Don't Become a Scientist!

Jonathan I. Katz 乔纳森·卡茨

Professor of Physics 物理学教授

Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.

[my last name]

Are you thinking of becoming a scientist? Do you want to uncover the mysteries of nature, perform experiments or carry out calculations to learn how the world works? Forget it!

Science is fun and exciting. The thrill of discovery is unique. If you are smart, ambitious and hard working you should major in science as an undergraduate. But that is as far as you should take it. After graduation, you will have to deal with the real world. That means that you should not even consider going to graduate school in science. Do something else instead: medical school, law school, computers or engineering, or something else which appeals to you.

Why am I (a tenured professor of physics) trying to discourage you from following a career path which was successful for me? Because times have changed (I received my Ph.D. in 1973, and tenure in 1976). American science no longer offers a reasonable career path. If you go to graduate school in science it is in the expectation of spending your working life doing scientific research, using your ingenuity and curiosity to solve important and interesting problems. You will almost certainly be disappointed, probably when it is too late to choose another career.
为什么我(一位物理学终身教授)试图阻止你走一条对我来说成功的职业道路?因为时代变了(我于 1973 年获得博士学位,并于 1976 年获得终身教职)。美国科学不再提供合理的职业道路。如果你去读科学研究生院,你期望将你的工作生涯花在科学研究上,利用你的聪明才智和好奇心来解决重要而有趣的问题。你几乎肯定会感到失望,可能当你选择其他职业时已经太晚了。

American universities train roughly twice as many Ph.D.s as there are jobs for them. When something, or someone, is a glut on the market, the price drops. In the case of Ph.D. scientists, the reduction in price takes the form of many years spent in ``holding pattern'' postdoctoral jobs. Permanent jobs don't pay much less than they used to, but instead of obtaining a real job two years after the Ph.D. (as was typical 25 years ago) most young scientists spend five, ten, or more years as postdocs. They have no prospect of permanent employment and often must obtain a new postdoctoral position and move every two years. For many more details consult the Young Scientists' Network or read the account in the May, 2001 issue of the Washington Monthly.
美国大学培养的博士数量大约是其就业岗位数量的两倍。当市场上某物或某人供过于求时,价格就会下跌。就博士学位而言。对科学家来说,价格的降低表现为多年来“保持模式”的博士后工作。永久工作的工资并不比以前低很多,但在获得博士学位两年后并没有找到真正的工作。 (正如 25 年前的典型情况)大多数年轻科学家都会花五年、十年或更长时间担任博士后。他们没有永久就业的前景,通常必须获得一个新的博士后职位,并且每两年搬一次家。欲了解更多详细信息,请咨询青年科学家网络或阅读 2001 年 5 月号《华盛顿月刊》中的报道。

As examples, consider two of the leading candidates for a recent Assistant Professorship in my department. One was 37, ten years out of graduate school (he didn't get the job). The leading candidate, whom everyone thinks is brilliant, was 35, seven years out of graduate school. Only then was he offered his first permanent job (that's not tenure, just the possibility of it six years later, and a step off the treadmill of looking for a new job every two years). The latest example is a 39 year old candidate for another Assistant Professorship; he has published 35 papers. In contrast, a doctor typically enters private practice at 29, a lawyer at 25 and makes partner at 31, and a computer scientist with a Ph.D. has a very good job at 27 (computer science and engineering are the few fields in which industrial demand makes it sensible to get a Ph.D.). Anyone with the intelligence, ambition and willingness to work hard to succeed in science can also succeed in any of these other professions.
作为例子,考虑一下我系最近助理教授职位的两位主要候选人。其中一位 37 岁,研究生毕业十年(他没有得到这份工作)。所有人都认为最出色的领先候选人今年 35 岁,已经毕业七年了。直到那时,他才获得了第一份永久性工作(这不是终身职位,只是六年后的可能性,并且摆脱了每两年寻找新工作的跑步机)。最新的例子是一名 39 岁的助理教授候选人;他已发表论文35篇。相比之下,医生通常在 29 岁进入私人诊所,律师通常在 25 岁进入私人诊所,31 岁成为合伙人,计算机科学家则拥有博士学位。 27 岁时有一份非常好的工作(计算机科学和工程是工业需求使得获得博士学位有意义的少数领域)。任何具有智慧、雄心和愿意努力工作以在科学领域取得成功的人也可以在任何其他职业中取得成功。

Typical postdoctoral salaries begin at $27,000 annually in the biological sciences and about $35,000 in the physical sciences (graduate student stipends are less than half these figures). Can you support a family on that income? It suffices for a young couple in a small apartment, though I know of one physicist whose wife left him because she was tired of repeatedly moving with little prospect of settling down. When you are in your thirties you will need more: a house in a good school district and all the other necessities of ordinary middle class life. Science is a profession, not a religious vocation, and does not justify an oath of poverty or celibacy.
生物科学领域博士后的典型年薪为 27,000 美元,物理科学领域的博士后年薪约为 35,000 美元(研究生津贴不到这些数字的一半)。你能用这笔收入养活一个家庭吗?对于一对住在小公寓里的年轻夫妇来说,这已经足够了,尽管我认识一位物理学家,他的妻子离开了他,因为她厌倦了反复搬家,而且安定下来的希望渺茫。当你三十多岁的时候,你会需要更多:一所位于好学区的房子以及普通中产阶级生活的所有其他必需品。科学是一种职业,而不是一种宗教使命,并且不能证明贫穷或独身的誓言是正当的。

Of course, you don't go into science to get rich. So you choose not to go to medical or law school, even though a doctor or lawyer typically earns two to three times as much as a scientist (one lucky enough to have a good senior-level job). I made that choice too. I became a scientist in order to have the freedom to work on problems which interest me. But you probably won't get that freedom. As a postdoc you will work on someone else's ideas, and may be treated as a technician rather than as an independent collaborator. Eventually, you will probably be squeezed out of science entirely. You can get a fine job as a computer programmer, but why not do this at 22, rather than putting up with a decade of misery in the scientific job market first? The longer you spend in science the harder you will find it to leave, and the less attractive you will be to prospective employers in other fields.
当然,你进入科学并不是为了致富。因此,你选择不去医学院或法学院,尽管医生或律师的收入通常是科学家的两到三倍(足够幸运地拥有一份好的高级工作)。我也做出了这样的选择。我成为一名科学家是为了能够自由地研究我感兴趣的问题。但你可能不会获得这种自由。作为一名博士后,您将致力于别人的想法,并且可能被视为技术人员而不是独立的合作者。最终,你可能会被完全挤出科学界。作为一名计算机程序员,你可以找到一份不错的工作,但为什么不在 22 岁时就这样做,而不是先在科学就业市场上忍受十年的痛苦呢?你在科学领域工作的时间越长,你就越难离开,而且你对其他领域的未来雇主的吸引力也就越小。

Perhaps you are so talented that you can beat the postdoc trap; some university (there are hardly any industrial jobs in the physical sciences) will be so impressed with you that you will be hired into a tenure track position two years out of graduate school. Maybe. But the general cheapening of scientific labor means that even the most talented stay on the postdoctoral treadmill for a very long time; consider the job candidates described above. And many who appear to be very talented, with grades and recommendations to match, later find that the competition of research is more difficult, or at least different, and that they must struggle with the rest.

Suppose you do eventually obtain a permanent job, perhaps a tenured professorship. The struggle for a job is now replaced by a struggle for grant support, and again there is a glut of scientists. Now you spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems. They're not the same thing: you cannot put your past successes in a proposal, because they are finished work, and your new ideas, however original and clever, are still unproven. It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal; because they have not yet been proved to work (after all, that is what you are proposing to do) they can be, and will be, rated poorly. Having achieved the promised land, you find that it is not what you wanted after all.

What can be done? The first thing for any young person (which means anyone who does not have a permanent job in science) to do is to pursue another career. This will spare you the misery of disappointed expectations. Young Americans have generally woken up to the bad prospects and absence of a reasonable middle class career path in science and are deserting it. If you haven't yet, then join them. Leave graduate school to people from India and China, for whom the prospects at home are even worse. I have known more people whose lives have been ruined by getting a Ph.D. in physics than by drugs.

If you are in a position of leadership in science then you should try to persuade the funding agencies to train fewer Ph.D.s. The glut of scientists is entirely the consequence of funding policies (almost all graduate education is paid for by federal grants). The funding agencies are bemoaning the scarcity of young people interested in science when they themselves caused this scarcity by destroying science as a career. They could reverse this situation by matching the number trained to the demand, but they refuse to do so, or even to discuss the problem seriously (for many years the NSF propagated a dishonest prediction of a coming shortage of scientists, and most funding agencies still act as if this were true). The result is that the best young people, who should go into science, sensibly refuse to do so, and the graduate schools are filled with weak American students and with foreigners lured by the American student visa.

Jonathan Katz 乔纳森·卡茨
Thu May 13 12:39:11 CDT 1999
1999 年 CDT 5 月 13 日星期四 12:39:11

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