Why getting a science PhD is a bit insane

Anyone trying to go into academic science these days either needs to be a little bit masochistic or a lot bit delusional.
Why? Well, because life in science research is rough. (Note: my personal experience is in biological/biomedical research, so specific details will correspond with that world unless otherwise noted)

For starters, the path to professorship is long: 4 years of undergraduate education, 5-7 years in graduate school, and an unknown number of years in several postdoctoral research positions mean that at best, you’re getting your first faculty job in your mid-thirties.
This late-ish start is problematic for several reasons. First, if you plan to have a family, you either need to start it during your many years of training positions, start it while you’re working your ass off trying to start your lab and earn tenure, or you can wait until after all of that and hope to god you’re still fertile when things finally ‘settle down’. Secondly, all those training positions usually pay at or just above subsistence level, so by your mid-thirties (or later!), you have little-to-no savings. Oh, and that professorship job you snagged? Probably only pays 50-60k. In fact, after all these many years of training and poor pay, even when you make full professor, you’ll probably only make about 100k.
But that is all assuming, of course, that you ever get an academic appointment. Odds are, you won’t.

See, all the many years of training and making far less money than if you’d gone into industry or gotten a professional degree… those might be worth it for the payoff of the magical world of professorship. I mean, it’s the dream, right? Getting paid to study whatever you want, getting to share that passion with bright young minds?
There are two problems with this. First, as I said before, the vast majority of PhD grads don’t make it—instead heading out of academia or out of science altogether after graduate school or after a postdoc or two. Secondly, the dream is just not what it once was.
Consider the perspective of this computer scientist, who left a tenured faculty position for industry.

Traditionally, universities compensate for the disparity [in financial compensation between industry and the academy] with broad intellectual freedom, a flexible schedule, and the joy of mentoring new generations of students. But all of the trends I have outlined above have cut into those compensations, leaving faculty members underpaid, but with little to show for it. As one of my colleagues remarked when I announced my departure, “We’re being paid partly in cool. If you take away the cool parts of the job, you might as well go make more money elsewhere.”

What trends is this professor talking about? Well, it all comes back to money.

Research funding comes mostly from government grants, and those have gotten harder and harder to get. That means more time spent writing grants just to stay afloat. Without getting big money grants, you can’t get tenure. If you have tenure, but can’t keep up funding, you can’t pay to take on students or staff. The other source of funding for professors is institutional, and for public institutions, that has been shrinking as well, due to shrinking state budgets.

So given all of that, being an investigator is looking a lot less shiny to me these days. That said, it wasn’t exactly my goal: going into grad school I was pretty much expecting to go into one of the dreaded ‘alternative’ careers, and I had accepted the fact that I was going to spend 6ish years working my ass off and making shit money before getting there. I mean, that’s still 6 years contributing to science, right? And learning stuff? That’s worth a bit of hard work, is it not?

But even given the fact that I went in fully aware of the uphill battle I was facing, I found the realities of graduate school even uglier than I’d imagined.

Why? Because the culture of academic science has always been um… intense… and funding woes have cranked that up to 11. I’ll tell you a little more about that tomorrow, because right now this post is getting a bit long.

3 thoughts on “Why getting a science PhD is a bit insane

  1. You’re right about all of this. But, after my pessimistic comment on your other post (in the other blog) I’m going to inconsistently leave a hopeful comment… A few things: 1) right now, $50-60k sounds GREAT. Yes please. Luxury here I come. 2) If you like the research and can handle the culture (which is no trivial thing; I’m often borderline) and don’t have a career alternative in mind, a PhD is subsistence money for six years with something to show for it at the end. Not savings, but a line on the CV and proof that you can think and do things. 3) It’s a great way to stall. The economy sucks? Get a PhD! Maybe at the end it will be better. Similarly, it’s also a great way to stall adulthood. 4) If you like the research, then sometimes, it will be cool and rewarding and you’ll be happy. Not always or even most of the time, necessarily, but sometimes. In my case, I’ve found it to be extremely hard (in every way – intellectual difficulty is the least of my worries), but sometimes I get to hold birds. Not very many people get to do that.

    Plus, what with degree inflation, you can’t just have a bachelor’s anymore!

  2. 1) Agreed, but I wouldn’t exactly want to say, raise a family on it.
    2,3) True, of course. I kind of came to grad school in the first place partly for the subsistence money and the stalling. I was pretty sure I wanted the PhD, but I might have tried working for a year first if the economy had been better. And now that I’m mastering out of one PhD program, I find it pretty hard to imagine convincing myself to go back. That said, if it’s the only way for me to get a job with benefits before I turn 26…I’ll probably give in and do it.

  3. Excellent post….

    First some disclosure. I’m in the UK, full professor, and finished my phd 20 years ago. Being in the UK also makes the timescale less: we try to get PhD students through in 3 1/2 years and are not happy if people take more than about 4.5.

    First, I have sometimes said a PhD is something you should do even when everyone has told you not to. I think there are lots of jobs and vocations like that. I guess the main thing I would say is to do a PhD for the fun and fulfillment of doing it. And although yes faculty jobs are more pressured than grad students would think, there is still a lot of freedom during the PhD itself.

    I did get funded to do my phd, but my stipend was ridiculously low (put it this way, stipends in the UK have roughly doubled in real terms since I did my PhD). But one day I overheard a colleague saying “It’s great… I get to think about exactly what I want to, and then every once in a while somebody sends me a cheque to live on.” That did change my attitude for the better.

    Also I’m a Computer Scientist, and that post about leaving academia is from another Computer Scientist. Something I often tell students at any level – I think I got this from a former head of department – is that in CS the jobs out of academia can be just as intellectually challenging as inside. The reason is that computers are superb at doing the same thing over and over again, so nobody gets employed to do the same thing over and over. Everything you do is a new challenge. I don’t know if it’s true in other disciplines, but for that reason I’d never be one of those people asking Terran Lane why they were leaving academia.

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