The Project for Non-Academic Science

By Sean Carroll | July 27, 2009 5:50 pm

Not all scientists work at universities. (Maybe not even most? I honestly don’t know the breakdown.) But people who do work at colleges and universities sometimes talk as if that’s all there is, or that becoming a professor is the only logical goal for those pursuing a scientific degree — not necessarily from snootiness or elitism, but just because that’s what they know.

So it’s great that Chad Orzel has done a series of short interviews with scientists outside academia, and is gradually blogging the results. It’s a nice little bit of informal sociology of the field, and a useful resource for anyone who might be contemplating such a career path themselves.

Chad, as you probably know, has also written a book that will be coming out later this year. And he’s supposed to be doing scientific research, and keeps up an active blog! How is that possible?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Internet, Science and Society
  • http://thesciencepundit.blogspot.com/ The Science Pundit

    Having spent 20+ years as a lab tech for chemical companies, most PhD’s I know are not in academia (they’re also mostly chemists). :-)

  • http://jacobrussellsbarkingdog.blogspot.com Jacob Russell

    How many are not bought and paid for the corporations that emply them to do what they want?

  • http://jacobrussellsbarkingdog.blogspot.com Jacob Russell

    I think of the “climate scientists” who work, directly or indirectly, for oil and coal interests.

    Excuse me for being indelicatge here… but all whores are not engaged in the sex industry.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    About those industry whores:
    What about the engineers who design the coal burning powerplants, the materials scientists who figure out what to make supercritical boilers out of, the geologists who find the coal, the chemists who design the flue scrubbers?

    Or if you prefer renewables, who designs wind turbine rotors or photovoltaic semiconductors?

    Or on the nuclear side-
    Nah. There’s no science in nuclear technology.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    “How many are not bought and paid for the corporations that emply them to do what they want?”

    Almost everyone in the world does as his job that which his employer pays him to do. An extremely small minority have the luxury to do what they want and perhaps even get paid
    for it, but it is extremely arrogant to look down on those who are less fortunate and dismiss
    them as whores (not that that is not an honourable job, but it was used disparagingly here).

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    Among students, there are certainly other options, as most don’t go into research. But if one does go into research, the only point is to obtain a permanent position (which in many cases is a professorship; some institutes might have other (usually less prestigious) permanent positions). Why else would one suffer through a string of badly paid (compared to what the same person at the same time could make elsewhere) temporary positions which usually require one moving house every couple of years (and with no guarantee of actually getting a permanent job later on)? So it’s no surprise that those who go into research talk about nothing else—if they were interested in something else, they would no longer be in research.

    In other words, there’s a huge selection effect here. Essentially everyone beyond the status of student has decided to go into research and remain in academia, and the only viable option is a permanent job in academia. The other people who follow other options are no longer around.

    While it is possible to leave research and get a job elsewhere at a relatively ripe age, this is usually the path followed by those who (due to their own weakness or due to circumstances beyond their control) wanted to stay in research but didn’t make it. If one wants to do well outside of academia, it’s probably best to leave after the first degree. Having done several years as a postdoc is of essentially no value for most non-academic jobs.

  • CJ

    Industry whores? Is that an implication that academics have no external pressure on them? The last time I checked, most research institutions require government grants and other large sources of funding. Getting a grant is not easy to begin with, but it’s even harder to get a grant to research something of minor significance. Try getting a grant by saying, “This project will explore how human activities affect climate variation. Climate variation may cause minor problems such as increasing water levels and weather anomalies.” How much easier it would be to get a grant by saying, “This project will explore Global Climate Change caused by irresponsible human activities. Global Climate Change will inevitably lead to a disastrous rise in ocean levels, destruction of the ecosystem, increased frequency of destructive weather extremes, and worldwide economic collapse.”

    Large sums of money are needed for most research. If you think taking funding for that research makes one a whore, then academics and industry scientists are all whores who just differ on which street corner they work.

    Of course, the other possiblity is that they are all professionals doing their job the best they know how. But I guess I’m just a Pollyanna for believing that.

  • http://togroklife.com greg

    Being from Durham, NC, home of the Research Triangle Park and the son of a non-academic biologist, maybe I was biased growing up, but I never considered academia even close to being the majority job base for scientists

  • CW

    This is not in response to this particular post, but there is relevance. Respected film critic (and amateur philosopher?), Roger Ebert, had some musings on quantum physics and reincarnation.

    http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2009/07/everymans_guide_to_quantum_the.html

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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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