musings on music and life

June 9, 2016

Mixed messages

Filed under: Chemistry Jobs — sankirnam @ 12:56 pm

I mentioned before my reasons for not wanting to do a postdoc after completing my PhD. I will freely admit that when I started as a young, naive, doe-eyed first-year graduate student, I initially wanted to go into academics – I was even told multiple times by people from within and outside my department that I had the “mentality” and “intelligence” for academia. After having my soul properly crushed a few years into the program, my goals readjusted to something more realistic – that is, getting an industry job, a goal that was considered by many “selling out”, “settling”, or “selling yourself short”. I didn’t do a postdoc because I wanted to get an industry job, but now it appears that a postdoc is necessary – and this is information that I only found out after graduating.

Now, the problem is that there’s no clear-cut advice as to what PhD’s should do in order to get industry jobs these days. As far as academia is concerned, a postdoc or two is mandatory in order to broaden your knowledge base, make your CV more competitive, and get additional network contacts and letters of recommendation. However, if industry is the goal, then you will hear things from all over the spectrum, such as “doing a postdoc lowers your eligibility for industry positions since it means you’re too focused on academics”, to “we throw the resumes of applicants without postdocs in the trash”, to illustrate the two extremes.

SeeArrOh wrote about this situation a month ago, but it is still valid, and I think the situation is going to get worse with time, as the saturation of scientists at the PhD level keeps increasing year after year. My experience tracks with SeeArrOh’s observations. I think that my inability to get job after completing my PhD could be attributed in part to not doing a postdoc after graduating. That being said, doing a postdoc does not guarantee getting a job either! It’s still a very risky gamble.

One big problem is that these employment issues are very opaque to graduate students, and it is only recently, thanks to the efforts of truth-tellers like Chemjobber, that these issues are coming out into the open, and students/postdocs are able to read about employment and unemployment in the chemistry job market (largely anecdotal, but these are better than no information at all). It also works to the advantage of PI’s to keep their students in the dark regarding employment after graduation; PI’s can promise the (nonexistent) big payoff in order to keep their students working hard 80-90 hours a week, sacrificing their lives at the altar of science.

Unfortunately, the issue “do you need a postdoc if you want to get an industry job?” has not been resolved, and this is something that incoming students need to be aware of. If the answer is yes (a postdoc is necessary), then you need to be prepared for the long haul; an additional 7-10 years in school after undergrad (PhD + postdoc) in order to get a job. That’s why I tell people science is a lousy career path these days. People used to criticize medicine for taking too much training before being able to start one’s career, but I think science has safely beaten that now. According to the 2014 NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates, the mean time to PhD in the physical sciences is 6.5 years (5.7 years in chemistry), and is slowly increasing every year. The question of “how long is the average postdoc?” is more difficult to answer, but SeeArrOh did a back-of-the-envelope calculation for chemistry, and the mean postdoctoral stay (for those who went to academia) was 3.7 years. 5.7 + 3.7 = 9.4 years in school. Granted, these numbers were only derived from those going to academia, but they at least give some sense of the situation. Compare this with medicine, which is strictly 4 + 4 (8 years, 4 for medical school, 4 for residency – or 3+4 in some universities!). Suddenly, medicine seems like a smart choice, when one factors in the opportunity cost of time, the fact that residents on average get paid more than postdocs (for similar hours of work), and the fat doctor salaries at the end (the big payoff!) thanks to the AMA.

Finally, and this is something that will hit most people the hardest: Unfortunately, society sends PhD students mixed messages. On one hand, there are people who say “wow, doing a PhD is great, you’ll be able to change the world!”. But once you graduate, you see the real value of the degree, which is…less than toilet paper, due to insane market saturation in both academia and industry. Another issue is that it is very difficult to find employment statistics of graduates of PhD programs – this data is crucial to being able to assess the relative strength of a program, because after all, you get a degree in order to get a job and make money, right? But most universities do not care about what happens to their graduates after getting a PhD, which is very unfortunate.

This needs to change. If departments properly tracked career outcomes of their graduates, then maybe the equilibrium salary of PhD scientists would properly reflect the amount of training involved, rather than being depressed due to an artificial flooding of the market.

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