Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Fair's fair?

I just followed a trail of bread crumbs about science and graduate school, beginning with Ph.D. training as a Ponzi scheme, meandering through The Real Science Gap, what's socially wrong with science, Something Deeply Wrong with Chemistry, something's wrong with this lab and it's not atypical, and finally jumping off that miserable, depressing trail to end with the upbeat, (and totally naive) Drawings of Scientists by 7th graders. By the end, when I read what the 7th graders wrote about the scientists being normal, happy people who lead normal, happy lives, I really wanted to cry (and also, tell those poor 7th graders "Don't believe it!").


What does it mean?

First, it's depressing.

But, then, I also note in the comments a few statements like "Sounds like the video game industry," or "Sounds like computer programming."

Is this just the way it is? The way it has to be? Is this as fair as it's ever going to get? What's fair? And for that matter, what's best?

Is it fair (or best) that young people (20-40 years old) work very hard for low pay in order to keep technology chugging along at a reasonable pace? Our hard work and low pay makes far more discovery and productivity possible than if we worked fewer hours and demanded higher pay. Right?

Is it fair (or best) that only a small percentage of us can make it to slightly cushier jobs, with some amount of financial payoff, job security and benefits? Surely that's the only way to ensure that only the cream-of-the-crop rise to the top and make the big, high-level decisions about what lines of research to pursue and how to spend the precious research dollars. Right?

And what of the remaining bright, inquisitive, scientific minds that refuse to live that life for long enough to rise to the top, or get a little unlucky somewhere along the way, or just don't make it into the top few percent? Is it right (or best) that they end up un- or under-employed, or working their entire lives like the 20-40 yr old "youngsters" with low pay, no security, few benefits, and ridiculous hours?

Or is it possible that a better way could be found? Could there be a system where bright scientific minds could find financial reward, job security, benefits and reasonable hours as well as intellecutally stimulating, rewarding jobs that also better maximize their contributions, and maybe that they could find these jobs at as early of an age as, say, 22? Is that what you get when you skip the Ph.D. and just join industry right out of college? Or do you get more of the same - high expectations for low pay and some distant possibility of moving up to financial reward, security, and the possibility of intellectual contribution?

1 comment:

  1. It's a supply and demand issue. I was shocked to see the NIH post-doc pay is something like 37k a year. The average mechanical/electrical engineer with no more than a BS can probably expect to earn 45k and upwards depending on demand and location. Add a JD on top of your BA and the average starting salary for a lawyer is something like 60k and up. Clearly it's not a merit based system where financial "wizards" make in the six figures as do 80 year old tenured professors in certain disciplines. But I think six figures in academia is over for anyone under 40. It's not so much age discrimination as economics. The demand for certain industries just didn't grow fast enough and will not until as a society our priorities change from enriching Goldman Sachs to putting men on the moon again.