Career in the Microbio Sciences

Jim Hu jimhu at
Mon Feb 14 23:06:04 EST 2000

First, I believe the site mentioned from Art Sowers is:

Second, the disclaimer.  I'm a Univ Prof with tenure (relatively
recent), so I realize that my opinions can be discounted as reflecting
an interest in maintaining the status quo.

OK....there is a lot of useful information on the Sowers site, and I
know that all of the bad things that he describes DO happen.  His view
of funding is somewhat bleak, as federal funding levels for biomedical
research, as measured by percentiles of grant submissions that get
funded have risen since his career was short-circuited.  However, this
does not mean that either a) everything that is good science is getting
funded now or b) we won't go into another funding crunch at some time in
the near future.

Is it true that grad school is a mistake from a employment earnings
perspective? - you betcha.  What I don't understand is how you can
suggest that Univ. Profs are saying that it is (I don't know about HS
teachers).  Everyone I've trained with said you don't go into science
for the money, and I tell that to everyone I train...including the
recent PhDs who are getting jobs starting at $70K/year.  Grad school is
what you do if you want to do science for a career.  However, as Sowers
data clearly shows, this does NOT mean that getting a PhD guarantees
that you will have a career in science.  It's just the only way you get
a chance at it at all.

At the risk of getting flamed, here's the analogy I use to sleep at
night (I'm the chair of our graduate recruiting committee):  Baseball.

Statistically, a major league scout knows that few of the prospects he
identifies as high school phenoms are going to make it to the Show.
The minor leagues don't pay well and the lifestyle is miserable.
However, the scouts still recruit the phenoms in good faith if they
believe that the kid has the potential to be a Big Leaguer if everything
breaks the right way.  If the number of players recruited out of high
school was controlled to match the number of players retiring from the
majors each year, then the quality of team rosters would decline.

A good organization recruits the kids and provides them with the best
training they can.  It also evaluates progress honestly and eases
players out of the system as early as possible so they can get on with
their lives.  An evil organization just throws them out there and sees
who can hit the curveball on their own.  The evil organization also
hangs on to the minor leaguer as long as it needs a warm body and then
discards him.

If you want to play big-league baseball, this is the career path.  There
is a high probability of being weeded out somewhere by the system.  Who
gets weeded out is often unfair or the result of bad luck - an untimely
injury, a bad hop in the infield, getting beaned.  The players who get
careers in the bigs are not, on average, better or worse human beings
than the ones who don't.  The players who hang on unrealistically end up
in a bad situation.

I like to think that I recruit students with a good-faith belief that
they have a realistic chance of developing their potential and getting
the good jobs in science.  However, I DO know that statistically they
aren't all going to be faculty somewhere in ten years.  I also try very
hard to figure out when I'm not doing someone any favors by hanging onto
them as a permanent grad student or postdoc.  The problem is, we're
human too, and it's easier to give a second-rate student a PhD and shove
them out the door into permanent postdocland than to fail them at prelim
time or, even worse, the dissertation defense, which are the major
places where a PhD committee has any say on the fate of a student.
Doing this also risks pissing off your colleagues, and you have to work
with them after the student is gone, one way or another.

For the student, the problem with building a safety net on the side is
that it detracts from your ability to succeed in the primary career.
Thus, unless you want to do some kind of research where you need to do
human subjects, I would still recommend the "naked PhD".  The MD/PhD's
who succeed are even more hard-charging than the regular MDs and PhDs,
they aren't getting the extra degree as insurance.

Is this an evil and exploitative system? Maybe, I'm not sure, but it's
the system we've got.  I still think the original poster should go for
it if research is what he really wants to do.  Just go in with your eyes
open and do an honest self-evaluation every now and then.  BTW, I still
worry about being weeded out at this level for what it's worth.  I'm
still playing the game because they still let me and because I still
love the science.

p.s. noticed that whoami has a address...which means that s/he
could even be someone in my lab!

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