A Career in Science Will Cost You Your Firstborn
"I hate science." In six years of graduate school, this has to be the phrase I’ve heard most frequently from my colleagues.
People who have dedicated their lives to science.
People who made a decision when they were about 16 years old to focus on science, who went through four years of undergrad and an average 6 years of graduate school, and 4-10 more years of training.
People who’ve spent every moment since 2000 entirely dedicated to making new facts using the scientific process.
"I hate science." Why this instead of, "I love science?"
Frankly, everything about the career, the business of science, is constructed to impoverish and disenfranchise young scientists, delaying the maturation of their careers beyond practicality.
I don’t know why this comes as news to so many people. It certainly came as news to my parents, who never finished college and who thought that getting a PhD would put me on the fast track to stability and financial freedom.
If I stay in science, it won’t.
When I started graduate school, I did a two-month rotation in an incredibly prominent lab. It was a great experience, and I learned things there that I’ve used almost every day since. But the lab techniques weren’t all that stuck with me.
In the lab room where I worked, there were a few PhDs, doing what’s called a “postdoc,” a postdoctoral fellowship. Postdocs are the workhorses of the modern academic lab; fully trained scientists who lead their own projects with the blessing and funding of professors who, ultimately, receive most of the credit for the postdocs’ work.
Postdocs do their work because it is basically the only route to getting a tenure track professorship job, a teaching job, or a job as a staff scientist at an industrial corporation.
One of the postdocs was a freshly minted PhD who I’ll call Margaret. Margaret was a real wunderkind. She was young, and had spent only four years in graduate school. That’s a sign of someone with real scientific talent, and Margaret had it in spades.
But she hated being a postdoc.
She’d been there four months already when I arrived, and the strain was already apparent. One day, frustrated by the stresses of the job, she opened up to me, a naive 22 year old who still thought this grad school thing might turn out to be easy.
"Why do we do this to ourselves?" She asked me. "We train forever and ever, live in near poverty, work insane hours—all of it to get jobs that don’t exist, as tenure track faculty. Why do we suffer this way?"
I didn’t really have an answer for her. I was a kid, and I didn’t know what to do with this role model venting to me.
Plus, she was right. At the time, I was earning less than $30,000 as a person with a BS from a top ten university, living in New York City. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was actually qualified for low income housing at that pay level. Technically speaking, I was a hardship case. I’d been poor most of my life, so I felt rich and flush with cash just because I didn’t have to skip any meals. It didn’t really occur to me that most employed twenty-somethings weren’t scavenging free food from lecture halls. When I did figure that out, I thought it was fine because I was getting a free education, worth tens of thousands of dollars more. I felt lucky.
Margaret didn’t. The reason was, she wasn’t in graduate school any longer. She was a fully qualified independent scientist, and she was expected to churn out papers, at least one a year, if not more, for about $45,000—which is just about the National Institutes of Health recommendation for a postdoctoral fellow.
A brand new New York City doorman earns more than that. The doormen have a union, you see. They deserve it, too—their work isn’t easy or rewarding. But postdocs deserve to be paid better, don’t you think? If not, there’s a simple argument for it.
Margaret had paid about $200,000 for her college education. She’d earned well below average for a new college graduate for her four years of graduate school. I don’t know what her stipend was, but let’s give her school the benefit of the doubt and say that she earned $30,000. Ironically, the average college graduate earns about what she was making as a postdoc.
Every year she was in graduate school, she was losing $15,000 relative to where she could’ve been if she’d just gotten a “real” job. She was lucky to get out after four years—her PhD only cost her $60,000.
Mine will have cost me $105,000 by the time I’m done. That doesn’t count what that money would’ve made if I’d invested it over the course of my whole life, either. If all that money had gone into a retirement account? It would’ve been quite a number. Probably a few hundred thousand at least.
Even so, that’s not a bad cost for a higher degree. MBAs cost between what Margaret paid and what I paid, and they qualify people to jump from the high five figures into the low sixes. Not bad!
Except the PhD doesn’t qualify a scientist for that jump. Instead of jumping from the low five figures into the low six figures, we jump from the low five figures into…the low five figures! With “just” a PhD, as far as the scientific world is concerned, you’re not a scientist yet. But you could be.
That is, if you stay in science.
If Margaret had left science entirely…for, say, a consulting job…she’d have earned about $100,000 a year or more. Now that’s not bad, considering what it cost her.
But she didn’t. She elected to stay in science, and earn $45k. Her PhD won her the “right” to earn as much as her peers did four years earlier. Her postdoc cost her $55,000 a year.
Worse yet, a postdoc isn’t a real job. You’re considered a “trainee” for the purposes of everything from social security to benefits. You’re often locked out of retirement accounts, not that you’ll have enough money to save any to begin with. And you often can’t collect unemployment if you’re fired.
Quitting sometimes means owing a grant organization years of “payback,” which can take the form of unpaid work or huge debts. And since your boss gets most of the credit for what you do, even the successful can have their careers soured simply because their boss forgets to mention their name when she presents the data at international conferences.
As a postdoc, you’re still not really a “scientist,” but you’re almost all the way.
Now, Margaret eventually quit. She hung up her labcoat and got one of those consulting jobs. Another woman scared away from STEM.
This whole problem is a LOT harder on scientists who can carry children. Earning almost nothing is okay enough for me—even if I start a family at 40, my anatomy is going to work just fine at the job. But if you’re the one getting pregnant, your fertility peaks during the 20 years of your adult life that a scientist typically spends proving they deserve a career.
It’s not impossible to get pregnant after that, but it gets harder—and often more expensive—each year. Many scientists end up forced to choose between having a family and a career in science, because they can’t possibly earn enough to support one…or even find the time to meet people to start one.
Turns out that when you’re working the 10-16 hour days expected from a postdoc, it’s pretty hard to get out on the social scene to meet the breadwinner you’re going to need on that paltry salary. If you want to be a scientist, you’d better meet your sugar daddy/momma in college.
Like I said, facing all this, Margaret hung up her labcoat. Many others, put their lives on hold, decide not to start families, or live under awful conditions just to move forward. These are our best and brightest. Don’t we, as a society, want them to have bright little babies who will make the future a better place? If we do, we’re really working against ourselves.
The average PhD, who doesn’t make Margaret’s choice to “sell out” and attain a reasonable standard of living, does a postdoc for four years. If Margaret stayed that long, her postdoc would’ve cost her $220,000. Incidentally, raising a child costs about $200-250,000.
That’s right: the price of your postdoc is your firstborn child.
Let’s total the costs so far. It comes out to a cost of about half a million dollars, $510,000, just to become a “fully trained” scientist who can start trying to have a research career. About 8% of people who go for a PhD make it to that point. 70% say they want to. And they never make it.
By the time you’re in your mid-to-late 30s as a scientist, you’re now expected to start a lab, publish even more papers, and look for funding. You get from $500,000 to a few million to do this with—it’s called a “startup package,” and it can run your lab for anywhere from one year to three years, depending on the package. After that, you need to get grants if you’re going to pay the bills, and those grants are hard to get, because the agencies granting them don’t have enough money.
When they do give you a grant, they give an additional 50-70% of the grant to the university for “overhead,” which was originally supposed to be utilities and office costs but is now used for things like paying your salary, the football coach’s salary, and mortgages on buildings the university couldn’t actually afford in the first place.
You’re a moneymaker for administrators, many of whom earn six figures, and some of whom pull down millions.
The worst part is that to continue paying this “tax,” you have to get government grants. You’re constantly worried about grants, riding the postdocs and graduate students you bring aboard, going mad in the panic that you’ll all be out of a job if you can’t deliver. That overhead comes out of federal science grant budgets—and thus out of the livelihood of the people doing the work.
And each newly submitted grant, over the two years it’s being considered, has only a 20% chance of getting funded. Most professors start at 36, but the average first “big” grant comes at age 42. Small grants will keep a lab alive, just barely, during this time. Many professors have to forgo their own salaries just to keep the lights on during these years.
Then—and only then—they might get six figures. After losing almost a million dollars of potential earnings, putting their lives on hold, and being forced out of the lab and in front of a computer screen so they could keep up with the pace of grant writing deadlines.
It’s when they reach that level, and only when they reach that level, that the community thinks of them as a real “scientist.”
Is it any wonder that only 8% of PhDs make it to that level—even though 70% say that it’s their career goal?
The pathway in modern academic science involves up to twenty years spent as a “trainee,” with little respect from your peers and even littler compensation. Furthermore, when that period ends, you become an isolated administrator forced to keep up with a rat race of grant applications instead of doing the science that you love.
This isn’t a framework that does anything positive for citizen science, for education, or for the value of government funds. Burned out scientists have almost no time to do public advocacy, to explore their own experiments personally, or to educate the next crop. Even communication with the rest of the community becomes difficult under these stresses.
Solutions are starting to appear. New means of education, DIY scientists, and other trends are starting to fill the space of independent science that’s been vacated by scientists who are too overworked to step off the academic path. Unfortunately these alternatives are in their fledgling years, support is minimal, the public isn’t paying attention, and their unproven business models are fraught with risk. All of this is tempered only by the thrill of discovery.
But then isn’t that what science was supposed to be?
Corrections: The original article had a suggestion that only 8% of postdocs get a tenure track position. It should have read that 8% of people who enter a PhD program achieve a tenure track position.
Also, the original version was incorrect on the topic of overhead and how it is paid. It has been corrected.