Career in the Microbio Sciences

Arthur Sowers arthures at
Tue Feb 15 19:45:09 EST 2000

I'm happy to say that Jim Hu has a good outlook on the realities of the
"sci career." I could make a few comments here and there, but on the whole
I don't think its necessary. Although my website is a, sort-of, roadmap of
the bumps, quicksand, landmines, enemy territory (you all need to have
your radar turned on, and look over your shoulders [because that's where
the backstabs come from]), bomb targets, and the "lottery of life"
(meaning _luck_), one can get information about what to seek (finding a
good postdoc position, what needs to be in a CV, etc.). 

Art Sowers

On Tue, 15 Feb 2000, Jim Hu wrote:

> 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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