Is being an academic worth the effort?

May 24th, 2007 by jose

Today, while googling for “tenure rat race”, I found Jonathan I. Katz’s page: “Don’t Become a Scientist!“. I find his honesty devastating:

Are you thinking of becoming a scientist? Do you want to uncover the mysteries of nature, perform experiments or carry out calculations to learn how the world works? Forget it!

Science is fun and exciting. The thrill of discovery is unique. If you are smart, ambitious and hard working you should major in science as an undergraduate. But that is as far as you should take it. After graduation, you will have to deal with the real world. That means that you should not even consider going to graduate school in science. Do something else instead: medical school, law school, computers or engineering, or something else which appeals to you.

Why am I (a tenured professor of physics) trying to discourage you from following a career path which was successful for me? Because times have changed (I received my Ph.D. in 1973, and tenure in 1976). American science no longer offers a reasonable career path. If you go to graduate school in science it is in the expectation of spending your working life doing scientific research, using your ingenuity and curiosity to solve important and interesting problems. You will almost certainly be disappointed, probably when it is too late to choose another career.

I think he is right in many levels. But let’s concentrate just on the simplest, easiest to measure: money.

If we academics do the computations proposed in Figuring Out Exactly How Much Your Time Is Worth [The Simple Dollar], we may be in for a surprise.

Basically, you determine your true hourly wage by subtracting all of your work-related expenses from your salary, then calculating the hours you devote to work each year (including commute and other time-sinks) and dividing your remaining salary by your total hours.

Since we work silly hours, the actual pay is quite ridiculous. Of course, one has to factor in the liberty to think, flexible hours etc.


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12 Responses to “Is being an academic worth the effort?”

  1. Matthew CornellNo Gravatar Says:

    Ugh – what a bummer…

  2. niT FX » Don’t Become a Scientist! Says:

    [...] Academic Productivity » Is being an academic worth the effort? Is being an academic worth the effort? [...]

  3. Bill TozierNo Gravatar Says:

    You know, I’ve had substantial liberty to think, and flexible hours, as a non-academic. Whenever (as now) I’m an academic, I make crap for money, and am obliged to follow the latest fads and demonstrate diligent adherence to the received knowledge and mythology of my discipline.

    The benefit of working within the academy is the nature of conversation, not thinking. Anybody can think; a surprising number of us out in the Actual World do. But only the conversations of an academic are counted towards scholarship; there are no substitutes.

    To date.

  4. ZoomaZoomaZoom - Cheap Dry Erase Boards and Dry Erase OverlayNo Gravatar Says:

    Of course it is. Being an academic is very important and pans out to be worth it in the long run.

  5. sozlog » Blog Archive » Old school. The academic elite Says:

    [...] of excellence, the structure of the academic field and the dominating schools of thought or just quit. Thereby Münch leaves out the idea that any iron cage emerges as the result of actors, networks [...]

  6. Hackers’ comments on Katz’s "Don’t become a scientist" paper | Academic Productivity Says:

    [...] startned with the ‘don’t become a scientist‘ article by Jonathan I. Katz that we commented before. What I find interesting is that ycombinator represents a population of very smart people (hackers [...]

  7. DanielNo Gravatar Says:

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article g an academic worth the effort? | Academic Productivity, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

  8. John HunterNo Gravatar Says:

    My father, William G. Hunter was a professor (statistics, chemical engineering, industrial engineering) and he could not have been happier. He was able to do what he wanted. He was able to live overseas and teach (London, Singapore, Nigeria – a year each). He was able to travel extensively giving speeches and consulting. It did help, financially, that he was able to consult, I am sure. But I think even more working on solving problems make any engineer happy. He could have done that full time if he wanted but he loved teaching and research too.

    In fact, watching him convinced me that once I got out of school and to work they I basically got to have fun all day every day. That turned out not to be true for me :-(

  9. Goofball Says:

    Too many people read Katz’s article and then quote how somebody they knew said the exact opposite or lived a good life as a scientist. The fact of the matter is that Katz is almost 100 percent correct. When the H-1B VISA program started up in the 1990′s, the PhD market became flooded with foreigners, especially in academia (which is exempt from industry quotas). Unless you talk to someone who got their PhD in the past ten years, you have no business believing anything they say about getting how great having a PhD is because they have not had to endure many of the problems of the job market that face current PhDs.

    Phillip Greenspun has an article about women in science that also brings up some good points that getting a tenure-track job is one thing, but getting tenure is something entirely different. Basically, after you do not get tenure, you start at the same level as a freshly minted PhD IF you manage to find a new tenure track position. Industry is even worse because nobody wants to pay a scientist or engineer of any kind for their experience when they can get some new guy right out of school to do a modestly decent job on projects they assign to them. You’ll move from job to job even though you are not officially a “postdoc”.

    Take Katz’s advice; leave science to someone else until career prospects improve. Besides, why do we need to pay people to think about science or engineering? Thinking does not turn a profit unless you are in a business where you are thinking about ways to make money.

  10. scotNo Gravatar Says:

    My personal experience is this: some 9 years after my Ph.D in physics from an Ivy league school I got an offer for a 1-year term position in a government lab, which could evolve in something more permament. By that time my wife and I had 2 kids and I had taken a job in the industry. So I turned down this job. However, I kept active, kept producing papers(roughly 2/3 of my papers have been produced from home), got invited talks and so on, even did 5 years of teaching in paralel to my job. Now, 20 years after my Ph.D, I finally get an associate professorship, but it pays half of what I am making in the industry. Nevertheless, I will take it and figure out other ways to fill in the family income; Katz is right in many ways, if you have a family, your primary responsibility is to them, not science. When yound people ask me for career advice, I always show them Katz’s article. Part of being an adult is taking hard decisions with many uncertainities and noone can do this for you.

  11. CarlNo Gravatar Says:

    Pressures of publishing more work, getting more and bigger grants, teaching bigger classes of increasingly poorly prepared students and mentoring more grad students, not to mention the typically mindless service obligations to more committees has turned the academic post into a dud of a career. The human costs to students are substantial. The morale among new faculty members is pretty bleak and the frequent bitching overheard is just enough to get most through their next class. The overproduction of Ph.Ds is a race to the bottom ensuring that each discipline bounces off the bed rock of low prestige, low pay and declining working conditions. Academe is a mess and by the time you realize that you are in the center of a shit storm of a career, it is usually too late to do anything else that will provide the small measure of comfort and financial stability you have managed to achieve. Tread cautiously.

  12. DanNo Gravatar Says:

    Not worth it. Think about it fellas. You do 4 years of undergrad, plus an additional 4-6 years for a PH. D. the end result is you come out of school to be stuck in an academic post-doc position working 50-60 hours a week making in the mid-40′s. If your lucky, you might get into a reasonable well payed industry position.

    Whenever i hear young people wanting to go into science, i tell them to steer clear of it. I tell them ” go to med school, engineering or be a pharmacist or a computer programmer, you’ll thank me when your done.”

    End result? i’m guessing over the next decade or so, the usa sciences will fall behind those of other countries as more and more of our young students start realizing why go into sciences when you can get a business degree and earn alot more starting off.

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