Career advice sought from biologists

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Sat Jun 3 13:15:29 EST 1995


Reply to Kristine M. Moncada about
the job situation

Dear Kristine & friends:

I feel compelled to write something in response 
to your (and many of your young colleagues) 
desperate job messages.

As I am now entering my "early senior years" (51),
and already looking forward to (perhaps) early
retirement from the (so far) tenured position 
("so far" - the tenure systems is now under the
quickly mounting pressures), my heart is bleeding
to read messages like yours, or hear numerous
similar stories from recent graduates.

First of all, situation in physics and (most)
engineering disciplines is hardly any better than in
biology/ecology/health sciences. It is not uncommon
to see a Ph.D. in physics with 10+ years of postdoc
"career" experience with 40/50+ papers, still looking
for anything resembling a real career build up. These
are the people often in their mid/late 30s (even early
40s - a fastly growing group), often with kids to
support, etc.

There are many desperate letters in journals like
Physics Today about the severe OVERproduction of PhDs
in physics, which is now estimated as ca. 400 per 
year (one extra "useless" PhD every day !). Once 
popular musicals about "the coming shortage" of 
scientists are all turned out to be a sheer bluff. 

Also, it is very important that people like you 
write letters, essays, articles TO THE PRESS 
(not just to the Internet) about all this - not
only to record your experience but to help others 
to avoid (or minimize) career mistakes.  

Among many recent graduates in physical sciences,
the only (well, almost only) "career entry" which
I observe around, is related to a kind of a mini-hiring
boom by banks and investment companies - they (banks)
believe that recent physics PhDs with a knowledge of
physics of chaos, fractals and nonlinear dynamics, 
etc. will somehow help them to beat the randomness
of the stock market. This is, I am afraid, an ephemeric
fashion soon to fade out (already some early signs of
this are looming).

In looking what YOU can do next (e.g. to go or not for
a higher degree in science) you should take a sober view
on the structure and workings of the modern bench-lab 

As Erwin Chargaff, the author of the (highly recommended)
book "Herculean Fire", ca. 1980) writes:

"... the university system is based, to a large extent,
on the exploitation of the young: graduate students, 
postdocs, assistant professors ..." 

Presently (1995), the latter category (assistant 
professors) quickly vanishes (even as a soft-money
category), as it is mostly replaced by a cheap 
(but educated) research labour from the developing
countries (and most recently from FSU, Former USSR);
a stroll over any university corridor will confirm
this in a minute.

So, please MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT - in deciding to
work on a RESEARCH degree you will very likely (for 
at least several years) be a modern equivalent of
a galley slave.

It is not, of course, to say that all professors are
bloody exploiters, (likewise, not all ancient slaveowners
were evil), but it gives you not much of a relief in
practical terms. Of course, many of "us" (university
professors) are decent (and often even nice) people, but
this fact does not change the prime CLASS STRUCTURE you
are going to get to: you are to be OVERworked, UNDERpaid,
and (largely) fairytaled about your "bright future
career prospectives" in science (the main tool to lure
young people to the labs).

What are my POSITIVE ends to this ? Yes, I do (though
mildly) believe, that combination of a science degree
(even bachelor) and MBA gives you somewhat better chances: 
at least, I do know personally some very recent cases
when this seems to be working (so far); people were 
hired to places/positions which appear to have a reasonable 
growth prospect. Perhaps (extra to B.Sc) Law degree
(if you can afford it), also can be a good combination.

And remember - being in MBA (or Law) program you
AT LEAST will be working for YOURSELF ("inversting
in yourself" - as they like to say now), this is
an ENORMOUS difference with (almost any) bench-lab
degree, when your sweat & blood will be invesitng 
somebody's else accounts.

Wish you Best Choice and Good Luck !!!

Alexander (Alex) Berezin
(Prof.of Engineering Physics, a [largely]
interdisciplinary scientist) 


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