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.