I just saw this letter in last week’s C&EN, and thought I would talk about it: http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/i13/Aspire-Science.html
I’ve seen so many articles lately in Science lamenting that there are so few undergraduates (in the US) studying science. The reason is extraordinarily simple; it boils down to a cost/benefit analysis. Most undergraduates quickly realize that the enormous amount of time studying something difficult (such as science) could be put to better use studying something easier with better rewards. Case in point: one of my friends was a bio major (he’s very intelligent, and had scored in the 98th percentile on the MCAT) and was in the process of interviewing for medical school, when he performed this cost/benefit analysis. He realized that he was much better at economics than at bio (as evidenced by the better grades he got in the former with significantly less studying required on his part), and so decided to go into finance instead. He has now been hired at an investment bank with a starting salary that I would never be able to get in the chemical field.
This explains why, when you walk into any research lab in any university in the US, the labs are always staffed by foreign students and postdocs. Only people from poor countries will find value in coming here and living in poverty (by US standards) for several years. The average graduate stipend of approx. $1800/month is barely anything by American standards (Jorge Cham makes the point very succinctly here: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1215), but for foreign students, this is a lot of money, and gives them to chance to come to America, which, as most of them have been thinking since childhood, is the greatest country on earth and the land of infinite opportunity.
Even then, after living off a measly stipend for several years earning a degree of questionable utility, the employment opportunities are nary to be found. For these same foreign students, they are still happy to take opportunities working as postdocs in academic labs, working 80-90 hours a week for $30-40k per annum, since that is still a lot of money where they come from. Some of the lucky few of these postdoctoral scholars get academic positions; the fate of the others is unknown. It is because of this that academia has been described as a giant pyramid scheme. Professors need to keep hiring fresh graduate students as extremely cheap, hardworking labor, and don’t give a second thought to their futures when they graduate. The academic job market quickly became saturated, as more people received PhD’s than there were positions available. In the last decade, with the advent of globalization, the industrial job market (in the US) has also been spiraling downward.
That is why, whenever I see youngsters choosing to major in scientific disciplines such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, or other related fields, I try my utmost to dissuade them from doing so. The life of a scientist is no longer well-paying and glamorous like it used to be a few decades ago. As of right now, the only fields of study which can lead to jobs able to support a middle-class lifestyle (approx. 100k/year salary) are finance, computer science, and electrical engineering.
Research in most institutions is funded by federal programs, such as NIH, NSF, DOE, DARPA/ARPA, and others. Recently, most of these programs have stopped funding “curiosity-driven” or fundamental research and instead chosen to fund only “application-oriented” research. This is not a good sign, in my opinion. Historically, the health and prosperity of a civilization could be gauged by its ability to support such “curiosity-driven” studies that supposedly had no immediate applications. An example is the flourishing of philosophy (Plato, Socrates, Aristotle) at the height of the Greek civilization, Newton’s discoveries of calculus and classical mechanics during Restoration-era England, and even the United States’ successful landing on the moon during the period of post-WWII prosperity.
More in the next…