Career in the Microbio Sciences

Jim Hu jimhu at
Tue Feb 15 13:04:34 EST 2000

First, thanks for the vote of confidence, such as it is ;^)

I don't think that being very very afraid is very productive, but I do think
you have to be realistic about your chances.
The point of the baseball analogy is mostly that science is not like most
professions...we haven't even touched on the how it affects other aspects of
your life if you do stay in it; e.g. the number of hours you need to put into
it and how that affects your ability to socialize/have relationships with
nonscientists.  My friends talk about "lab time" as being different from normal
time - if I say I'll be at work just a few more minutes, that means anything
from a few minutes to several hours.  However, I digress, and that aspect is
also true for many workaholic-infested professions in modern life.

Chris points out that baseball players make multimillion dollar salaries and
scientists don't (unless they have very successful companies on the side). This
misses the point somewhat.  The payoff for me is in the activity itself.  Yes,
I like raises and better salaries as much as the next person, but there is an
aspect of it that is like the ballplayer saying they'd play for free (while his
agent is setting up a holdout for big $$$).

There are many other lower paying activities that can be substituted for
baseball in the analogy - I just went to a concert/open discussion where
guitarist Elliot Fisk mentioned that music conservatories are putting out
musicians and training them as if they're all going to be soloists with the NY
Philharmonic when there are 200 applicants for jobs like second tuba of the
Tulsa symphony.  What fraction of actors/musicians/dancers make it?  What
fraction of students who want to paint or sculpt for a living?  I would guess
that  compared to Ph.D. scientists, the attrition, pay, benefits and future
prospects are all worse (DISCLAIMER - this is based on no data at all).  What
these have in common with science as a career is that people do these things to
satisfy an obsession.  They view this reward as worth the risks involved.  This
means that going to grad school as a way to mark time because you didn't get
into med school is a bad idea.

The number 200-300 applicants per job is often thrown out to scare prospective
scientists.  However, two things make this number sound worse than it really
is.  First, the same people are applying for a pool of similar jobs at many
universities/companies.  A much better estimate is made on Art Sowers' web site
where he gets a ballpark number of about 3 jobs per 8 applicants.  Still not
full employment, but much better than 1 in 200.  The second thing that makes
this sound worse than it is: a significant fraction (<5/8 however) of those
applicants really aren't qualified.  They have the requisite numbers of PhDs
and publications and letters, but they're the science equivalent of the
ballplayers (sorry I'm stuck on this analogy) who blew out their arms, got drug
problems, or couldn't hit the big league curveball.  Yes, there are people who
get thrown into that category unfairly for all of the reasons described on the
Sowers site.  But there are also people who you wouldn't want to see running a
lab or teaching a bunch of undergrads.  If you have a PhD you probably can
think of other people who got through the system who fit that description.
Also, although it's true that people can be unjustly labelled as cranks (again,
Sowers describes how this happens better than I could), BUT there are also PhDs
out there who really are cranks.

I guess my basic point is that IF this is the career you really want, then it's
not insane to pursue it.  It is not quite as impossible as it sometimes seems.
However, it is riskier than many other honorable and rewarding careers.

Finally, I absolutely agree that that you want to be very careful in choosing
grad schools, mentors, postdocs and jobs.  One thing that I really appreciated
about my postdoc mentor is that one of the first things he said to me when we
just starting to discuss the possibility of my joining his lab was: "we need to
think about what kind of project you can take with you when you leave."

Chris Larosa wrote:

> Jim Hu writes a cute analogy of science to sports.  A few points:   those
> who get in the big leagues dont command multimillion dollar salaries, so the
> payoff after 6 years of grad school, 2 , 4 or 6 yrs of additional post
> docing is much much less.   He acknowledges that some will not make it. Some
> dont make it as doctors who go to med schools.  However, the proportions of
> those who make it and dont make it are hugely different.  From what Hu
> writes, he sounds like an ethical guy perhaps someone you might want to work
> for.   But not all professors have the ethical standards in practice that he
> professes.  If your going to graduate school you have to be very very
> discriminating because the nake PhD system is unregulated,,,unlike the
> professional degree system for MDs, DDs, Veterinarians.   There are lots of
> interesting and facinating subjects in science to study.... but the number
> of real jobs after all that training is very very small.    In cell biology,
> biochemistry, plant biology there are about 200 to 300 good applicants and
> in the background similar numbers of post docs waiting for their opportunity
> who cant apply because the job description is not a perfect fit, they are
> not competent, not quite ready.... what have you.
> If your contemplating graduate school, afraid,,,be very very afraid.
> PCPhD........

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