The short career half-life of scientists

Arthur E. Sowers arthures at
Fri Dec 5 22:57:57 EST 1997

On 5 Dec 1997, John Sidles wrote:

> Great study posted by Art Sowers!  Art, thanks for your efforts.
> Could you maybe post some numbers regarding career half-lives 
> for "humanities" professions -- musicians, sculptors, playwrights, 
> novelists?

There is at least one book "Hanging on or letting go" which is a social
psychology study of mid-life crisis (in men) and the author and call
number are on my website (its not handy for me to get just now). Much of
it is "interview" material, but it does cover voluntary changes in life
goals and most of the new directions were AWAY from traditional high pay,
high stress, and professional jobs. Many went into sculpting, pottery,
music, and most were happy with their new directions despite cuts in pay.

I have been interested in these cases and hope to find more time to read
about them in the future.

In the non-sciences, PhDs generally have it even worse than PhDs in the
sciences. There have been many articles in the Chronicle of Higher
Education (Academia's version of the New York Times) about this fact, but
there has been no collective action to reduce the increasing (up to the
last year or two) output of PhDs, like the effort by medical schools to
hold MD production about constant (in absolute numbers) over the last
> This would bear on an interesting question -- is being a scientist
> similar to being an artist or a writer, or is it more more like
> being a lawyer or a physician?

I have the sense that scientists are knowingly and functionally more like
serious beach bums (not meant as derogatory) with usually altruistic and
idealistic intentions, but unknowingly function, in academia, as renters
(without lease rights [at least the non tenure track faculty for sure, and
most of the tenure track faculty who have to get their salary off
grants]). The lawyer or physician are like car mechanics; there will
always be customers with something broke that needs fixing, or something
that is fixed that needs breaking (I'll let you figure out which applies
to which, but in the Washington Post a day or two ago on the front page,
they caught a bunch of lawyers sending out sollicitations to guys who were
on arrest orders, before the arrest orders were prepared by the police
department, offering their services to defend the guys on the list. The
list was public information, and legally obtained. But was it ethical?
Right? ... pardon my digression. 

> One point that strikes me about Art Sower's 

Pardon me, I think it should be: "Sowers'" (note where the postrophe is).

> statistics is the
> extent to which the "stable" professions like law and medicine
> are client-driven.  For example, if someone shows up with an
> ankle fracture, or needing a will drafted, then the client's
> needs *must* be met, even if the physician has become terribly
> bored with setting ankle fractures, or the lawyer is bored with
> wills.  So the disadvantage of choosing a client-driven
> profession is boredom, the advantage is, the client pays you!

You got that right. 

> We might expect that other client-driven professions like
> plumbing, banking, advertising, construction (and prostitution) 
> would be similarly stable careers.  All of these are skilled 
> professions, in which nonetheless one ends up providing the 
> essentially the same service over and over.

Yes, there is a big market for this. Science does not get the recognition
that I wish it did, despite the public opinion polls. People, in general
would rather spend money easily on entertainment, lipstick, sports,
tobbacc (45 billion per year), and illicit drugs (estimated at over 100
billion per year in the USA). Not to mention a 250 billion defense budget
aimed at killing/destroying/pain generation (and hardley any money on
conflict resolution by peaceful methodology [negotiations]). There is a
real problem here.

> Seems to me that science is more like sculpting or writing --
> the scientist is trying to create something new, for which maybe
> there is little demand, according to a vision which colleagues
> may or may not share.  More interesting work, for sure.  Higher
> risk of failure, also for sure.  Less certainty in paycheck,
> also for sure!
> Art, let's have some employment figures for the creative
> professions, please!

They would be much harder to find, but I would start with dissertation
abstracts to get names and then try to track these people. Its a very big
project. Possibly the alumni offices would do a better job. My wife got
her BS from U Mich and they always manage to find her, without her telling
them when we move, to sollicit donations (as if UMich needs the money more
than we do).

P.S. I am biased more heavily in favor of my scientist brethern.

Art S.


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