More on jobs & Ph.D.s

By Razib Khan | July 10, 2012 1:01 am

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
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  • Markk

    So when will Post Docs start deciding that the value of their position is less than the value of the non-academic position and stop doing them? Won’t that be the tipping point where current policy which assumes ultra cheap labor is available for academic research fails?

    Are grad students still somehow being led down the garden path? You would have to be pretty naive at this point to not see what lies ahead on their careers.

  • I_Affe

    Go figure out how to manipulate a data frame while your gel is running.

    It’s like you’re right behind me! I’ve got a gel running right now and I’m going through this book again.

    I know several people doing a lot of comp work, particularly people studying evolution, who, if they don’t get academic jobs, most likely have the computing skills to get a good job in industry.

  • James

    I think “physicists” s/b “physicist”.

  • http://rxnm.wordpress.com miko

    I think Markk is right for an efficient market, but academic science training creates a sunk cost fallacy. When you’ve already committed 7 or 8 or 10 years of your life to one career path, it is hard to be a rational actor with regard to the value of the effort already expended. In defense of trainees, it is difficult to make training decisions for the job market 10 years in the future. When I chose to pursue (i.e., apply for a program) a neuroscience PhD in 2001, things were very, very different. Who knows how they will be in 2023?

    Certainly institutions do lead grad students down the garden path. Most PIs would deny they do, while at the same time taking as many trainees as they are able. Actions > words. Because academic biology is only “training” for academic biology, the skills are poorly transferable. Besides pharma, my impression is that the #2 non-academic career path for biomedical PhDs form elite institutions is management consulting, a field where you don’t need any skills but which values prestige and willingness to work 80 hour weeks. Why aren’t biomedical PhDs taught transferrable skills? Well, who would do it? And why? A PI’s concern is that a student produce 1-2 quality papers that advance the work of the lab.

    Physics does have more transferrable skills because physics reduces at one remove to highly generalizable mathematical skills that work in finance, all kinds of industry, etc. Most biologists still generally get abysmal quantitative analysis training.

    I happen to have a skill set that is relatively rare and did get me a great job offer in pharma — as in actual research projects that use my skills and fit my interests, rather than pipette monkey — which I turned down to spend the coming year on the academic job market. I have some things in my favor and some major things against, but irrational actor that I am, I figure the Concorde fallacy is only a fallacy if it doesn’t work out.

    In the mean time, despite my cynicism about nepotism and peerage on the academic job market, if you love science and experimental research, there is no better job in the world than postdoc. I have literally no responsibilities except to do the work I want to do. I can at least enjoy that while it lasts.

    As for blue collar skills: The guys hanging drywall and doing electrical are the only ones who can afford to eat in the cafe in my research building. I live in something of an economic bubble, but our plumber was pissing and moaning during the worst of the crisis about how he was only looking at a $150K year, then he took off for one of his beach houses. Things are tougher at the very bottom of the skill/ability ladder than for people with PhDs or the rest of the educated elite. What else is new? But I’m much poorer than every tradesperson I’ve ever interacted with, and they start earning very early in life.

    Jebus…sorry to rant…

  • Jess

    Considering that you are discussing the transferring of skill sets to other occupations, I do not think it is entirely fair to lump astronomers and physicists together. So far the only use I’ve found for my skills observing dust formation in supernovae is… supernovae. It doesn’t have much real-world value, and people hiring physicists have more than enough applied scientists to choose from.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    My brother is in much the same place as the woman in the original article. His PHD is in English with a concentration in Medieval Studies, but after a postdoc, he has been unable to find a tenure-track position. He fell into college administration (essentially running university honors programs) since his wife had a tenure-track position and they wanted to offer him something.

    I think, though, there’s a couple of things at work here for why “underemployment” of academics stings. First is the sunk cost – sadly PHD programs train you to be a specialist in one narrow area, and if you can’t use your years of schooling towards that in your ultimate profession, those seem like wasted years indeed. The second is just generic upper-middle class entitlement. We live in a culture which cultivates the idea that you must love your job, but you also cannot do a job “beneath you.”

    But I believe the strongest reason is traditional PHD programs tend to disproportionately attract people who want to do everything they can to *not* have a generic job in business. The reasons range from personal distaste to outright hostility to capitalism, but a job in the academy is seen as some safe, walled-off-space from the nauseating business-focused world. This admittedly runs in a spectrum, with many focusing on the “hard” sciences planning on corporate careers from the start, edging down through the less practical science degrees, through most of the social sciences (economics excluded) and the humanities. People may eventually, when faced with other options, resign themselves to whatever their profession turns out to be, but the ones enthused with the idea of a business-focused professional career selected for those paths already.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    As for blue collar skills: The guys hanging drywall and doing electrical are the only ones who can afford to eat in the cafe in my research building. I live in something of an economic bubble, but our plumber was pissing and moaning during the worst of the crisis about how he was only looking at a $150K year, then he took off for one of his beach houses. Things are tougher at the very bottom of the skill/ability ladder than for people with PhDs or the rest of the educated elite. What else is new? But I’m much poorer than every tradesperson I’ve ever interacted with, and they start earning very early in life.

    yes. but these highly skilled blue -collar people are rare. far rarer in the non-college population than tenure track biology ph.d.s 5 years out!

  • Hillary

    What this sort of says to me is that those who seek their PhD (the smartest and most dedicated of the smart and dedicated) are crying poor because they cannot find their way to a well-paying job (and while I doubt any of them were laboring under the impression that they would get rich in academia during their studies, considering the “hireability” of a supremely focused degree should probably factor into some of the coursework…). Perhaps it would have been worthwhile for those struggling to develop a set of broader skills and/or find a way to create a use for their skills (ie, starting their own business). It is heartbreaking to hear that the worlds most educated minds are not able to find a use for their skills when these are the minds that should be creating opportunities for those less blessed in the intelligence/dedication departments. This does not speak highly of the intelligence honing PhD candidates receive during their academic work. (Spoken as a BS [concentration in animal science, minor in biology] who had to figure out a way to pay the bills while in college and decided that undergrad was far enough to make that happen.)

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    Perhaps it would have been worthwhile for those struggling to develop a set of broader skills and/or find a way to create a use for their skills (ie, starting their own business).

    true. people should develop strong enough quantitative skills that they can get jobs on finance! :-)

  • Karl Zimmerman

    One additional thought:

    Given there are a lot of above-average people who are in theory capable of high-quality work, but in practice underemployed, it occurs to me there’s a huge human capital resource which employers themselves could harness. Especially considering studies suggest that IQ is a much better determination of competence in a job than previous educational focus. For example, a service which develops an IQ-like aptitude and interest test, which then matches people up with fields they never would have thought to go into (and employers which never would have considered hiring them). Perhaps offering some minimal online training courses to go along with it as needed to further hone skills.

    Honestly, this would be much preferable across a broad range of professions to our current system of higher education in general, but there’s no reason we can’t do it after the fact.

  • Chad

    I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I saw the writing on the wall a while back when still in the first years of grad school. I love Biology, but I also quickly realized that if I spent all my time with a pipette in hand I would be in a tight spot. So I actively pursued “large-scale biology”….projects that require me spending as much time sitting at a computer as at the bench. It forced me to learn more statistics than a standard t-test and how to program. I can do all the bench work, but I can also analyze large scale data and could easily transfer my skills to things outside of Biology and I am prepared to do so.

    Its a sad fact that grad schools have not really kept pace in educating their students in the skills the need even for the directions that Biology is heading. Biology is becoming big data, lots of informatics. It requires a different level of thinking more akin to what physicists have done for years. Its also a much more transferable skill. But your typical PhD will still find himself tied to the lab bench, learning skills that make him an excellent technician, but not necessarily a good scientist.

  • Jonathan

    And? People in China have it a lot worse than people in the US. And people in India have it a lot worse than people in China. And people in the Congo have it a lot worse than people in India. Should that mean only people in the Congo are allowed to blog about how shitty their conditions are?

  • Devon Birdsall

    Uh, U.S. companies like IBM etc. outsource jobs to other countries where they pay less for labor. To make matters worse, U.S. companies also hire from other countries by sponsoring skilled labor (e.g. software engineers) but not paying them as much as U.S. citizens and these people are not promoted and don’t receive salary increases until their perm resident status is approved, which is limited in number (per USCIS) according to country. So U.S. companies get an couple from India working in Virginia on a work visa for 7 years for less pay and benefits than U.S. workers. This couple from India occupies a slot that could be filled by U.S. citizen workers but is not. Pool companies recruit from overseas and pay minimum wage for lifeguards, many of which remain in the U.S. (illegally) after the summer stint is over and still work as lifeguards only part-time with no benefits, which is not audited. My HVAC company also sponsors foreign workers and pay them less than minimum wage since they are being trained. As soon as their perm res. comes through, they are fired. Compounding all this is the cost of an education here. Education is much less expensive in Canada and elsewhere so people can get advanced degrees without it costing them the price of a house. You’re correct. My husband has worked in IT his entire career (>20 yrs) and I am just finishing a grad degree in cybersecurity after an undergrad in computer & info science. They schools teach you old stuff, old material (from 2006) is in their “custom” and costly books, & I think I should go to the Computer Learning Institute and get a better hands-on education but I don’t since somehow the education should be a good part of a resume. So, the lack of jobs is not wholly due to lack of demand in the U.S. – it has more to do with the demand being filled elsewhere or by foreign workers (sponsored by companies) living here waiting for a green card. Oh, and those undocumented workers also scout around to marry U.S. citizens – the EZ pass route. I’m not saying I wouldn’t do the same thing if I were them, I’m just explaining some factors that I think have helped to make the job market is so dismal.

  • Ed

    @10

    I agree (regarding your idea for IQ/aptitude tests). In my opinion, they should also be implemented throughout a child’s scholastic career. The market is currently flooded with BA/BS holders and only about 50% of them can obtain a job in the field they studied for. Too many (would be) chiefs and not enough Indians… As the saying goes.

    What I think is already happening is an adaptation of certain vocational training policies from the German model, wherein the public school system takes an active role in determining what careers are best for the individual as well as what’s in demand for their economy.

  • http://mikethemadbiologist.com Mike the Mad Biologist

    “More to the point, some of my friends crunching through large data sets have plenty of transferable skills.”

    I think that’s the key thing here. Biologists are smart and skilled (we’re starting to get out on the far end of the curve regardless of who’s smarter), but the bench skills (and field biology skills) aren’t transferable–something Jessica Palmer discussed a couple of years ago.

  • BDoyle

    Well, you could get your degree in Geophysics from Caltech and then make your money from starting a bill collection agency, but I am probably an outlier.

  • http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    What almost all physicists have, and only most life scientists have, that generalizes well is a very solid foundation of math and IT skills. There is a full employment economy for people with very solid college level math skills since they are comparatively rare.

    Many physicists who don’t do physics, for example, do quantitative modeling work on Wall Street for the derivatives industry.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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