Should You Pursue a Career in Science?
Some Advice From a Professional Scientist
Advantages and disadvantages of a career as a scientist
orking as a research scientist can be a highly rewarding career. It's intellectually challenging, and it provides the satisfaction of doing something important. What you discover could change how millions of people make their toast in the morning, or it could change how civilization evolves--maybe even prevent the next Dark Ages. It also provides a certain amount of social status. But your income won't be terribly high. Chicks won't necessarily flock to you and beg you to have sex with them. And--if you're still reading--there are many other, even bigger, drawbacks that students contemplating a career in science may not be aware of.
For one thing, it's hard to find a good position. Once you specialize in your field, there might only be five labs in the country where you would fit. Once you pick one, you could be stuck there forever. Or if the boss of that lab decides to move it to Fugbuck, Arkansas, that is where you will have to live. In other words, the job mobility of scientists is fairly low.
Secondly, there's a lot of corruption among science management. You will find many, many bosses who blatantly steal your ideas and take credit for your discoveries. Some bosses will abscond with so much equipment and funds that it threatens the survival of your organization. You will find labs where the boss has whipped up competition so much that people refuse to speak to each other. Or the boss may force employees to work on useless, Quixotic projects, like trying to prove that there is no such thing as DNA--and fire anyone who finds evidence to the contrary.
Third, once you become a scientist, you will find, if it was not yet obvious to you, that the only thing that counts in this world is money. Money creates power, and money is all that universities care about. Money is all that society in general cares about. It's all voters and politicians care about. Most of the time, when you're hired, your employer throws you in a room with a desk and an empty lab bench, and gives you two years to figure out how to get enough money to buy some equipment and do some experiments, ... and, oh yes, cure something.
In general, if you're the sort who can't stand not knowing things--for instance, not knowing why there are only three quarks in a proton, or not knowing how the brain works--and the desire to find the answer keeps you up at night, you have one of the necessary qualities of being a scientist. It goes without saying that you also have to be, like, really, really smart. If so, you might be able to tolerate the drawbacks. In this article, I will discuss from personal experience what it's really like. Since my field is biophysics, I will focus on the biological sciences. But what I say applies to all branches of the hard sciences. In fact, for older sciences like chemistry and physics, the situation is even worse.
Graduate Schoolification and Post-Docitude
To be a serious scientist, you need a Ph.D. or M.D. degree (or better yet, one or more of each). That means either graduate school or medical school. I know nothing about medical schools (except what I learned from watching House), but each graduate school does things a little differently. Generally there is a qualifying exam after the first or second year. This is a serious test. Depending on how you score, the school may allow you to proceed to a Ph.D., or they may tell you that you can only get a Master's, or they may dismiss you. That's right: you can be flunked out even if you have good grades (and, unlike college, the lowest passing grade in graduate school is a B). The washout rate in most grad schools is very high. I still remember the 15 or 20 students we had in the beginning. Only three of us ended up with a Ph.D.!
We also had some adult students. Many professionals would like to go back to school and get a Ph.D. degree. Don't kid yourself--it will be a major struggle. It is very difficult to adapt to the subsistence-level lifestyle of being a student. You will probably have to get rid of your gardener, your pool cleaner, and most of your polo ponies.
Cost is sometimes a factor, but most grad students work as teaching assistants or research assistants. If so, the school waives your tuition and gives you a small stipend, which is enough to survive on. In most cases, the students who washed out were not the ones who couldn't afford it, but were the ones who were not committed enough to do the work. Graduate school isn't about being smart; the material is actually easy to understand. There is just a lot more of it. If you find the material hard to understand, or uninteresting, consider doing something else. When I was in grad school, we had some students who were literally crying in class because they could not understand the material. These students should have waited a couple years and gained more background knowledge before starting. You have to want it enough to be willing to learn how to commit all of it to memory, and to learn how to figure out which equations are important and which aren't. Of course, you also have to understand all of it inside and out.
There are strategies, based on how the brain works, for learning more effectively and remembering longer. In a future article, I will discuss them. Remind me if I forget.
If you're an American, you're at a disadvantage. You have to be at least twice as good as everyone else, because when you hit the job market, you'll be competing against an army of H1Bs who are willing to work for half your salary. If you're not spectacularly well qualified, employers will decide it's cheaper to replace you and get two foreigners for the price of one. In most of the places I worked, no matter which part of the country I was in, Americans were in the minority. Many times, I was the only one. The reason is not that the H1Bs were better or worse; they were just cheaper. (Also, if the boss fired them, they had to return to their native country, so there was less chance of being hunted down and slaughtered like a dog by a crazed ex-employee carrying an M16.)
That's why companies are always whining to the government about not issuing enough foreign visas: the influx of foreign scientists puts downward pressure on salaries and saves them money. Another factor is organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, which periodically comes out with doomsday warnings about America not having enough scientists. These phony warnings encourage thousands of students to go into science, only to discover years later that there are few jobs. The net effect is to make science undesirable as a profession.
After you get out of graduate school, you will be an expert in memorizing useless lists of facts. Many people take advantage of this new skill and use it to learn something useful, like Chinese. In biology, knowing Chinese will enable you to understand your postdocs and technicians. It will also be helpful when our economy crashes and we are forced to pay obeisance to our New Qing Dynasty overlords.
After grad school, you will become a postdoctoral fellow. This is easy, so you need to get in the best lab you possibly can. Don't be fooled by what your prospective employer tells you. These guys got where they are by being consummate salespeople (that is to say, shameless liars and self-promoters). Before accepting a position as a postdoc, use PubMed to do research on the lab chief (a.k.a. professor or principal investigator). Did any former postdocs from that lab ever achieve a successful research career? Or do they gradually disappear? Is the lab chief still a co-author on all their papers? If so, it means the lab chief runs the lab the way Robert Mugabe runs Zimbabwe. If you join a lab as a postdoc, you should not only expect to learn something, but also to get an independent and exciting project of your own that you can turn into a grant application. If not, your career will go nowhere. The lab chief will not necessarily help you find one, but if he or she pressures you to drop projects that are interesting to you, or pushes dumb projects onto you, get out fast!
This can't be emphasized enough. If you get stuck in a lab where the boss prevents you from discovering anything, you will rapidly become unemployable. I've seen bosses praise colleagues of mine as if they were the most brilliant person who ever lived, and then fire them two weeks later. Prospective employers don't care if you're brilliant. They don't care about how much you know. All they care about is accomplishments that can be measured and counted. If your boss stopped you from working, by pressuring you to waste your time creating PowerPoints or whatnot for him, you've been unproductive, despite any praise your boss may have for your work. The longer that goes on, the harder it will be to get re-hired after the boss fires you for being a threat to his or her brilliance.
Talk informally to the current employees before accepting a position. In some places, you will be formally interviewed by the senior scientists. They might drop hints to you, but they will never warn you during the interview about any problems in the organization, because they know you might mention it to the boss. They will also never put anything in writing, so forget about emailing them. The only way to get the truth is to meet them in person away from the lab, get them drunk, and ask what it's really like. Ask about the turnover rate. If you don't, you might be signing up for 3-5 years of purgatory.
There's one lab, for instance, where the boss throws temper tantrums and literally screams at the postdocs. How good of a letter of recommendation could you expect from someone who calls you a dumb f***ing a**hole every day? In another lab, the boss is notorious for sexually harassing female employees. I know of another one who is so intensely hated by his colleagues that they refuse to hire anyone who ever worked for him. And bosses who are dismissive of new ideas from junior scientists are common, especially at universities.
The problem is not just bosses and lab chiefs. There was a tragic case just recently at Yale where the animal care technician was such a nazi that he murdered one of the grad students for breaking one of his rules. If that person had checked out the lab first, she might be alive today.
Location, Location, and Who You Know
These days, there are four places you could work as a scientist: a university, a non-profit research organization, government, and industry. A university might seem appealing, with its park-like atmosphere and the thousands of scantily-clad young females. But you will soon realize that 99.4% of those females are total airheads. (The remaining 0.6% are only partial airheads.) If that's not a problem for you, it's likely you're not nerdy enough--I mean intellectually-oriented enough--to last long as a scientist. (I hasten to add, it's been scientifically shown that 99.4% of the male students are also airheads. But that's someone else's problem.)
Anyway, to a professor at a university, the opposite sex is nothing more than a form of poison. If you're a male, and a female student comes to your office, you must have a witness present at all times. Otherwise, the student can make up any claim she wants in retaliation for being a ditz and flunking your course. Even when discussing science in your office with a female colleague or technician, you do not ever allow your door to be closed. Otherwise, that office and everything that goes with it will soon belong to her.
Cracking jokes and discussing politics are also out of the question at a university. I knew one guy, a pretty good scientist and a great human being, who was always cracking jokes. One day a female professor decided to take offense at one of his jokes. A university has its own grievance system, composed mainly of people who are very easily offended, anti-male, and anti-person-of-lack-of-pigmentation--your typical fun-hating, self-righteous puritans burning with faith in social constructionism. The university's board of inquisition makes our lawyers and civil court system look almost rational by comparison. This female professor made this guy's life a living hell. His wife left him, and he was put on suspension. He came to work in our lab as a visiting scientist. Within a few months, the stress caught up with him and his heart gave out. He died of a massive heart attack.
The atmosphere at American universities today is much more oppressive than it used to be. College professors spend about 50% of their time writing grants, 30% at meetings, and 15% teaching. Other activities, such as research, are maybe 5%. A professor is utterly dependent on the skill of graduate students and technicians. If they discover something, the professor takes the credit. If they don't, the professor will not get a grant. No grant, no tenure. No tenure, no job.
No matter how hoity-toit it is, the university will not give a flanfeck about your research, or about what diseases you cure. All they care about is how much money you bring in with grants. And for grants, read R01's from NIH. An R01 is a 25 (recently reduced to 12) -page document that takes about four months to write. It takes another four months to accumulate the preliminary data that you need to write the grant. Eight months in total. An R01 grant lasts 3-4 years. But only about one in every ten are funded, which means, on average, you need to write ten grants to get one funded. Do the math. (You're good at math, aren't you?)
The point is, if you don't get a grant within the tenure probation period, which is about 3-5 years, you are out. At that point, you're considered damaged goods and your academic career is over.
There's another issue with universities: applying for a position at a university is a royal pain. Search committees generally require 3-5 letters of recommendation up front before they will even look at your resume. But for each faculty opening, there are often hundreds of applicants. The amount of sucking-up you have to do to get your boss and two other bigshots to write 200 letters of recommendation for you is almost unimaginable. And if you don't get the position, guess what happens to your present job. Your boss knows you want out. So out you go. Want fries with that?
Why do universities insist on letters of recommendation in advance? Part of it is they don't care that it inconveniences you, or that it's unethical--their goal is to make their own job easier by reducing the number of applicants by whatever means possible. And part of it is they want to make sure you know how to suck up to people in authority.
Non-Profit Research Institutes
There is also something called a non-profit research institute. These come in two types. One type is affiliated with a university, and the working conditions are much the same, except you don't have to teach. This type generally provides "soft money", which means most of your salary comes out of grants. No grant, no pay, and pretty soon no job.
The other type is typically run by some scientist who has a product he or she wants to sell. In biology, this usually means the institute is founded to cure some disease. The boss has some drug that he or she hopes a big pharmaceutical company will license; or if they're lucky, maybe the company will buy the whole institute. If it happens, money pours in; some of it might even trickle down to those who actually did the work, but somehow that never actually seems to happen. If royalties are not specified in your contract, you can be sure it won't happen.
At a non-profit, you still have to get grants, but there is no tenure protection, so the boss can fire you whenever your contract expires, which typically happens every three years. In practice, this means the boss can tell you what projects to work on, what to discover, what the conclusions should be, and what color the lines in the graph should be.
[ad] option to search for papers from the
institute you're considering. If all the papers coming from that organization
are on the same topic, it could be a very bad sign, because it means they're
all working on the boss's project.
The easiest way to prevent situations like this is by providing tenure to the researchers. The real reason for tenure is not to protect the researchers, but to prevent the research from being corrupted by the researcher's boss or by whoever provides the funding. Unfortunately, tenure is gradually disappearing in this country. When it's gone, American pre-eminence in science will disappear along with it.
Non-profits, like corporations, usually also force you to sign non-compete agreements as a condition of employment. These are contracts that give them the right to sue you if you work on a similar project after you leave. Have your local ambulance-chaser examine this contract very carefully before you sign it.
Industry is the only place where you can work as a scientist without having a Ph.D. or an M.D. degree. But what industry calls "scientist" or sometimes even "senior scientist" is, in most cases, what everyone else would call a "technician" or "research assistant." It's title inflation---the same thing that results in garbage collectors being called "sanitary engineers."
Industry has the widest variation in the work environment. In some large corporations, you are considered "the expert" and you can come up with any new ideas you want, as long as they improve the company's profits. In others, you are little more than a slave--a "lab slave" as one person calls it, and you work on whatever management tells you to. This might mean doing the same assay over and over and over again for years on end. Or it could mean you spend your days filling out forms.
Corporations have an incentive to do honest research, because if your results are wrong, they might end up spending millions on a bad idea. Scientists in large corporations also have a strong incentive to get the correct result, even if it's not what management wants, because if they're ever wrong, they will get fired. Contrary to what you might have heard, companies don't pay scientists to generate fake data for the FDA. They hire them to make sure their business decisions are based on accurate information.
Industry also tends to be generous with purchasing fancy and expensive equipment, because they're used to investing in large capital equipment. Those high-tech labs with million-dollar mass spectrometers and robotic systems like you see in the movies are not found in universities--only in industry.
That's not always true, of course. Some companies spend so lavishly on architecture and artistic decorations that there's nothing left for buying equipment. I visited one company, a biotech company in the Midwest, that has three spectacularly beautiful buildings, full of sculptures and paintings. But in their R&D labs, all they had was a few vortexers, some beakers, and a pH meter. When asked how they measure anything without any equipment, the response was, "We send it out." Their philosophy, it was explained to me, is: if they bought equipment, they'd also need to hire somebody who knows how to work it. Heaven forbid. No wonder you don't have any good products, I remember thinking.
(Another company has cheap landscape paintings on all the walls. Just coincidentally, they are exactly the same size as the mysterious rectangular light-colored areas on the walls of the hotel down the street.)
The other drawback is that industry is only rarely interested in basic research. It doesn't matter if your discovery will bring in a Nobel Prize. If management decides your project is not going to increase their profits, they will pull the plug even if your project is 99% finished, and reassign you to work in marketing. Or they might tell you to move to their new plant in West Beaver Tooth, Oklahoma. Or they may just fire you and all your staff without warning.
You're also more anonymous in industry. Most companies don't want you to waste time publishing papers. Your résumé may fill up with successful patents. But only one person in history--Thomas Edison--ever became famous for getting lots of patents. If you find the cure for cancer, your company, not you, will get the credit for it. Industry is also far more coercive than other work environments: you will work on what you're told to, or else. And you will like it ... or at least pretend to.
Small biotech firms are different---they're more like non-profits. The goal of most small biotech firms is to be bought by a larger one. They're usually started by a bigshot scientist who has what he or she thinks is a good idea for a product. In most cases, it's not. The idea is crap, and anyone with half a brain can tell it's crap. So the vast majority of small biotech firms go under within a few years. If they don't, the size of the boss's ego typically increases exponentially with the size of the company until, one day, his or her head explodes. Do research on the firm before going there. If their product doesn't make any sense to you, it probably doesn't make sense to a pharma executive either.
Working in a government lab has certain advantages: there is no need to write grants, and the place is awash with money that just magically falls from the skies. Heck, if they run out, they can just print more. But there are also disadvantages: the government has thousands and thousands of rules that can make it an unpleasant and oppressive place to work. The rules change all the time. For example, while I was there, they added a new rule that if someone worked there as a postdoc, that person was ineligible to apply for a permanent position. Then they made the rule retroactive, so all the poor postdocs who had come expecting to start a career were suddenly persona non grata. Some nonprofits have the same rule. Check for this rule before going there! It's infinitely easier to get a postdoc job than a faculty position. Don't do postdoctoral work someplace if you'd like to work there as a faculty member.
They also might have a rule that says you are only allowed to be a postdoc for a certain number of years, after which you are automatically fired. That would mean that all your free time will be spent searching for the next job. That search will become frantic as the deadline approaches.
Because the organization is so big, there are so many pay grades and steps that you can get a promotion every year and still feel like you're standing still. On the other hand, you get cost of living adjustments that match the inflation rate (or what the government claims is the inflation rate--that is, about half the actual rate). Lots of other places don't. Without a COLA, if the inflation rate is 3%, it means your salary is effectively cut by 26% in ten years. Then they give you a 20% raise and wonder why you're not grateful. (In case you've never wondered why we always seem to have at least 3-5% inflation, now you know the reason. Read Mankiw if you don't believe me.)
In government, once you are a general schedule (GS) employee, they can't fire you. So you don't have to do any work. We once had an assistant who was a GS--probably a GS-3 or 4. Her job was to wash the glassware. You could tell when she had been working that day by the crunching sound of broken glass on the floor. Another guy, a GS-15, was a scientist pulling in a six-figure salary. He did no work whatsoever. Yes, they cut his budget and took away his staff. But they got zero work out of him. I should add that postdocs and research fellows are not GS's (at least, not at the moment; but the rules change all the time).
The military also does a lot of research. Most of it is technology-related, but they do a surprising amount of medical research. It helps if you're an officer, but a lot of research is also done by civilians. The Air Force is the place to go if you're interested in the thankless job of dissecting aliens and removing and cleaning the anal probes they leave behind. As in industry, military scientists rarely become famous with the general public, unless they do something really embarrassing like accidentally setting off a thermonuclear device in the lab.
When the economy is bad, or when the grant funding rate goes down, everyone tries to get a job with the government. So it's very tough to get a permanent job there. But if you've cured a major disease, or if you got the Nobel Prize for something (that is to say, a real Nobel Prize, not a Nobel Peace Prize, which is only given to crazy people), you've got a good chance.
I should add that, in a government lab, even guys with Nobel Prizes don't get a fancy office. The guy who invented Tylenol had an office that was smaller than the one I've got now. And that's small. The guy who discovered the DNA code didn't even have a window.
If you decide to go into science as a career, one piece of advice stands out among the others: figure out in advance where you want to be, career-wise, and what you want to study, and--most importantly--why you want to do it, and follow it ruthlessly. Get into the best lab you can as a postdoc, and sacrifice everything to stay there. If you hit a brick wall, or discover that you hate your current project, get a different postdoc position tout de suite. Once your career is established, it's tough to break into a different field.
And, unlike those poor M.D. schlubs on House, if you're a scientist you can usually get your own technicians, so you don't have to run all your lab tests yourself. That frees you up to do what's really important: writing grants, filling out forms, and going to meetings. And complaining about how bad the job market is.