable career for most people.

Are you a scientist? Well, of course you must be some bizarro nerd that never dates, does not have any stable friends, never had or will have any long-lasting relationships, could not possibly marry, and God forbid, could not ever have any kids or family. No, this is not some stereotypical picture out of a Hollywood movie. This appears to be what universities and the federal research agencies are expecting of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, the sorry sweatshop workers of Science. More and more are raising their voices in various scientific journals, including Nature, to complain that one or two-year temporary jobs ("postdocs"), with salaries worthy of a high-school dropout, and the demands to move as often as once a year are breaking apart personal lives and families across the U.S. You think I exaggerate? Read an article entitled "The familial balancing act", published recently in Nature 433, p.552. There, you will find out how freshly minted Ph.D.s have been practically forced to live apart from their families and wives (husbands) for years.You can add me to that list, I lived apart from my girlfriend for more than one year, just to find out that postdocs are a dead-end career path. People have been raising this so-called "two-body problem" for decades now, so good luck, the system is not going to change any time soon. And the journal Nature is not helping. Rather, the journal is patronizing the cruelty of the postdoc system. After describing how difficult it was for academic couples to stay together during their postdoc years, and how awful it was for the couples to be separated for years, Nature goes on to mention two success stories, and ends up stating that postdocs are a "worthwhile sacrifice" and "worth it in the end". Anyone aware of the job market and considerate about people's emotional well-being would know that this is rubbish!! That is the stupidest advice I have ever heard. What Nature will not tell you, is the myriad of horror stories about postdocs not being able to find any academic positions, and the troubling personal life problems of young scientists caused by academia, including divorce and psychological damage. In my office alone, there are several postdocs that are/will be separated from their significant others, and few are finding stable jobs. How are two success stories out of an unspecified number of horror stories supposed to convince a scientific mind?? In one "success" story, the postdoc writes 65 applications for tenure-track positions and interviews in 13 places, before finding a place where both people can get jobs. I am not kidding. This is the best "success" story that Nature could find! How shameful. It is obvious that Nature serves the interest of a greedy academic establishment that is hungry for cheap labor, so young scientists beware of their nasty trap! The best advice I can give you is never to give up living near your significant other for a lousy job in Science, such as graduate school or a postdoc.
 

A Career in Astrophysics Research: An Exciting Road to Poverty

The Big Bang, Quasars, the Birth of Stars, and the like, may be exciting, but doing this difficult and time consuming research will prove to be a hobby more expensive than Golfing in Maui every sigle week of your adult life. It is simply because you will have to give up a reasonable compensation, well up to your late thirties or forties, or even longer. Not only smarts and enthusiasm are required, but also the ability to not give a damn about your own economic future, never mind building a nest egg for your family or retirement!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

 

War-related research booms, Ph.D.s recruited

A major trend is for the U.S. government to pour ever more billions of dollars into war and security related projects. Since 2001, defense research has climbed 57%, to a record $75 billion dollars per year. Many of these projects are conventional or mass destruction weapons, which have little to do with anti-terrorism. This has already been a boon for government contractors, from the aerospace to the consulting sectors, and it is drastically affecting the kind of research positions that are open for Science Ph.D.s. In the meantime, agencies pursuing basic research such as the National Science Foundation, have started to see their budgets drop. At my workplace, one of the postdocs failed to secure an assistant professorship after applying to more than 40 universities nationwide, which resulted in the postdoc leaving academia to work with a defense contractor on a secret project. Of course, this person never intended to work on war related projects, but it ended up being the only available career choice. I expect such cases to become more common. Another issue is that curtailing basic research could be self-defeating. Will a decline in civilian research end up affecting negatively our national security in the long-term? This depends on whether defense research is dedicated to basic Science as well, which ends up being pivotal for defense in the long term. For example, the pressure is on at NASA to severely curtail or cancel Space Science projects investigating the structure and evolution of the Universe, favoring short-sighted excursions to Mars. The Hubble space telescope cancellation appears to send a message like this: "sorry guys, you are not in charge. WE (the politicians) will tell YOU what to do." I predict NASA will be pouring more money into high risk projects such as high impulse rocketry, which is one of the technologies that could be pivotal for missile defense. Mars would be the excuse to develop such rockets.

In the meantime, many scientists that may have expected at the beginning of their careers to work on building public knowledge for humanity, will find themselves working for dangerous war projects, snooping technology, homeland security, or weapons of mass destruction. These technologies are already making it easier to curtail freedoms at home, under the excuse of security. They have already produced deadly new weapons that madmen can use (i.e. the anthrax cases are now known to have originated form a U.S. government laboratory). The further effect of these policies is to detract many foreign students from enrolling in U.S. graduate schools, therefore reducing the pool of talent in the U.S.

I personally believe that it is mistaken to blindly assume that technology can help resolve a problem that is inherently political, like terrorism. Furthermore, the creation of new, terrible weapons, does not bode well for humanity, as it will create more problems than it solves. Case in point: remember Hiroshima. That was arguably a short-term "solution", but it created much larger, long-term problems. It is very self-serving for scientists and contractors to trumpet their technology as a solution to the nation's security problems. Profit from government contracts is given more importance than common sense. It is a delusion to believe that pouring money into a problem like terrorism will make it go away, thanks to technology.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

 

Foreign students beware: no jobs in the U.S. after graduation

Due to tough immigration policies, the U.S. job market for foreign students and graduates is more difficult than ever. U.S. Government policies are affecting highly skilled workers with Science degrees, even up to the Ph.D. level. Since 2004, Congress set a fixed quota of 65,000 jobs per year for professional foreigners wanting to work in the U.S., down from 195,000 in previous years. That means that the number of illegal aliens far exceeds the number of professionals allowed to work legally in the U.S. in any given year. Today, there is a severe backlog of H1-B visa applications that is causing the job quotas to be filled in one day, October 1st, the first day of the fiscal year. That means 364 days of the year for which no permits are available. Jobs that require a masters degree are allocated a meager 20,000 additional H1-B job slots. To make matters worse, the paperwork required to obtain these temporary visas (valid for up to 3 years), is turning off many employers. Based on immigration lawyers and the government immigration websites, a 6 to 12 month wait is needed to obtain the paperwork for a visa. A glimpse at the major job search listings shows that U.S. employers are posting job adds that explicitly state that foreigners need not apply. These job postings read "U.S. permanent residence or citizenship required", or even more specifically, something like "No H1-B visa sponsorships available." Most of these employers do not want foreigners because of the long delays associated with immigration paperwork. Albeit, many Science jobs in government labs or the high-tech industry impose these restrictions because of national security concerns. These work restrictions even apply to citizens of countries allied with the U.S. The only possible escape for foreign students and graduates are low-paying academic jobs. For those jobs, no quota has been imposed yet, but the academic job market is extremely tight (see my previous posts).

Personally, I have been searching for a job in the private sector for about one year now. I have a Ph.D. in Physics from a prestigious university, excellent grades, and good communication skills. So why am I having so much trouble finding a job? The economy has been slow to recover, so that is one reason. The other is clearly due to the quotas, since many jobs that I would have wanted to apply for required U.S. permanent residence or citizenship. I have turned down two research position offers from U.S. universities, mostly because they offered me temporary jobs that require me to move every two years or so, the research topics were of low quality, and they offered to pay only half the market salary. So, if you are a foreign professional educated in the U.S. and cannot find a good job, you are not alone!

See NYT: U.S. Jobs Becoming Scarcer for Students from Abroad
 

Becoming a Science Ph.D. is no escape from a difficult job market

Are you considering to apply for graduate school to get a Science Ph.D.? You will be better off if you don't bother! It is quite incredible, but today's society actually punishes people for being too smart and working too much on academic pursuits. The work you must put in and the many years you will spend in graduate school will shake your emotions and stamina to the core. I honestly advise you not to do it. However, I must emphasize that a career in Science, via a bachelor's or master's degree, is still highly rewarding since it gives you the opportunity to get work experience early on. A bachelor's or a master's degree is also more flexible than a Ph.D., in spite of the much trumpeted belief to the contrary, because you can later on acquire knowledge in another professional or academic field. So if you have trouble finding a job now, believe me, graduate Ph.D. programs are no escape. Jobs for Ph.D.s in Science are extremely scarce in academia (see my previous posts), and private sector jobs may also be very hard to get, depending on your particular situation.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

 

Jobs for Physics Ph.D.s outside Academia

Academia is a saturated job market for physicists and other natural scientists, as I hope to have convinced you on previous notes. Furthermore, even if you do make it to a professor position, it is doubtful that you will end up liking it, because of the exhaustive grant-writing, politicking, and committee-forming activities that entail real professorship jobs. These have little to do with Physics! Furthermore, Physics professorship jobs usually have lousy geographical locations, unless the middle of nowhere counts as a destination to you. So what would be your options if you leave academia? This is what I have been asking myself for a full year, as I have decided to leave academia for good. I can point you to a number of resources, since I am by no means the first person with this problem. It has been happening for decades. The only reason I did not know this before, is that I was surrounded by a selected group of people that had made it far into the system, including me! Well that, and I pretty much had not listened to the advice given by other people, because this advice does not apply to you until your academic job prospects are unacceptable, and chances are this will happen with probability close to 1.

The notes by Peter Fiske were quite helpful, if mostly for defining your career direction and generally cheering you up: it is not the end of the world for PhDs to leave academia. Jennifer Hodgdon has a website, entitled "How to leave Physics" that also has many great resources. Ok, my generic list of popular career options are:

Personally, I have tried looking for quantitative analyst Finance jobs, but it has been very difficult. This came as a surprise for me, since I figured a Ph.D. in Physics would be enough to get hired. It turns out it is best if you are a programming guru and/or a true genious (defined as the person with the highest score in the qualifying exams in graduate school). Usually, you are required to know programming in a very specific language, i.e. C++ and/or Perl. You better have taken several relevant courses in Options and Investments. Then, you are probably better off working over the summer in an internship job at Wall Street before you graduate. You will have to have a solid knowledge on probability, since you will be grilled to exhaustion on their first and second round interviews. They also prefer people to be just out of graduate school, don't ask me why, but if you have several years postdoctoral experience, it will actually work against you.

Industry jobs also recruit for knowledge, not necessarily ability. If you can find an industry job where you can apply what you have learned during graduate school or postdoc work, all for the better. However, if you are a foreigner, it is difficult to find an employer to grant you an H-1 visa, since the government has imposed tough quotas and it may literally take one year to get your paperwork through! Many companies do not hire foreigners at all, such as GE, Boeing, Raytheon, etc. In 2005, the "hottest" field for physicists is the war (defense) and security industry, and they only hire American PhDs, with very few exceptions. This is great if you are an American, since your jobs are protected! It sucks if you are not. By the way, European companies are not much different, and probably are even more self-centered than American ones, in that they are only interested in hiring EU citizens (and maybe US citizens for their US offices).


Monday, February 07, 2005

 

Science Graduate School: a Trap for Smart Idealists

When I finished studying Physics at one of the top schools in the U.S., I had decided to follow my dreams of understanding the Universe. All in all, I think studying Physics was a positive experience, in that I learned quite a lot. If you are thinking about this, and you are certain to love the subject, I would recommend you to go to graduate school. However, I would advise you to apply for Ph.D. programs and simply leave after you get a masters degree. I am not saying this because I dropped out, since I actually did finish my Ph.D., but I realize that the career value of a masters is a much better time investment than a full doctorate. If you want to learn a subject, a masters is sufficient. A Ph.D. teaches you how to do your own research, but it also allows professors and universities to use you indiscriminately as cheap labor at best, and slave labor at worst. Think about the work experience that you will not get as a result of spending many years doing a Ph.D. Research has little to do with private sector jobs: normally it does not develop your communication and social skills, business sense, and other valuable soft skills that you will need in the future. Not to mention the lost wages! You will not be able to save any money: not for retirement, not for a house, not for your family's future. I am not a materialist. I am talking about basic human needs, not luxuries, that you will have to let go! Thinking that you will get a higher salary (or even a better job) with a doctorate than without one is the wrong way to think about it. The experience that you will acquire in the private sector is much more likely to provide you with better wages and jobs than getting a Ph.D.! If you really want to learn something in depth, you are better off on your own, since that is what Ph.D. students do 99% of their time.

Why do I say graduate school is a trap? Because it is like a siren song for idealists that are seeking knowledge and want to dedicate their lives to learning. I found out, very late, that postdoctoral positions are really a glass ceiling for most people in pursuit of knowledge: only a very lucky few will get through to a rewarding research and teaching career. So only the elite-of-the-elite-of-the-elite can make it through: believe me, even being a postdoctoral researcher in a top school makes little difference! I just need to warn everybody about this because I made this mistake, and I do not want other people to fall into the same trap! Postdoctoral positions did not exist until recent years, and they are simply a mechanism to get fresh inexperienced researchers to do work that professors themselves do not want to do, and need someone to do it for very little money. Case in point, let me tell you that a postdoctoral researcher makes: $30,000 to $48,000, the median being in the high 30's. You are probably thinking I am a materialist, but nothing could be further from the truth! I am an idealist, otherwise I would not be a researcher. My point is that you will get paid very little money for several years after your Ph.D. is completed, and then you will get nothing! I was just talking to a researcher/recruiter from a prestigious institute, and he point blank told me that to get a tenure-track position I needed to a) Have won a fellowship or prize(s), b) Have about six years of postdoctoral experience! So here is the official career track: 4 years of college + 7 years of Ph.D. + 6 years of postdoctoral work + 6 years of tenure-track work. That means roughly 23 years of university work is the median time needed to get a tenured professorship. If you think that is attractive, go ahead!

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

 

Why a Ph.D. in Physics is a perilous career path.

You may think you have it figured out. Your life, I mean. You have been studying hard, gotten excellent grades, and are about to graduate with a Science major (like Physics) from a good school. In fact, your ambitions go further: you want to become a scientist. And for that, you need a Ph.D., of course, there is essentially no other way, you must become a doctor. Sure, it will take plenty of time, anywhere between five and six years, you think, but it is worth it. And besides, these days, universities will generously pay for your education the entire* time. It's not a lot of money, but it is good enough for the bare necessities. This was exactly what I thought some years ago. Boy, was that stupid.

Let me explain. You will learn a lot. You will work extremely hard. You will get paid less than a janitor for many years. You may even think you are enjoying it. You may think you are a genius (i.e. that you will follow Einstein's footsteps, literally). However, you should be very careful with regards to the career path that a Ph.D. will lead you to. Why? Because even assuming that you will finish (and many wisely decide to stop), you will be faced with the largest glut of Ph.D.s in modern history: there are simply not enough jobs in academia to fulfill your dreams. After finishing, you are likely to get a postdoctoral position doing interesting research, but you will find out that your compensation is still as much as an administrative assistant's. Do you think that is fair after investing ten years of more in your college education and foregoing a regular salary? The typical American does not find this attractive, so there, more than 50% of the Ph. D. students in the Natural Sciences must be imported from developing countries. The jobs in the government labs may not be suitable for what you want to do, so you will be left with many hard choices. You may either leave your plans to pursue your own research, and find a research job that leads to a reasonable career, or you may decide not to ever give up, and end up spending countless years in poorly paid jobs until you finally get that coveted semi-permanent scientist position. Furthermore, you will have to move continuously from one postdoctoral position to another, as often as once a year or two, and you may not have much say as to where you will have to work next. Finding a professorship job is much less likely than getting stuck in a postdoctoral holding pattern, since, circa 2005, every single open (Physics) assistant professorship position in the U.S. receives between 120 and 180 applications. Yes, you read that correctly, and this is by no means an exaggeration, it is completely accurate. Please indulge me and ask a tenured professor how many applications they got last time they had an opening. Every university with a professorship position in Physics in the U.S., even the small, out-of-the-way liberal arts college receives these many applications. The top schools are in the upper range. The reason is simply supply and demand, coupled with a huge demographic shift and stagnant federal funding for civilian research. Given reasonable demographic and budget projections, this situation is not likely to change much in the next ten or twenty years. So, my advice to you, the prospective Physics Ph.D. student, is to think about this very carefully. You will need a lot of luck, not just talent, to make it through this process in academia. You may need to switch careers mid-way. I would advice you to get a job outside academia as soon as possible after your degree. And wait, there is more...

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