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The Black Hole

Why does anyone think science is a good job?

BY BETH | MAY 24 2010

“A science researcher at Harvard now earns an annual salary that is only 1/50th the price of a family-sized house in Cambridge, a fact that may not be lost on an intelligent female Harvard undergraduate choosing a career.” (Source)

The announcement of the new Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) – 19 scientists granted $10 million over 7 years to establish research program in Canada – has raised some eyebrows for its notable lack of women among the recipients.  We’ve talked a bit about this issue here before, notably about the mat leave issue and the disadvantage one faces in a career in academics should they choose to take time off to have kids.  But while reading some of the articles and blog postings about the CERCs, I came across this interesting article, which poses the question: “Why does anyone think science is a good job?”
From the article:

The average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following:

  1. age 18-22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college
  2. age 22-30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month
  3. age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year
  4. age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year
  5. age 44: with (if lucky) young children at home, fired by the university (“denied tenure” is the more polite term for the folks that universities discard), begins searching for a job in a market where employers primarily wish to hire folks in their early 30s

Not to mention that academics who make the above salaries aren’t just putting in a 40-hour work week with four weeks paid vacation and stat holidays that aren’t spent working on the next grant application, as they would be in another, higher paying, career. Put like that, it’s not hard to see why I – and many people like me – have gotten off the academic career track, regardless of whether or not we have/plan to have kids.  In fact, when I see the fierce competition that recent PhD grads and post-docs face trying to land a tenure-track position, it makes me wonder why so many people are willing to fight so hard for what, in many ways, is a thankless job ((Maybe in the comments section those of you who have chosen to stay on the academic career path can shed some light onto why you think being an academic scientist is a good job?)).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that no one should ever become an academic researcher.  In fact, I think that academic research is essential – we can’t leave science solely in the hands of industry, for example.  But I think we need to give some serious thought to the compensation and work-life of our academic scientists. So while we talk about the ways to advocate for appropriate compensation and benefits for postdocs to help keep good scientists in the game – a very important issue, to be sure – we also have to be thinking about what comes after that for those postdocs who are lucky enough (or is that “unlucky” enough?) to land a tenure-track gig.

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  1. Lisa McDonnell / May 28, 2010 at 15:51

    I’m enjoying all the articles. This one has really hit a soft spot for me as a PhD candidate, trying to finish my degree, with a 10 month old. When thinking about the potential job prospects I might have when finished I admit I do not feel hopeful.
    I can think of so many reasons why being a scientist is a GREAT profession, but perhaps the overriding factor is a passion for all things science (reading, writing, teaching, doing). However, when the issues raised (wages, job availability, etc.) are considered science really seems quite unappealing, and doing a graduate degree in the sciences does not feel as rewarding as it possibly could.
    It seems to me that hard work and a passion for science are not sufficient to ensure a stable and sustainable career in science……is it just me, or does that seem wrong?