Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Academia creates personal-life nightmares for scientists
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?
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 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...
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.
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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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!
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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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.
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