Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Consider the life of a young scientist...

ERV makes an interesting suggestion to budding, young scientists. Spend some time after your undergraduate degree in a lab, prior to going to graduate school. On the surface, I agree with this suggestion. Few undergraduates have any idea of what life is like in a lab, and it's lower pressure to start out as a technician in a lab, than to start out as a graduate student. And really, having more information about a career path before you embark is a great idea.

But let's consider what the career path of a scientist looks like:

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was common for a molecular biologist to spend 4-7 years in graduate school. Often they would get a job upon completion of their graduate degree. That put them into their mid to late 20s when they were earning sufficient money to support a family, buy a house, and live the "normal" American lifestyle.

In the 1980s and 1990s, it became much more common to do spend a few years as a post-doctoral fellow, prior to accepting a permanent position. Post-docs work for 4-7 years in a lab, prior to accepting a permanent position. They are essentially graduate students, in the sense that they rarely have any supervisory responsibilities. They do the exact same work as a graduate student, but for slightly more pay. They are typically (though not always) more skilled than the graduate students in the lab, as they have a graduate degree under their belt, and several years of experience. And they can hope to get a real job some time in their early to mid 30s. Indeed, currently:

The average age at first R01 grant is now 42, up from 34 in 1980. Looked at another way, in 1980 nearly 25% of R01 grants went to researchers younger than age 35; today that figure is 4%.
This is an indication of how old a scientist needs to be before they're in any kind of stable position (if scientists can ever be said to be in a stable position). And it's only going to be worse for the folks ERV's age who will have spent even longer working at temporary positions prior to going to graduate school.

Now, in 2007, many students are entering graduate school with a year or two as a technician under their belt. It is becoming much more common for this, and many graduate schools won't take students that don't have lab experience (whether that is as some sort of research project as an undergrad or as a technician). So the newest crop of students entering graduate school can expect to add 2 more years to their studies prior to entering a permanent position, and earning a real salary.

Keep in mind here, I understand completely that most scientists don't go into science for the money (or the fame, or the power, or the fast cars and the chicks). We go into it because it's fun as hell. I love being a scientist. But scientists who want to have a family, or do things outside the lab, have a great difficulty doing it prior to their mid-30s. For guys, that's fine. We can continue to create sperm well into our dotage, but women who want families have a tough time. Those people who try to have children while being a post-doc or graduate student know how difficult it is.

My wife and I are both post-docs. We are barely able to pay for our mortgage (on a small house, and it's cheaper than rent), our daycare fees (by far the largest single expense in our life) and our other monthly expenses. And we don't live in a city like Boston or San Francisco, where post-docs get paid the same as we do, but live in even more obscenely expensive conditions. If we have a second child, we can't afford to be post-docs any more. The cost of daycare for two children is considerably more than my salary. Thirty years ago, I would have found a permanent position by now. But today, it is de rigeur to spend years as a post-doc. I know several people in faculty positions at large medical schools who spent seven years or more as a post-doc prior to taking their position.

This is a large problem. Larger than any one post-doc or graduate student (or post-bac technician) can solve. But it's something to think about when embarking on a career in science.



ERV said...

Financially, this is a very dumb career to get into. Not just not getting a real job until youre 40, not just the crappy post-doc pay-- I noticed this fall that you have to stay at a Uni for +3 years to collect your retirement. How long are post-docs? <3 years. Its like The Man goes out of His way to screw scientists.

Oh, and then theres the whole 'there arent any new jobs' thing, because of the freeze on NIH funding.

Financially, its a risky career.

Which is another reason I suggest a post bac :) I learned exactly what I would be getting into, financially, over the past couple of years. I had no idea it was so bad. I figured if you were smart, hard working, there would be a professor or research position for you somewhere. Uh uh. But I love what I do soooo much, I think its worth the risk!

The Factician said...

Heh, you're like a junkie. Ah well, I suppose we're all data junkies looking for our next hit.

ERV said...

'Junkie' is the right word. Sacrifice money, relationships, sanity, all in pursuit of a data rush.

But I can stop any time I want.