Why getting a science PhD is a bit insane

Anyone trying to go into academic science these days either needs to be a little bit masochistic or a lot bit delusional.

Why? Well, because life in science research is rough. (Note: my personal experience is in biological/biomedical research, so specific details will correspond with that world unless otherwise noted)

For starters, the path to professorship is long: 4 years of undergraduate education, 5-7 years in graduate school, and an unknown number of years in several postdoctoral research positions mean that at best, you’re getting your first faculty job in your mid-thirties.

This late-ish start is problematic for several reasons. First, if you plan to have a family, you either need to start it during your many years of training positions, start it while you’re working your ass off trying to start your lab and earn tenure, or you can wait until after all of that and hope to god you’re still fertile when things finally ‘settle down’. Secondly, all those training positions usually pay at or just above subsistence level, so by your mid-thirties (or later!), you have little-to-no savings. Oh, and that professorship job you snagged? Probably only pays 50-60k. In fact, after all these many years of training and poor pay, even when you make full professor, you’ll probably only make about 100k.

But that is all assuming, of course, that you ever get an academic appointment. Odds are, you won’t.

See, all the many years of training and making far less money than if you’d gone into industry or gotten a professional degree… those might be worth it for the payoff of the magical world of professorship. I mean, it’s the dream, right? Getting paid to study whatever you want, getting to share that passion with bright young minds?
There are two problems with this. First, as I said before, the vast majority of PhD grads don’t make it—instead heading out of academia or out of science altogether after graduate school or after a postdoc or two. Secondly, the dream is just not what it once was.

Consider the perspective of this computer scientist, who left a tenured faculty position for industry.

Traditionally, universities compensate for the disparity [in financial compensation between industry and the academy] with broad intellectual freedom, a flexible schedule, and the joy of mentoring new generations of students. But all of the trends I have outlined above have cut into those compensations, leaving faculty members underpaid, but with little to show for it. As one of my colleagues remarked when I announced my departure, “We’re being paid partly in cool. If you take away the cool parts of the job, you might as well go make more money elsewhere.”

What trends is this professor talking about? Well, it all comes back to money.

Research funding comes mostly from government grants, and those have gotten harder and harder to get. That means more time spent writing grants just to stay afloat. Without getting big money grants, you can’t get tenure. If you have tenure, but can’t keep up funding, you can’t pay to take on students or staff. The other source of funding for professors is institutional, and for public institutions, that has been shrinking as well, due to shrinking state budgets.

So given all of that, being an investigator is looking a lot less shiny to me these days. That said, it wasn’t exactly my goal: going into grad school I was pretty much expecting to go into one of the dreaded ‘alternative’ careers, and I had accepted the fact that I was going to spend 6ish years working my ass off and making shit money before getting there. I mean, that’s still 6 years contributing to science, right? And learning stuff? That’s worth a bit of hard work, is it not?

But even given the fact that I went in fully aware of the uphill battle I was facing, I found the realities of graduate school even uglier than I’d imagined.

Why? Because the culture of academic science has always been um… intense… and funding woes have cranked that up to 11. I’ll tell you a little more about that tomorrow, because right now this post is getting a bit long.

3 thoughts on “Why getting a science PhD is a bit insane

  1. I’m currently an undergrad junior and I work at a research institute doing grad school-level work, and let me tell you, it is brutal. I work with grad students, mostly PhDs, and post-docs, and everyone has been pushing me to go into grad school, but somehow, I don’t feel like it’s for me. I love learning and contributing to science, but I don’t think it’s worth it to spend another 5-6 years in school and not being able to find a job at all. Even the post-docs admitted to me that they have been searching professorship positions for 2-3+ years, and still have no luck finding one (these are people with hardcore science PhDs, like biochemistry, microbiology, etc). I looked up the salaries of the post-docs and I don’t know if I could live with that money while trying to raise a family someday, especially with the rising costs of basically everything. I need a career that will make me good money.

    I also contribute to writing a part of the grant proposals, and speaking from personal experience, you are right that it is much harder nowadays to get government grants. Once funding’s out, you are out of a job as well, which is another reason I’m going straight into industry after I’m done with my undergrad. Research is fun, but it’s not a reliable source of income in this economy.

    • As a current PhD student who has just taken the steps today to bump down to a Master’s degree and will be graduating much sooner than I expected I can tell you I know exactly how you feel. I jumped into my program because it was fully funded and it seemed like the right thing to do without first doing my research on what job prospects looked like. I mean, after all who could turn down a fully funded program right? After seeing many PhD grads and post-docs looking for jobs (and getting terribly underpaid for their efforts) after 2 and a half years I finally looked in the mirror and realized this was insanity. My passion for the science was gone. I felt less innovative than I did when I came out with my bachelor’s. I started not feeling myself. Like I was simply going through the motions to feel better. I would have been comforted by the fact that maybe posts about dismal job prospects and low paying careers were anecdotal (and I told myself they were for some time) before realizing this was the reality for Phd graduates right now.

      Think long and hard about why you would want to get a science PhD. If it’s for any reason other than “your life wouldn’t be fulfilled if you didn’t complete one” please do yourself a favor and don’t do it. Try this: ask the people in your lab why they are talking you into it. Tell them to sell you on it. If their answers seem like they are grasping for vague or idealistic reasons, that’s really all you need to hear. If they are being completely honest with you and care about you, they’d tell you what I’m writing, not something to make themselves feel better about their chosen path.

      • Yes, they tell me to go to grad school for idealistic reasons such as “teaching the younger generation, contributing to the discovery of new things, etc. etc.” Only one grad student (who is a master’s student) has told me the reality of grad school and couldn’t even imagine doing a PhD. Like I said before, I love learning and discovering new things, but is that piece of paper really worth my sanity?

        I think even if the economy is bad, you shouldn’t hide out in school more and instead should actually attempt to apply for every single job possible that only requires a bachelor’s degree, even if it means moving to a different state.

        What depresses me the most is that people go to school for 10 years and most of them won’t end up with a job anyway. We teach our children that they should obtain the highest education possible because more education = more money, but I don’t think that’s the reality anymore in this job market, as you pointed out. The professors we have right now in universities are probably the last generation of professors with tenure.

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