Science Job Market

Steve Hsu has been arguing in his blog that young people should not be encouraged to pursue a career in science. He feels that they would find greater success if not satisfaction in a more lucrative field like finance, engineering, law or medicine. His argument is based on the premise that there are a plethora of well educated and well trained people from eastern europe, the far east and south asia that are willing to endure more hardship and take less pay for the same job. In the end, the top American students may waste 10 years pursuing an academic job that may never materialize. The various merits of this argument is debated in the comments to Steve’s posts. I do not deny that competition for academic jobs in science is fierce but why should it be less so in these other fields?

Law and especially medicine restrict the supply by limiting the number of students admitted to their respective professional schools and making it extremely difficult to practice in the US if one is trained in another country. Thus, in terms of these fields, our hypothetical top student interested in science would need to out compete other Americans to attain coveted slots in these schools. If they succeeded (and that is not guaranteed by any means) in getting admitted, employment as a physician or lawyer is reasonably certain if they went to a top rated school. From what I’ve seen, insurance companies have been declaring war on physician salaries for the past several years and law does not seem to be a guarantee of a high salary or job security.

Engineering and related discplines like computer science certainly have more options in industry than say physics or mathematics. However, it may not have many more opportunities than say chemistry or biology. Additionally, the same cohort of foreign students competing for jobs in science should also be competing for these fields. We have all heard about software outsourcing lately and I’m certain it will only get worse.

Finance is the area that Steve was really referring to in terms of missed opportunities for the top science student. Between ten and fifteen years ago, a wave of physicists entered finance. Many have done exceedingly well and have retired or could retire. However, I think that well is drying up as well. I don’t see why competition from foreigners won’t be any less fierce, if not fiercer here. The brightest students in other countries will probably follow the same advice Steve is giving. Correct me if I’m wrong but I bet that purely quantitative jobs are probably not as lucrative as they were in the hay days. The only way to really succeed in finance is to advance into a leadership position and being able to do that requires a skill set that is independent of those that are optimal for science.

So I think the bottom line is that if you are a truly spectacular student then you could probably be successful in medicine, law, engineering or finance. On the other hand you probably would be successful in science as well. Steve’s argument hinges on the fact that it takes a long time in science before you know if you have what it takes. Given that the average American will change careers five times in their life, I’m not sure if that is not true elsewhere as well. I think the bottom line is that we now live in a global economy and this will affect everyone. As they say, there is no free lunch.


17 thoughts on “Science Job Market

  1. Nice post, but I find no reason to believe talents needed to cross fields as readily as you suggest are all that similar or reside in the breast of the magic-mathematician :) Paths taken are not so easily retrod.Anne


  2. Cars Aren’t Really Exploding, but the Terrorist Metaphor IsBy GRACE GLUECK NORTH ADAMS, Mass. – Not every museum has space the size of a football field to allot to a one-person show. But at Mass MoCA, the rambling factory-turned-art center here, Building 5 is where an artist can get carried away. With its several rooms, including a main gallery 300 feet long, 55 feet wide and 28 feet high, it has, like a big movie soundstage, a voracious appetite for spectaculars. And the museum’s staff seeks them out, sometimes commissioning works especially for the space, at other times taking shows already put together.Choosing from a small cadre of artists who can handle the scale, the museum has had no trouble feeding the hungry maw. Building 5 has housed big doings by Robert Rauschenberg, Tim Hawkinson , Robert Wilson and Ann Hamilton. Its current impresario is Cai Guo-Qiang, the Chinese-born New Yorker known for his melding of Eastern and Western culture, whose specialty is making spectacles from fireworks. (A “fusion” artist?) Now internationally recognized, Mr. Cai is best known to New Yorkers for the brief but showy rainbow he created of exploding fireworks that arced over the East River for the Museum of Modern Art’s opening in Queens in 2002, and for his colossal pyrotechnic display over Central Park in 2003 that produced, among other effects, a 1,000-foot halo over the reservoir. Nor has he lacked for attention elsewhere in the country. Right now, besides this show, he has a two-part exhibition in Washington, a collaboration between the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian that runs through April 24.For the commission at Mass MoCA, Mr. Cai (pronounced “sigh”) was more than ready, actually requesting an extra gallery. A reluctant “no” was the answer. Not to worry. He’s come up with a multipart installation titled “Inopportune” and, like a Chinese New Year combined with the Fourth of July, it is full of snap, crackle and bang bang.Based on the idea of an ancient scroll painting whose long horizontal format gradually unfolds to reveal its imagery, the work has four parts, each seen separately but making key visual connections. The main gallery display is a gasp-maker, a fantasy car bombing involving nine identical white Ford Tauruses and lines of flashing multicolored lights. As you enter, the first car sits peacefully on the ground. The second takes off into the air, suspended from the ceiling, followed by six other cars held by ropes that fix them in tumbling positions to make a long arc. The procession ends with the last one, plunked on the ground again with no evidence of damage.An explosive effect is created by the tiny rope lights, tied to rods and pulsing with color, that seem to flash out from the cars themselves. Beginning with white and segueing into a different hue for each car, they end with a peaceful blue that spreads out like wings from the penultimate car to ease its landing. Like a time sequence made by a still camera, recording a single event in multiple frames, the line of cars is meant to be construed as an image of one. Mr. Cai is not a political artist, and although the image suggests car-bomb violence in Iraq, he’s borrowed the spectacle, not the message. The fact that the car lands undamaged, you see, means that this is art, not war. The same rationale prevails in the second room, where a video projection 9 feet high and 35 feet long takes up an entire wall. It’s a loop scene of Times Square at night, almost life-size with its usual commotion of foot and wheeled traffic inflected by raucous signage. Into this bustle floats a phantom car, an interpolated image that is not really part of the scene but seems to flow along on top of it.As you watch, it explodes in a storm of fireworks, shooting out streams of color, light and noise that all but obliterate the car itself. But passers-by don’t notice, and the car drives through, repeating the whole performance every 90 seconds. (You can see the actual car that was used, scorched, battered and draped with exploded fireworks apparatus, in a room behind the video screen.) …Anne


  3. I agree that talent in one field does not necessarily translate to another. Steve’s argument is that the promising student should not choose science (i.e. physics) but one of these other fields because after 10 years of physics it would be harder to cross over and you have wasted all that time. I think it’s hard no matter what path you choose.I saw an exhibit by Cai Guo-Qiang just a few months ago. He’s like a Chinese Christo. I don’t think he’s a mathematician per se but he thinks like one. He is truly astounding.


  4. Revenge of Ellen SwallowBack in the post-Civil War era, Ellen Swallow yearned to get a graduate degree in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which did not admit women. She wangled her way into classes by doing housework for her professors. “Perhaps the fact that I am not a Radical,” she optimistically wrote to her parents, “and that I do not scorn womanly duties but claim it as a privilege to clean up and sort of supervise the room and sew things is winning me stronger allies than anything else.” Faculty members, it turned out, were happy to let her keep darning their socks but not to give her an advanced degree. Eventually, thwarted in her attempts to get a job in chemistry, she married a metallurgy professor and invented home economics.Generations of women with a bent for science managed to get college teaching jobs because Ellen Swallow Richards figured out a way to connect their field to the analysis of cleaning products. It was something, but not exactly ideal. Today – after another century of discrimination and sexual harassment in the laboratory – female scientists are getting an increasingly large percentage of all undergraduate degrees and they get a little prickly if an extremely powerful man raises the question of whether their field has an inherent sexual divide.All of which, of course, takes us to Lawrence Summers and his china-smashing remarks on gender and academia. Back in January, the president of Harvard shared his thoughts on why so few women get tenure at the best schools at a conference on “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce.” His conclusion – couched in many assurances that the jury was still out – was that female scientists are distracted by the demands of family, and that “there are issues of intrinsic aptitude.”Dr. Summers told his audience that he wanted to be controversial, and if that’s so he must be extremely gratified by the results. Several apologies and clarifications later, Harvard now has two brand-new task forces on recruitment of women and a restive faculty that seems to be teetering on the verge of revolt. Last week’s release of the long-sought transcript of his remarks is not likely to improve things much. Dr. Summers compared the shortage of female scientists at the highest ranks of academia to, among other things, the shortage of Jewish farmers, and white men in the National Basketball Association. (Coming soon: Female Biologists Can’t Jump.)Dr. Summers’s defenders say he is being tarred for the very intellectual openness that places like Harvard are supposed to encourage. Even in the best of circumstances, it’s questionable whether the head of an institution that has a bad reputation when it comes to promoting female scientists was the perfect person to free-associate on why women have trouble getting tenure. However, the transcript provides the best possible refutation of the charge of political correctness. Whatever Dr. Summers was doing at the conference, it had nothing to do with serious intellectual inquiry. “I don’t think anybody actually has a clue” was one operative phrase. “I don’t remember who had told me” was another. It was every woman’s nightmare of what a university president thinks privately about equal opportunity. We have been informed many, many times in the past that Dr. Summers likes to make waves, and who could blame him? It’s fun to toss out provocative ideas and watch as everyone’s ears redden and all eyes turn to the daring speaker who started the hubbub. But it’s an exercise better restricted to radio talk show hosts than the heads of major academic institutions. Harvard is supposed to be teaching its students not just how to start a controversy, but also how to have an intelligent conversation.Anne


  5. “Whatever Dr. Summers was doing at the conference, it had nothing to do with serious intellectual inquiry.”Sorry, I cannot accept that statement in any form. Summers was the one asking a valid scientific question. The lady who ran out of the room claiming she had to vomit was the anti-intellectual.(Strangely, though, I found Summers remarkable un-eloquent :-)Some clarifications on your post:1) I encourage everyone to pursue an education in science. Whether a career as a scientist is a good option is another story. The knowledge and skills are applicable in many areas, which is one of the reasons not to limit oneself to a narrow research career.2) there is a big difference between academic sci/eng careers and others – US taxpayers (in their own self-interest) are paying to import competition for home-grown scientists. The graduate stipend at a US graduate school (paid for or subsidized by taxpayers) is 10 times the per capita income in many developing countries. Is there an analogous phenomena in law, medicine or finance? If not, you should admit that there is a qualitative difference in the labor markets – the supply pool is artificially enlarged in academic sci/eng, but not in the other areas. We all know what happens when supply increases but demand does not. BTW, this affects applied areas of sci/eng as well, but not as much as the number of employers (size of market) is larger.3) Perhaps an even bigger effect which limits the economic returns to a career in science is that there are so many people with a delta function utility function peaked on “I looove science!” – as in “My curious brain can only be happy doing this kind of work. Why, I would do it for free!” Such people drive down wages and job conditions for people with more “normal” utility functions. If you are a more “normal” personality type, you may not be happy with the trade-offs in science. 4) Most disturbing to me is that we may end up with a pool of scientists that are selected mainly for their odd utility functions than for their abilities. We’re not there yet, but you could end up with the really smart guys are at hedge funds, and a lot of mediocre supernerds as scientists.


  6. I think point 4) could be a real issue but will it be a real crisis? You could argue that only a small subset push the agenda anyway and some of them will still be in science (those for whom the odd utility function and ability coincide). I think it has also been going on for sometime. When I was a student my Mom thought I made a mistake to not go into medicine. What is the value of being a scientist? Is it a factor of 10 compared to finance? What price would it take for you to switch fields? Being one with an odd utility function, I can’t judge objectively.


  7. Steve’s fundamental complaint with science is the relatively poor compensation. The same mathematical skill set necessary for theoretical physics can be applied to finance leading to enhancements in compensation by factors 0f 10X or greater (ignoring the need for additional skills such as higher skill and interpersonal interactions). He ascribes this poor compensation to an oversupply of practitioners and the presence of people in the sciences with sharply-peaked utility-functions with little or no concern for compensation. I do not believe a reduced supply would enhance compensation in the sciences. I believe (in the current US/Western capitalist economic model) proximity to a high cash-flow is a necessary condition for high compensation.High compensation careers usually are either associated with large amounts of capital or services for which customers will spare no expense. Financial careers are clearly associated with high cash-flow (pluck off 0.5% of a billion $ deal, and no one notices). A professional trade such as corporate law is coupled to large amounts of capital. Medicine and criminal law “can” lead to high compensations if the practitioner can provide a service that is perceived to be unique and life-saving. Of course sales, a career requiring limited training, can be very lucrative (real estate agents).If compensation is a concern, then the sci/eng individual must take steps to get close to the revenue stream. The presence of the “ooh I love science”-crowd is not unique to science. Certainly the performing arts and professional sports are overflowing with this archetype. In these fields the most effective way to make cash is to produce and market, not actually perform. To bar the “odd” utility function people (which is impossible) would only dilute competition and lower the level of performance.One solution to the compensation dilemma is for the scientist to do stints as an entrepreneur. Take an idea, patent it, develop it and sell it off. This hybrid-career approach requires some risk, but that is not an unusual or unreasonable condition…What do you think Steve?(I would put in a winking eye text character, but I don’t do that stuff)WJEV


  8. WJEV,I disagree that ordinary labor economics do not apply to the sci/eng job market. I am not saying that would drive science salaries to the levels of finance or law, but we would see an improvement in salaries and job conditions. For example, suppose for national security reasons the US govt bans all physics researchers from China, India and frmr Soviet states. After cursing Bush, I would realize we still have some postdoc or asst prof. positions to fill, and I have to do it with US-born candidates (or the odd European or Israeli). Because I see the supply has contracted so much, to get someone as good as I had originally planned to hire, I might have to take a risk – like hire someone who has only done a year or two of postdoc. Even then I might get into a bidding war with another group, and have to pay the candidate 20% more than I originally planned. I might have to push the university to tenure a junior person early to avoid losing them. Do you see where this is going? Eventually we might end up with a much more favorable situation where people get faculty jobs soon (or immediately) after the PhD, and where faculty salaries are somewhat higher (although, you are right, not at the level of finance or the professions).Certainly US science suffers in this scenario, but it unarguably improves the working conditions of US-born scientists. It also attracts back some Americans who would have avoided a career in science under present conditions.


  9. Oops, I should also add (perhaps it is obvious) that if we had fewer “odd utility function”-types (OTF’s) who were willing to work for nothing, then supply would again go down and “buyers” would have to bid up working conditions to fill positions.


  10. Steve,Okay, I agree with much of what you say (supply/demand labor economics but with some limitations on compensation), but what is the proper course for the country? Your last post concedes that the possibility of ending up with only mediocre super-nerds in science will not happen if we are able to continue attracting top-achieving foreign national candidates.In order to maintain a high standard of living in the US, it will be important to maintain leadership in high-value added markets rather than compete with China and India in manual labor markets. An expansion in federal funding of sci/eng (not likely under the current administration) will increase the number of available jobs and, if it can stress the supply, lead to enhancements in job conditions. The return in scientific and technical products and innovation will not only be beneficila but necessary to maintain our high standard of living. This strategy has two benefits; First, it encourages growth in the US-derived supply of sci/eng and second, it may serve to attract foreign talent thereby maintaining a de facto advantage for the US over our trading partners.In contrast, I think the idea of restricting the sci/eng labor supply WOULD lead to the mediocre super-nerds scenario.Returning to Carson’s original post, I think we all agree that training in eng/sci is not a bad choice. The crucial decision comes when one has to choose between the academic model (chase the elusive faculty position) or pursue a totally different career track. Either way a sci/eng education is applicable to a broad range of pursuits and is far more practical and adaptable than other fields of study (languages, english lit,…). It is probably in the interest of sci/eng students to require a full semester course examining employment trends and alternative career paths as an antidote to the OUF. I think I would counsel my niece/nephew to pursue sci/eng if they are interested in it, but then make a very careful (frequently re-evaluated) and informed choice of career path. See Anonymous-#1/ATL’s post for a related discussion.WJEV


  11. 21, 2005The Math Test Score Upper Tail: Is There Reason to Believe That Sociology Swamps Biology? Yes:In 1992, 2.8% of Asian-American women who took the Math SAT scored 750 or above. In 1992, 2.1% of white men who took the Math SAT scored 750 or above.In 1992, 0.4% of white women who took the Math SAT scored 750 or above.In 1992, 0.2% of African-American men who took the Math SAT scored 750 or above.Anne


  12. 2002The Biology of Race and the Concept of EqualityBy Ernst Mayr – DaedalusIn the eighteenth century, when America’s Constitution was written, all our concepts were dominated by the thinking of the physical sciences. Classes of entities were conceived in terms of Platonic essentialism. Each class (eidos) corresponded to a definite type that was constant and invariant. Variation never entered into discussions because it was considered to be “accidental” and hence irrelevant. A different race was considered a different type. A white European was a different type from a black African. This went so far that certain authors considered the human races to be different species.It was the great, and far too little appreciated, achievement of Charles Darwin to have replaced this typological approach by what we now call population thinking. In this new thinking, the biological uniqueness of every individual is recognized, and the inhabitants of a certain geographic region are considered a biopopulation. In such a biopopulation, no two individuals are the same, and this is true even for the six billion humans now on Earth. And, most important, each biopopulation is highly variable, and its individuals greatly differ from each other, thanks to the unique genetic combinations that result from this variability….In a Darwinian population, there is great variation around a mean value. This variation has reality, while the mean value is simply an abstraction. One must treat each individual on the basis of his or her own unique abilities, and not on the basis of the group’s mean value.At the same time, nothing could be more meaningless than to evaluate races in terms of their putative “superiority.” Anne


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