Science is great: Just don't major in it
Yesterday I read an article about the layoffs at ABC. The author wrote that about 400 people were laid off, and interviewed one guy in particular who said he was 58 years old, had a family and "a dog who likes to be fed" and no idea how he was going to be able to get a job at his age, at a time when journalism is disappearing and the economy is still pretty shitty.
This got me thinking about how journalism, such as it used to be, is dying. I recommend checking out this blog if you don't know what I'm talking about.
Why does it matter that journalism is dying?
For one thing, I see universities going the same way: to be replaced by the internet. We should be paying attention to what is happening to journalists, because the same thing will happen to academic faculty.
Another reason to pay attention is that among the many so-called Alternative Careers science graduate programs love to tout, Science Journalism is usually listed as one of the top options.
But clearly, that's not going to absorb all the scientists leaving with masters degrees and PhDs.
I regularly receive articles about pharmaceutical and biotech layoffs. Yesterday I read one that said no one is really sure how many scientists are out of work right now, or whether it's better or worse than it was two years ago.
Really? No one is tracking this?
I regularly hear NIH and NSF saying that PhD-holding scientists supposedly have among the lowest unemployment rates, but that may be completely apocryphal, and it sounds like nobody actually has the numbers to back it up.
Which would not surprise me, considering that no one was tracking postdocs at all until about 5 years ago. How could they possibly know? There isn't exactly a strong biotech-wide union.
What else is among the top "alternative careers" touted so widely as a solution for the overflow of PhDs who can't get academic tenure-track positions?
Teaching in public or charter schools, maybe. Sure, we need more science teachers. But where is the money for that going to come from? I read an article today about how education specialists can't decide whether charter schools are working better than public schools or not. I found many of the lessons (pun intended) quite relevant to higher education: that schools with the highest accountability showed improvement, while those that tolerated mediocrity stayed in business despite showing no progress.
What about science policy work? How many jobs can that really provide? My guess would be in the hundreds, maybe the low thousands, at most?
But we have tens of thousands of science PhDs in this country. And nobody seems to know how many are doing anything related to science within, let's say, 15 years of leaving their PhD program. Let's say you do 5-10 years of postdoc after you graduate. Then what? Where do you end up?
And sure, you can always go back to school for patent law. How many science PhDs are going into debt to attend, of all things, more school??
At some extreme, if we're really being hyperbolic and facetious, we can see how not all scientists (with degrees or otherwise) can be patent lawyers. There would be nobody left to invent or find anything worth patenting.
The article I cited in my last post talks about how undergraduate education now yields only about 8% of students majoring in the humanities. It cites a large percentage as majoring in business, but fails to mention science and engineering. I have to assume they account for the majority, which seems to be supported by data such as these.
Parents don't check these data, either. Mine didn't; others are just misled. I had a conversation with a woman recently about how she felt her daughter should major in science rather than engineering, and get a PhD so she could have more possibilities for finding work. I had to control myself to say, as calmly as possible, that she had it all backwards and wrong.
I understand that universities budget for faculty positions and building space according to student enrollment numbers in the classes. In that sense, faculty in every department want more students to choose their discipline to major in, or at least they should, because it means their department will get more money and resources. Universities are a business, and at some schools, students are treated as consumers. It is the faculty's job to woo the students. It is the students' job to choose.
Personally, I agree that humanities are a necessary ingredient to teaching critical thinking in higher education. I think humanities classes should be required; I think science requirements are less than they should be. To educate the public on science and technology-related issues, we need to start by turning out students who at least understand the basics.
Having said that, I think we've duped far too many students into majoring in science.
Then they find they can't get a job, or can't move up, without a PhD.
Then they're duped into grad school.
Then the cycle repeats, so they do a postdoc.
Then what? Cut them loose and absolve everyone of any guilt? Tell the student "you chose to do this"?
The least we could do is collect the data and tell the truth.
Students: you'd be better off choosing an alternative that will guarantee you can find work.
In the interest of full disclosure, I don't know what the best alternative is now; I don't know what it will be 15 years from now, but I can almost certainly guarantee that it will keep changing every few years. It's no secret that people tend to run in herds. Baby names are trendy; so are majors and careers.
Some disciplines seem to have it all figured out. I've heard of some departments choosing to be exclusive, admitting fewer majors and building up their reputation as a great department by taking only the best students they can get, rather than trying to earn strength by numbers. Those people seem to have no trouble finding jobs when they get out.
I don't know if the secret is in top-down regulation of earlier specialization, having more but smaller departments, or more options for specialized majors, but it might help control and direct the pipeline. It would be a way to potentially combat the common misconception that there are plenty of jobs for everyone who majors in science.
One final thought from this particular soap-box: I still think one of the major problems with the approach to careers in science is the overly long incubation time. Part of the disconnect between input of students majoring in science, and output into an actual job, is the lag time.
I often think if I had gone to a vocational school or majored in engineering that at least I could have gotten a "real job" after just 4 years (or less) of classes.
Nobody can see 4 years into the future, whether the oil spill in the Gulf will completely kill the fishing industry, or whether in another 4 years after that, it might come back.
Even fewer people can say that in 10 years, there will be jobs for people with PhDs in X sub-speciality of biotech.
Fewer still can say that in 15 years, there will be jobs only for people who did a PhD in X and a postdoc in Y and published papers on L, M, N, O and P.
But that's how it actually is right now. Does that sound very scientific?
So spin your dice. You either have to be psychic, or very, very lucky.