Realities of doing science
post at newsgroup.please
Wed Jun 23 00:10:22 EST 1999
In article <37698897.C9E147E8 at salk.edu>, nospamforsburg at salk.edu wrote:
<snip description of conditions>
> However, I also get to think more about science and less about
> teaching or committees. I have exciting colleagues. I have
> great students and postdocs. If it weren't for the financial
> constraints, this would be a scientist's heaven. Because
> I simply can't imagine not doing science.
> In short, every way of doing science costs. We are not paid what
> we're worth, and our postdocs CERTAINLY aren't paid what they're
> worth. Stress is enormous and draining. You do this not because it's
> a good career --any sensible business-student will tell you you're crazy--
> but because you simply can't imagine not doing it.
> And if you can ever imagine not doing it, then take pride in what you
> did along the way and move on.
At least two posters have said "I can't imagine not doing science." I
can't believe this is literally true (or at least I hope it isn't). Do you
really mean to say that everyone with an imagination is getting out?
> One of the things that puzzles me is why everyone seems so
> surprised to find that this is an ill-paid, stressful,
> demanding and at times vicious profession. (Not directed at you,
> Julia--you always have your eyes open, one of the advantages of
I suppose it's directed at me, at least in part. Ok, the reason I'm
surprised at finding out is that I'm amazed that intelligent people put up
with the working conditions common in science, and I'm amazed that more
people haven't quit already. Maybe for someone who has advanced as far as
you have, it's more rewarding, because you have more control over your
research and coworkers.
My peer group has very little control, except to quit playing the game.
With few jobs beyond postdocs, no fun, no control and poor prospects,
quitting research science looks like the rational thing to do for most of
us. Something's seriously wrong if that is the case.
One symptom of trouble is the blame applied to people who criticize
science. Things like, "if you wanted money you shouldn't have been a
scientist." Or, "you should have known what you were getting into." This
kind of statement is extremely common. Also, (and I am not accusing you of
this) there's enormous peer pressure on those who want to get out, by
calling people who leave "failures," "whiners," and "quitters." They must
not "love science", or be "real scientists." This helps maintain the
status quo by placing all blame on the messenger and none on the system.
It's almost like leaving a religious cult.
In fact, I'm beginning to think that in some ways participating in the
scientific community is like practicing an odd religion in which you have
to forswear all worldly things, and believe an arbitrary dogma (for
example, that doing science is Really Really Fun, even though most of the
scientists you run into look miserable and take Prozac). Certainly,
scientific heretics get persecuted.
> the mature student). No one does this without
> working in a lab. No graduate student is unexposed to faculty
> and postdoctoral suffering. What possible excuse is there to
> expect it to be different? (That doesn't mean it shouldn't
> BE different, just that no one should be surprised it isn't).
I expect all careers to have reasonable working conditions, or else some
offsetting factor like big money or being unusually enjoyable (obviously
if careers were perfectly enjoyable, they wouldn't be defined as work.)
I think that I'm offending people by saying that science isn't enjoyable.
Well, it isn't, for those of us on the bottom. Look around. Where's all
this fun? I just don't see people having a great time in my peer group.
And, even if a few people are having some fun, does it make sense to trade
all the other rewarding parts of your life for the occasional joy from
Requiring scientists to be stressed workaholics is especially ridiculous.
Stressed-out scientists can't think clearly or even pipet accurately.
After the first ten consecutive hours in lab, my productivity drops
rapidly. I don't think I'm alone.
> Whose responsibility is it? Lots of students blame the faculty
> but I am tired of this. Times have been tough in this business
Whose responsibility do you think it is?
"The faculty" looks like a good candidate to me. I admit I'd qualify that
to "the senior faculty," since the junior faculty is pretty oppressed and
distressed themselves due to tenure pressures and the senior faculty.
I think "the faculty" is under grant pressure, and they are passing it on
by slaving their workers. Even the reasonably benevolent supervisors must
make these demands, or they'll be forced out. Why are they under grant
pressure? "The faculty" trained too many scientists. It's the tragedy of
> since I was an undergraduate in the early 80s and while
> I did my share of complaining, I certainly always knew what
> I was getting into. Grad students are not children; they are
> adults. If this career isn't what you want to do, that's
> your decision to make, and your responsibility.
> Why should we expect science to be any different than any other
> creative profession? How many actors move to New York every year
> hoping to make it big on the Broadway? How many music students
> will ever play in a major orchestra? And although the rewards
> are different, how many kids playing ball after school will
> ever make it to the NBA?
> I just don't understand why so many young scientists feel they are
> owed something. The PhD is not a union card.
Well, I never heard that there was a shortage of would-be actors and
musicians. When I started my PhD, however, there was supposed to be a big
shortage of scientists right about now. Turns out that was propaganda.
Silly me, I believed the National Research Council and the National
Academy of Sciences.
Here's an interesting site that discusses these predictions:
I didn't expect a guaranteed job. On the other hand, I didn't expect to
get involved in a late-stage pyramid scheme set up by the scientific
So, I feel cheated. Along with many other young scientists.
But more than that: I'm disillusioned. I thought science was a
meritocracy. It isn't. Bootlicking, male bonding and a talent for
bureaucracy take one much further in science than intellect ever will.
> As an end to itself, it is intrinsically valuable and it opens
> many possibilities--you can do so many things with it, and you
> certainly managed to grow as a person by achieving the degree.
> It's a badge of honor but not a guarentee. If you really want to
> change the academic system, get in here and help me
> change it--I could use the help. But it's up to you to keep
> your eyes open, to know
> what the system is and decide whether you want to be a part of it.
> And if it's what you want, then you should do it.
By leaving, I *am* changing the system. The pyramid scheme will eventually
collapse when there are no more suckers. Sooner or later the taxpayers
will get tired of training primarily foreign students on their dollar, and
the system will change.
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