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.

I have read most of your posts, and you seemed to have a very negative view of physic career. Is that really bad out there? I understand that a scientist, who has a PhD, does not have much money comparing to a business man or a doctor. However, I have never thought that it takes around 23 years to actually have the normal salary. If that, why do you think many people want to obtain a PhD in Physics so much? I am not a physicist, it just comes across my mind that what are many PhD-Physic student thinking?
Yes, I do have a very negative view of Physics careers in academia, since the majority of people that I know in my field get burned in it, and only a few have regular jobs. Having said that, life really improves for physicists that work in other areas, both materially and in terms of personal satisfaction, so one of the things that I am trying to do is encourage students to pursue a career outside academia as soon as possible after their Ph.D., master's, or bachelor's degrees.

The reason I went into Physics is because I liked the subject and I was interested in space exploration, and I think most graduate students have similar motives. Many of us realize the difficult job market but pursue it anyway. It can take very long for a Physics Ph.D. to have a regular salary in academia, and that of course varies widely. The length of time that physicists spend on postdocs is actually well documented (statistically) by the AIP and/or APS professional societies. Indeed, Physics is not a very attractive career for many practical reasons, and I am not sure it is worth the pain. I would only recommend it to intellectuals that want to learn a lot regardless of the personal costs.
I also have a PhD in Physics and I am currently working as a postdoc at a top school in a hot field of Physics. I must admit the candid physicist is completely right with most of what I have read on this blog.
Hi there,

I got a prestigious Fellowship and I'm working in Medical Physics. I can tell you that I cannot agree more on this subject. After my fellowship I'm seriously considering a job outside Academia as the University where I'm working for is asking me for another Fellowship in order to get a permanent job. What my boss is offering me is another post-doc or even worst, he told me that I should think about working on my publication record for sometime...without getting paid. Isn't this ridiculous? he thinks that I should take some time off after this contract to write papers...he will keep my desk for me...although I won't get paid. How nice is that? I'm getting the hell out of there, that's for sure...
Hi all,
I agree completely Mr. Candid. Sometimes the situation is really ridiculous. I had bitter experience even during my PhD time. I wanted to finish my PhD before my scholarship got over. So I was trying to publish whatever I had till that time. My supervisor was asking me to think further and do some more work to increase the number of publications. Also, I had to work to improve the software which was being developed in his company. He never asked me how will I survive after my fellowship comes to an end ?
I tried for a couple of jobs after my PhD. Due to financial situation, I had to take up a post doc. I have lost the passion for research and now I am looking for a job outside the academia again.
Your comments highlight the exact reasons I chose not to go into a PhD program in Physics, especially not as a woman. It's very unfortunate thinking the smartest people in our society may be the ones who steer away from research and academia, when in fact it should be the opposite. I instead chose to enter the field of medical physics, where I'm paid well, have great hours, and great job stability. I love every second of my job, and would never think of going back. I always felt like there was something wrong with me for not wanting to sacrifice my life for science. Graduate life was expected to be hell, and life after the same with little pay and awful hours forever. And, any complaint made you look like you were lazy or not committed. I love science. But I also love my friends and family, and would hate a life where all I had to look forward to was more work.
I am in exactly this situation, but worse. I have just completed my PhD and am on a short term post-doc position which was very kindly offered to me. However, my "significant other" is currently writing her thesis!! So if we follow the standard career paths there is basically zero probability of success for us to remain together.

The cost-benefit analysis for doing a PhD and following into academic research is so poor. You put your family, future employment security, mental state and the low wages all up for the improbable event that you win a prestigious award when you are 70 and get tenure somewhere. Just doesn't seem to weigh up.
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I'm experiencing similar things. I've finished my PhD in medical physics (ECG, signal processing) and I've found it very difficult to find employment. The research group I was at was very small and there was no funding to keep going with my PhD reasearch.

After my PhD I moved to the other side of the country to take up a 12 months computer science postion. After that I was applying for jobs. I kept getting knocked back for post-doc positions in physics, probably due to my small publication record and not being my specialised area. I then started to apply for research assistant jobs, but I was seen as over qualified.

I don't really like how the paper writing bussiness is. Seems like it's more quantity, than quality. To be employed or receive a grant you have to have a long publication, and even so, you may still find difficulty in gaining/holding a position.

I eventually found a research assitant position, then went up to post-doc, but it's only 1-2 years contract and if the funding is not successful, that's it. Very uncertain future. So really looking into getting out of academia, into industry.

My advice would be if you want to stay in academia you have to start getting into lecturing instead of full-time research. I would recommend doing engineering (more practical). Can still do a PhD if you wanted to, but far more employable outside academia.
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I think it is your responsibility and not your advisor's to do the necessary steps that will turn you into a strong candidate for a faculty position. Of course, it is nice if your advisor has your best interests at heart, but he's probably too busy to even thing about your future career. After all, it's your career, not his!

What is the big picture of your research? Do your publication follow a common theme? What independent research plans to do have, and how is your current work contributing to them? Can you convince a search committee that you're able to conduct meaningful indepentent research?

Best of luck!

This blog is exactly correct. Only an insane person with no family, no friends, and no care about eating anything beyond ramen would go for a phd in science. I have a phd in math/physics, and I can tell you to STAY AWAY. I did 2 postdocs and finally was shit out the bottom. Same thing for all of my friends. Now we're all unemployed and bitter. It's disgusting how the best and brightest are taken into the arms of science, trained to become the best, and then are destroyed. For my troubles I was lucky to get 33K per year and move to China (I'm in my mid-30's and trying to support a family).
This post is completely correct - and I believe the situation is still worse in 2011. I have a Physics PhD and am determined not to enter academia, having seen the personal lives of friends and colleagues in academia fall apart. I'm in England and even though the travel times from one end of the country to the other is nothing compared to the US, the same effects are felt here. A recent statistic by the UK IoP states that academics are now doing 3 or even 4 post-docs (12 years!) before being able to get a permanent position. That's 12 years of uncertainty, moving, and upheaval. That's how the intellectual "elite" are treated.
I received my PhD in a scientific field. I graduated about 1980.

Even way back then, I worried about positions available after post-docs.
I ended up taking three post-docs throughout the country and quit these boring, dead-end jobs.

I now do what I feel like. I'm not rich in money but I am rich in spirit.

I was never sorry that I received such a good background in my specialty. It has increased my understanding of my personal life and life in general. The results are stupendous as far as personal enrichment is concerned, but forget about it earning you money. There are just a fortunate few who succeed financially -- but at a great cost to their private and spiritual growth. (spiritual can be loosely defined as psychological growth).

I love gathering more information on how our world works. Physicists have given us an amazing view of our universe and clues of other universes. It is fascinating, especially if you have a science background.

Don't pass up the opportunity to get a PhD. But forget about getting a worthwhile job in your field. Work alone as Einstein once did in a patent office and dream your scientific dreams. That is a great life!
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I gave up my Ph.D in Physics (ofcourse after receiving it) for staying in USA. I was away from my husband for a year to complete my Ph.D. After that I relocated to USA to find no post-doc opening in my field of research! Got trapped in the H4 visa status, another nightmare. I did volunteer to work in the University where I was not given a workspace, even spent 2 months of childcare from out of my pocket, just because I was passionate for science. With the greencard in hand and a break in career I was not even eligible for teaching in school as my degree is out of USA. The faculties with whom I worked free, now refuse to hire me or even pay hourly rate. My own experience left me wondering is it necessary to immigrate to USA, leave your career, make your home a battle field with your husband, eventually spoil your health. Now I decided to switch over to software as most of the wifes do and just help my husband find a good career (He is also struggling with his Ph.D and 10 years of Post-doc!!!)
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Great truthful post. I just received a PhD in Physics and completed a dead-end post-doc. I still enjoy scientific research, but at what cost.

For you young people out there, read this post carefully. Really think about what type of life you want to lead before you damn yourself to a life of misery.
Great truthful post. I just received a PhD in Physics and completed a dead-end post-doc.
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It is true that academia can give grad student nightmare, especially scientist like you. But, I think it would be lessen if you know how to handle things like phd dissertations writing that can be the most stressful task you can have in grad school. Anyway, I do hope people find ways to not get nightmares when they are on academia.
As the wife of a scientist in academia, I think you are wise for noticing the red flags early on. I wish my husband had done the same. This job is a strain on our marriage, and he has yet to build a bond with our daughter. He is so involved in work that I have become a single parent. Work does not make a life; relationships do. You can find other jobs which will be better for conducting a balanced life. I think it comes down to this-balance. Academia clearly does not value life outside of work, and if you are not willing to sacrifice your relationships, please run away NOW! It is not by coincidence that there is such a high divorce rate in academia.
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