Amid the recent economic downturn, there has been a lot of criticism of my generation. We say we have no jobs? Well, we’re lazy; we expect everything to be handed to us; we don’t plan for the future and then complain when the future is not good. That’s why we don’t have jobs. One common refrain is “well you should have majored in a STEM field, not the humanities, and you’d have a reliable job.”
It’s certainly true that there are jobs in the STEM fields. It’s true that a degree in biology, for instance, teaches you skills like data management and statistics which may be transferable to normal jobs. Recent census data shows that only 1 in 4 people with a bachelors degree in a STEM field go on to a job in those fields. So: there aren’t that many jobs available, actually. Good luck getting one. (Also, no shock here, most of the people who do get these jobs are men.)
It’s also interesting to hear people’s reactions when I say that I am about to start a PhD program. Getting a PhD is still so respected, so mythical: people tell me that they could never imagine receiving a PhD offer, much less doing the work to get the degree. Maybe I’ll learn otherwise, but I disagree. Do you have to be smart? Yes. Do you have to have done good work in your career up to this point? Yes. But in my mind, the biggest challenge to a long-term research degree is working really hard, working long hours, and staying motivated when there is no end in sight and things aren’t going well. It can be a very discouraging slog; many people hate their PhD project by the time they finish.
But more and more people are finishing. More and more degrees are being handed out. According to the NSF, the number of doctorates awarded increases by 3.4% annually. Clearly, achieving this is not an impossible feat: it just takes a lot of sacrifices and hard work.
Hard work is something I’m good at. That’s why I feel comfortable taking on a PhD. I think I can muscle my way through. But will it matter, in the long run?
For people in our grandparents’ generation, becoming a college professor was a good, secure, respected life. By no means easy or necessarily affluent, but solidly middle-class. Things have changed. In 1969, 78% of faculty positions were tenure-track; today that number has dipped to just 33%. The good jobs are disappearing. There are three times as many part-time faculty jobs as there were then, and reports of adjunct professors who have to work at multiple schools to pay the bills, or go on food stamps. Obviously it’s not like that for every person, but it’s not good.
So once you have gotten a doctorate, the future is really no clearer or more rosy than it was before. Friends and family might consider the achievement some sort of pinnacle or achievement; the labor market might not agree. The same NSF report states,
“The proportion of doctorate recipients with definite commitments for employment or postdoctoral (postdoc) study fell in 2012 for life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering, the third consecutive year of decline in these fields. In every broad science and engineering (S&E) field, the proportion of 2012 doctorate recipients who reported definite commitments for employment or postdoc study was at or near the lowest level of the past 10 years, 2 to 11 percentage points lower than the proportion of 2002 doctorate recipients reporting such commitments.”
Only 2/3 of PhD recipients in science fields had definite employment commitments after graduation, in 2012; this was lower (closer to 60%) for life sciences, my field, than for others. If you want to stay in academia the costs are high, as a post-doctoral position earns less than half the average salary of an industry job.
I’m still not sure if I want to go down this road all the way, to become a PI (Principal Investigator: usually a professor, someone who gets a grant is in charge of a research project). But it’s clear to me that if I do, it will be challenging. I’m confident in my ability to finish a PhD, do good work, and continue to publish papers. But is this good enough to be able to have the type of life that I eventually want to have? Being smart is not enough to guarantee a professorship.
The journal/magazine Science recently made a widget for young career scientists to figure out what their chances are of becoming a PI. I filled in the information on a whim. I feel like I’m doing pretty well compared to many people at a similar point in their masters; I have a lot of research experience both in my masters and as a technician, I have a few papers published, I have made connections. I have applied for and received my own grant funding, something which is rare for students of my cohort.
Even if I don’t become a PI (or don’t want to become a PI), I think of other dream jobs – “reach goals” – and imagine that they might have similar requirements. Want to get a National Geographic Explorers Grant? Work for a nonprofit nature research group you admire in a cool part of the world? In order to choose your own future, you need to be pretty much a badass.
So I was discouraged when I saw this.
I’m a girl, so lucky me, I’m sitting at 6% with my chance of becoming a PI.
I have written, maybe on this blog or maybe just on facebook, about why there are fewer women in science. There are more women in the life sciences, actually, than men, at early career stages. But that changes over time. There was a great article about why in the New York Times last fall. Read it. But regardless, I’m pissed: it’s not fair that I’m down at 6% while the boys are so much higher.
6%!? With all the hard work I’ve already put it? It felt like an insult.
The cool thing about the widget is that you can toggle the different variables and see how the line changes. The most important thing, it seems, is the number of first-author publications you have. I began thinking about what I could change in the next year. I will move universities to a more prestigious one and start a PhD program. But hopefully, I’ll also publish more. Publication is a long process, so the odds that anything from my work this summer is published by Christmas is zero. There’s hope though. We have one paper in review which has actually come back from reviewers and is sitting on the editor’s desk: hopefully, with revisions, they will take it. I have two other papers in progress where drafts are already being circulated among co-authors. On those two, I would be first author – the coveted position which I haven’t occupied so far.
The thing that makes a difference.
If all goes well, by the end of the year my chances could look more like this.
So I have to get to work. And that’s science, for you: there is no relaxing. You’re in the field in a remote location? Doesn’t matter. You have to be working on papers. Haven’t seen your family in months? Too bad, keep working on papers. On vacation? Keep working on papers.
That’s the future I maybe have to look forward to – if I’m lucky and make it through.
I knew that it was tough to become a PI. Over the last decade, getting a tenure-track job is no longer the most common outcome for PhD recipients (and to be clear, I don’t mean the most common immediate outcome: I mean, outcome at all, even after one or a few postdoctoral positions). In the biological sciences, only 8% of PhDs receive a tenure-track job within 5 years of getting their doctorate.
If you get a postdoc, the future isn’t much better. 10% of postdocs are unemployed: that’s actually higher than our country’s unemployment rate. In 2012, 20% of postdocs were handed a faculty position.
There are many pros and cons to getting a faculty position, or a tenure-track one, at that. I’m years away from deciding if that’s right for me. But the knowledge that despite everything I’m doing, I might not be able to? It’s frustrating. It motivates me to work harder, but also to hate the system a little bit.
I have pride in the work that I do. I’m not asking anyone to hand anything to me. What irks me is that for myself and the many very talented, motivated students I work with, our work is not valued.
I hate being told I can’t do something, when I know that if I was just given a chance, I’d hit the ball out of the park.
It’s the worst feeling.
Science today is not the same as science used to be.
On a final strange yet amusing note, here’s a predatory publishing e-mail I received today! Good for some laughs – until you think that people fall for this scheme. The paper they are asking about has already been published in an established journal, downloaded hundreds of times, and has copyright. So, nope, I’m not interested in paying you to publish it in paperback…. just no.
I guess to one extent, you know you’ve made it when you start receiving predatory publishing e-mails.