First, I’m sure that the blue-collar readers of this weblog are thinking “cry me a river.” Yes, American scientists (perhaps excluding engineers, and to a lesser extent pharmaceutical researchers) are generally Left-liberal, but the collapse of the American working class due to globalization is something that they fixate on only as part of a broader political vision, along with other concerns. But when it comes to tenure-track jobs, the end is nigh! Consider that the woman who seems to have “wasted” a neuroscience Ph.D. in yesterday’s Washington Post article now has a job in academic administration. This is the sort of failure that manual laborers and factory workers alike would probably kill for.
But in any case, some more posts for you. Reader Miko reflects on searching for a job, Mike the Mad Biologist keeps doing his thing, and fellow Discover blogger Julianne on Subtleties of the Crappy Job Market for Scientists:
However, difficulty finding a “long term academic position” is not the same thing as difficulty finding a job. Buried in those same articles is the fact that the unemployment rate for physicists (which likely mirrors that of astronomers) is between 1-2%. In contrast, the lab-based biologists and chemists (which are the focus of the articles) are not finding employment at all, or if they do, it’s frequently in a position that makes no use of their technical skills.
To me, what this implies is that most of the skills mastered by PhD-level lab-based scientists are not readily transferable to other jobs, and are not easily generalized (or at least, are not perceived as generalizable by employers). The ability to work well in a lab setting is only valuable if the economy supports large numbers of labs. Industry used to host these, but the era of corporate research is largely over.
More succinctly, I think the average physicist is smarter than the average biologist. More to the point, some of my friends crunching through large data sets have plenty of transferable skills. There are biologists, and then there are biologists. Go figure out how to manipulate a data frame while your gel is running.