Career in the Microbio Sciences

Arthur Sowers arthures at
Tue Feb 15 10:58:06 EST 2000

I don't think "whoami" is in Jim Hu's lab (I know whoami), but Jim has a
realistic viewpoint on the career picture. Personally I wish larger
fractions of PhDs could expect more lifelong careers (such as MDs get,
military school graduates who are offered comissions, etc.) and I wish the
expansion of the number of postdocs to faculty could be reversed (to
prevent the expansion of a permanent scientist underclass). To be sure,
many will have a satisfying science career. However, I am concerned about
all the equally competant PhDs who will go down in flames due to
circumstances beyond their control. Most other pursuits in life will also
go down in flames (eg. the baseball example attrtition that Jim talks
about), but for the biology PhD who will spend fivish years in grad school
and another fivish years (too often more) in a postdoc, and then get
dumped out on the street in their late 30s its a bad ending. 

As a former research professor at a fairly up-and-coming medical school
(UMAB), I've had the feeling that medical schools do a lot more for their
MD-seeking students than their PhD-seeking students. And, after the MD
passes through a post-doc-like residency, they step into a career that is
better paid, better respected, and more likely to be life-long. I think
PhDs deserve more of this than they are getting. Too many PhDs end up in
adjunct (low pay, low job security, low respect, low or no benefits, low
or no retirement, etc.) slots.  

I also wish PhD faculty would get together and take some responsibility
for not just mentoring but coming to consensus about altering PhD
production, and the "science culture," to favor long careers for more
instead of less. Otherwise its a waste of training grant money AND
individual human beings. If a grad student is not good enough to "make"
PhD, then he/she shouldn't get it. As it is now, the PhD is, and maybe
already has become, a watered down degree that has no value other than as
a license to hold a postdoc, which is an adjunct-equivalent position.

I would be willing to post Jim Hu's statement, as it is written, on my
website if he gives me permission.

  Arthur E. Sowers, PhD
| Science career information websites:  |
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=== no change to below, included for reference and context ====

On Mon, 14 Feb 2000, Jim Hu wrote:

> 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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