It’s been quite a disheartening weekend so far. You see, I follow a bunch of astronomers (and other scientists) either on Twitter or on blogs, and sometimes I stumble upon a few vents and posts that make me a bit uneasy about the career of a scientist, especially if you’re a female or part of an ethnic minority. Today is one of these days.
I just read this article on Talebearing, which sums up the worries of graduate student who suddenly realizes that most PhDs in his area (biology) don’t make it into fully-fledged career as scientists, i.e. a tenure track professorship job, a teaching job, or a job as a staff scientist at an industrial corporation. The author argues that one of the biggest caveats of a career on science is that it doesn’t pay as well as “normal” job, e.g. a consultant, and that it is too time- and effort-consuming. Additionally, to make things worse, I just read the news that many Brazilian graduate students hadn’t received their scholarships from CAPES since last November.
Well, while all these things make my future very uncertain, should it really be cause for a tremendous concern or even dread? I don’t think this kind of problem is only limited to science. I have the impression that every career path someone chooses has its own risks and costs. So it all comes down to how much (time/money/effort) people are willing to invest in order to achieve a goal. Also, there is one very important factor that should be clear: randomness play a huge role. And I think that is the main cause of delusion with a career in science: most prospective students don’t take into account the fact that sometimes you just have to be lucky.
As for myself, I was always very aware of the relatively low income for scientists (when compared to other careers), and that isn’t a big source of concern to me, since I was born and raised in a low-income family. I don’t like to say that we were poor, because I know all too many people who are or were truly poor, and sometimes had to go to bed with an empty stomach. Most of these people don’t really have a choice: they embrace whatever opportunity appears in order make a living. I was lucky enough to be able to make a career choice, and that is astronomy. Since I don’t have wife and kids to support, nor do I have high living standards, I can afford to earn less than other career paths. However, I would depend solely on that income, so there is not much room to delays in payments, such as the one CAPES did with the graduate students’ scholarships (2 months). We have bills to pay!
What about the prospects of finding a job as a scientist? I think it really depends on too many factors, and most of these are random. We should be aware of this fact. We could rephrase the question: is it enough to just do your job really well? Or what else can we do to improve our chances of finding a job as a scientist? I think that’s a much more useful question, and also a more difficult one to answer. What if you start doing something that, in principle, should improve your chances, but ends up undermining your productivity as a scientist? That’s another risk to be accounted for.
I also see many successful scientists or former scientists that are currently successful at another job saying that the [academic] system is broken. Universities are relying too much on productivity and not quality. Or that the influx of prospective students is growing too much and that everything is going to break down soon. What they do not do is to propose a solution. I mean, it’s easy to point out the flaws when you’re at an advantage position, but what about us who are in the middle of the storm? What should we do? Simply abandon the dream to become a scientist and pursue an easier path?
Maybe we are creating too many role models, and are not being realistic with our future. Maybe the career path of a scientist requires an amount of effort that most prospective students are not willing to pay for. Maybe this is all too random for people who want a more secure future. Maybe, sooner or later, we are going to reach the point of embracing whatever opportunity appears in order to make a living. And why should that be a bad thing?
Featured image: “Life’s uncertainties” by Fadzly Mubin on Flickr