Friday, September 29, 2006

Ask me if I'm bovvered.

I see in the news that a new pressure group has sprung up with the goal of reversing the decline in students studying science at school and beyond. Follow the links at the bottom of that page for many more stories in a similar vein. According to the Great and Good, there aren't enough science teachers or enough scientists. As a result the economy will collapse, and we're all doomed.

Am I bovvered, though? Does my face look bovvered?

Science, by and large, is an increasingly poor career choice (by a number of measures), and I am really rather more surprised that so many people still do it at all, than that the number is declining.

I was lucky enough to squeak through the system at the end of the "golden age" of grants (not loans), when the cost of two degrees was measured merely by the relative intangibles of a subsistence lifestyle and the opportunity cost of not getting on the salary ladder. On top of that, the current cohort face a hefty red figure in their bank balances in the form of accumulated tuition fees and loans. It's hardly a situation that would encourage a rational person to choose a low-paying job with poor prospects.

Ignoring the title, this page paints a pretty realistic picture, I think. I don't for a minute believe his thesis that women don't do science because they alone realise it's a crap choice, whereas us dumb men are stupid enough to fall for the fantasy of fame and fortune (for an alternative explanation, have a read of this - although IMO and IME it [fortunately] represents an extreme case). But as for its description of science as an underpaid, overworked, insecure choice with a high cost of entry and huge drop-out rate, I think it pretty much hits the spot. I hope all my readers understand that even the run-of-the-mill tenured professor is very much at the lucky and/or talented end of the bell curve of a group of people who were already generally at the top of the class before they even started trying to climb up this particular slippery pole. And even if you get the supposedly cushy tenured post, it's no defence when the Govt decides to downsize or just close your lab. I've blogged about CEH before, but those other two links concern firstly the lab where I had my first job, and then the one where my father worked for many years. Both closed on April 1st this year. I think in my 7 years of work in the UK (at 2 labs) there were about 4 rounds of redundancies in all, which hardly results in a conducive atmosphere for work even for those who were not personally threatened.

Perhaps I'm digressing a little. Of course there is a good side to scientific research, and I don't regret my decision at all. It's a great choice for the eccentrics and independently-monied :-) I'd prefer it if there were fewer rather than more of us, though. It's a question of supply and demand.

Of course the CBI wants more scientists. The fat cats who they represent stand to make fat profits on the slave labour of an army of underpaid post-docs (who they did not pay to train or educate, of course). If the supply dries up to the point at which they have to pay scientists higher salaries, I'm not going to shed any tears on their behalf. I'm sure that many of the worthies have their hearts in the right place, and think we need more scientists because science is generally a source of good, rather than because they like to build their empires up with hordes of post-docs with no job security. Nevertheless, oversupply drives down the price, and undersupply will drive it up again.

So basically, if people stop studying science, I'm not bovvered. In fact, I look forward to it. And if you are looking for career advice, please go and be an estate agent or hairdresser or journalist or...well, anything really. Just not a scientist!

1 comment:

C W Magee said...

James, while your post and links accurately describe the career path for academic scientists, remember that there is also the private sector. These Earth science jobs ( have similar requirements as grad school. But they pay as much as $100,000 more per year.

They used to say that the challenges and rewards of working in an academic environment were priceless. But today it is easy to price them. While I enjoy developing new analytical tecniques, analysing dead people, stardust, etc, it is very easy to determine how many tens of thousands of dollars it is costing me when compared to a boring mine geologist job.