Time does not equal money (or, I hated science in grad school, too)

This one sort of wrote itself. One of those times when you’re having an argument with a stranger in your head while driving your kid to daycare. It’s about this post, whose take home message seems to be that time = money, and time & money = children, and that if you’re a Ph.D. scientist, grad school and your postdoc mean losing money, and that the cost of your postdoc (relative to what you’d have made if you, say, left science entirely after your Ph.D.) is equivalent to the cost of raising a child. Plus, the time required to establish yourself as a scientist, if you are female, uses up your fertile years and leaves you facing a barren future or spending even MORE money to get pregnant.

So, as I said on Twitter, there’s some bullshit here, as well as some good points. The good points have been made MANY times over, but they’re worth reiterating:

  • Academic scientists are underpaid relative to their experience at every stage of the academic career. We know this – a Ph.D. should be worth more than $45,000 a year, which is the NIH postdoc rate. People are often startled to find out what I make as a tenure-track faculty member, because society has this perception of college professors as ivory tower wealthy folk. Right. Sure. Even in industry, it takes years of experience to get to what your degree would be worth in other fields. The ONE exception here, for me, is grad school. Yes, most folks with a B.S. make more than $30,000 out of college. But the free education you get in your Ph.D. program should be considered as part of your compensation.
  • Academic scientists work too hard, and the culture drives them to do so. You’re expected to be devoted to your science 24/7. You work late, you work EVERY DAY. I’ve used the monastery comparison before: you work, you sleep, you eat (but not much), you work, you sleep. And you don’t sleep all that much. When I was at UCSF, a lot of the postdocs lived in the housing on campus. Right across the street from the building we worked in. My response? “I don’t want to be a monk.” (Incidentally, I spent my postdoc not working weekends and going home by 6 every night.)
  • Academic science is unfriendly to women who want to have children. The overwork, above, is still expected even if you breed. There are a LOT of people who will question your dedication to your career if you also have a family. If you DO wait to establish your career before you have a family, you’ll be 40 years old, and, yeah, risking age-related subfertility, for sure.
  • We make WAYYYY too many Ph.D.’s relative to the jobs available in academia. There’s definitely a nasty aspect of “nearly free labor” in the grad student/postdoc years. Some of this could be fixed by not making “tenure track job” the only acceptable goal for Ph.D. students and postdocs. The rest we have to fix by MAKING FEWER DOCTORS.

Okay, so that’s the stuff he got right. Now for my counterpoint(s):

  • A lot of the information in the post is anecdotal, and some of it is downright incorrect based on my own not-entirely-anecdotal evidence. I’ll get to that below, but suffice it to say that, since much of it is anecdotal, I will feel free to use anecdata myself here. Also, when I say “science”, I mean “biology”, because that’s my science, so that’s what I know.
  • The examples he gives for what’s required for a postdoc who aspires to a tenure-track job are not remotely universal. I know this because I did my postdoc with an extraordinarily successful woman, who is now at a HHMI institute and a member of the National Academy of Science. None of her postdocs churned out a paper a year. None. But most of us got tenure-track university jobs (if we wanted them). Now, I’m  prepared to admit that pedigree matters in this area (she’s got a name, and we benefitted from that), but not all PIs expect that level of ridiculous productivity from their postdocs. My advisor was in favor of actual lives outside of academia.
  • On that note, one thing that IS in your control if you’re an academic scientist: you will never have more freedom of choice in your jobs than when choosing your Ph.D. and postdoctoral advisors. If balance between work and non-work life is important to you, you MUST find advisors who respect that attitude (and, preferably, share it). This is one area of my professional life where I have been very successful – my choice of people to work with as an early-career scientist.
  • Which brings me to: you don’t have to postpone starting a family until you’re 40. IF you choose your advisors well. In my postdoctoral lab, there were an average of four female postdocs at any given moment. The year I had my first child (while a postdoc), all four women postdocs had babies. We joked there was something in the water. We all took maternity leave (one of us, not me, took six months of leave). All four of us now have tenure track jobs. Two of us had a second baby in our first year or two on the tenure track, and the other two had a second baby (in one case, twins) while still postdoccing. I don’t know how the others are doing, tenure-wise, but I have gotten very favorable reviews and recommendations for tenure a year early. Now, my tenure-track job is at a primarily undergraduate university in the Cal State system, not at a Research 1 university. But that’s another aspect of “choose wisely”. I chose this job because I wanted to teach and have it be valued, AND because I wanted my family life to be a priority. We do need to change the culture of science (see above), but it’s not the same for everyone, even now.
  • I’m just not sure how many of these $100,000 “consulting jobs” there really are out there. Enough said.
  • This writer seems to be in a different lab culture than I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been in four labs, counting my own, and was considered a scientist at every stage, even as an undergrad. I consider my students colleagues, though currently very junior. I certainly was considered a scientist as a postdoc, by everyone. The idea that postdocs aren’t really considered scientists yet is alien to me.
  • Fertility, in women, doesn’t actually undergo a sharp decline at 35. That number turns out to be based on peasant women in the 19th century, and modern data seems to indicate that fertility is pretty level from 30 to 40, and the decline is shallow until menopause, actually. So you CAN often do it late, if that’s your choice.
  • The idea that people don’t meet their future spouses/partners after college because of the long hours science requires…false on its face. In my graduate class of 10, six met their spouses in grad school. So, you know, after college and while working long academic science hours. It’s true that most people don’t pair up and get married as postdocs, but I have a few examples of that, too, if you really want them. (I, incidentally, met my spouse in grad school but got married as a postdoc, which is actually quite common.)
  • The sentence, “The cost of your postdoc is your firstborn child!” is just silly. It implies that academic scientists have one less child than they would have if they’d made a different choice. Evidence, please? My anecdotal data: I wanted two, I have two. I have them later that I would have if I hadn’t gone to grad school, but I KNEW THAT GOING IN. I made that choice consciously.

So, yeah. Science is glutted with postdocs who can’t get the job they want because there aren’t any jobs. But a Ph.D. does, in fact, provide security.  The unemployment rate for Ph.D.s at the height of the recession was 2.4%, compared with 8.2% for the general public. (Hey! Actual data!) Even if you can’t get THAT job, your odds of having A job are three times that of the non-Ph.D. holder.

One last observation: the write of this article is in his sixth year of a Ph.D. program. That’s about when EVERYONE hates science. I did. I wanted OUT OUT OUT. So did almost everyone I went to school with. I can’t help but wonder how he’ll feel two years from now, with grad school and its suckitude in the rearview mirror. I fell back in love with science – I wonder if he will, too.

I mean, no one does science for the money.


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