There’s a great new post from grad student Caroline Tucker at The EEB and Flow on academic ambivalence. Was going to link to it in the Friday linkfest and comment briefly, but my comments ended up being long enough that I decided a separate post was in order.
Why do so many grad students and postdocs work so hard for so long, and for so little tangible reward, chasing so few tenure-track academic positions? And what are the consequences of that? Caroline suggests that the intense competition selects for a certain sort of person (basically, a workaholic). I wouldn’t disagree. But I think it’s difficult to see how to change this in any major way, given that employers and funding agencies surely want to (and ought to!) select for people who produce more, better science. Don’t misunderstand me, I absolutely agree with Caroline that we can improve policies that help support people in their efforts to raise families and find work-life balance. But at some level, as long as people are free to allocate their time as they choose, and as long as allocating more time to science lets you produce more and better science, it’s going to be hard to avoid indirectly selecting for workaholics, isn’t it?
And on the issue of why so many people continue to pursue academia for as long as they can despite the low odds of getting a tenure-track job, I’ll suggest two answers, one happy, one sad. They aren’t mutually exclusive, and indeed may be two different versions of the same answer (glass half-full vs. glass half-empty, if you like).
The happy answer is that tenure-track academic positions are some of the best jobs around, and that the training process, while not lucrative, has many enjoyable aspects for the people choosing to undertake it. Basically, there are lots of smart people in the world who love doing science, and can hardly imagine themselves doing anything else. Those people are happy to take a shot at making a career of doing science, figuring that, if it doesn’t work out in the long term, at least they got to do science for a while before having to fall back on some less-desirable-but-still-decent job. That was more or less my attitude.
The sad answer is that, for reasons that we could argue long into the night about, the alternatives (e.g., doctor, lawyer, schoolteacher…) increasingly are long shots as well. And the alternative careers that aren’t long shots mostly don’t pay well and aren’t very desirable in other respects. So even if lots of people who are currently trying to make it in science could easily see themselves doing other things, it’s not clear to me that they wouldn’t choose science anyway, given that there are no easy alternatives. The world is not overflowing with careers that offer some intellectual stimulation, reasonably good pay, reasonable job security, and some measure of responsibility and decision-making authority. Certainly not relative to the demand for such careers, anyway.
What to do about this? Short of “somehow reverse various decades-long trends in macroeconomics and government fiscal policies”? Well, supervisors can make sure grad students thinking of a career in academia know what they’re getting into. Graduate programs can do more to help grad students acquire skills and contacts required for jobs outside academia (e.g., see here and here). Maybe scientific funding agencies should be looking at ways to fund fewer grad students and more lab managers/technicians/research associates, so that that becomes a more viable and desirable long term career path for more people. Although if that would result in less, or less good, science getting done, then it’s hard to see funding agencies going down that road. After all, it’s their job to fund as much good science as they can, not to make sure that everyone who wants a career doing science can have one.
But these are just thoughts off the top of my head, so they’re probably not worth much. Indeed, re-reading this post just now I have the vague feeling that everything I’ve said is either dead obvious or wrong (is it?), but somehow more intelligent remarks aren’t coming to me. Sorry, I don’t have any great ideas here. Maybe there aren’t any.
UPDATE #2: Biological Posteriors chimes in with more data and comments on other professional fields vs. science. Bottom line: employment prospects are indeed limited, and work hours long, in all fields. Science isn’t unique. I agree with his suggestion that focusing on job prospects and working hours for scientists is to focus too narrowly.