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!

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