For some reason, there is something dignified and respectable about being a scientist. Seeing as how science is a career dedicated to the pursuit of truth and knowledge in the natural world using logic and evidence, it’s no surprise that so many people look to the task of scientific research as some kind of noble, almost illustrious profession brimming with success. According to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, public views of scientists are largely positive, with 65 percent of Americans believing that scientists contribute a great deal to society—only falling short of medical doctors, teachers, and the military.
In general, it seems very clear that we as a society regard scientists and their works with very high esteem, almost to the point of societal worship. As a result, ambitious college students and overbearing parents tend to think that the career path of a scientist in academia is one that guarantees a respectable level of fortune and recognition. However, we must understand that blindly revering anything, from renewable energy to cancer research, often leads to serious consequences instead. In short, over-glorifying the scientific profession may motivate people to pursue careers in science, but it also instills in people a set of unrealistic expectations that may crush them in the face of harsh reality.
“[O]ver-glorifying the scientific profession may motivate people to pursue careers in science, but it also instills in people a set of unrealistic expectations that may crush them in the face of harsh reality.”
For instance, when we think of what it’s like to become a scientist, an idyllic story comes into mind: A young but passionate individual enters a prestigious graduate school and immediately begins work on the research project of their dreams. Soon, the experiment becomes wildly successful and the results are published in an esteemed academic publication like Science or Nature, and thus follows a life of wonder and scientific discovery for our intrepid fledgling scientist who aspires to change the world.
Needless to say, you would need the devil’s luck for that to happen to you because scientific research isn’t nearly as idealistic or forgiving as most people want to believe.
For one thing, despite constant calls for more people in the sciences, reports show that the United States is producing too many research scientists—to the point of extreme industry congestion, in fact. According to the 2014 Survey of Earned Doctorates by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, over 54,000 research doctorate degrees were awarded in the U.S. in 2014, representing the highest number ever recorded by this survey. Of those doctorates, 75 percent of them belonged to the science and engineering fields, which has increased from 66 percent in 2004.
Although there is an overwhelming number of qualified scientists out there today, there simply aren’t enough desirable science jobs available to support everyone. For many science graduates, the prospect of obtaining a tenure-track professorship at a university is the ultimate goal because it’s one of the few positions in academia that features cutting-edge research and permanent financial security. However, there is such a surplus of PhDs in most fields that the odds of actually achieving that goal is around one in six.
“Whether we like to admit it or not, science today is a pyramid scheme. Over the last two decades, there has been a period of unsustainable growth … As a consequence, it’s child’s play to get a PhD position but almost impossible to secure a faculty job,” remarked David Keays, a biomedical researcher at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology.
As a result, an overwhelming number of science PhDs in academia end up spending their next four or five years as a postdoc working under a professor for very little pay and meager benefits. For instance, the average postdoc in biomedicine gets paid an annual salary of about $45,000. To put that into perspective, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that a typical librarian has a median annual salary of $55,370, while the median annual salary of a postal service mail carrier is $57,200.
“[A]n overwhelming number of science PhDs in academia end up spending their next four or five years as a postdoc working under a professor for very little pay and meager benefits.”
Not only that, a recent study found that ex-postdocs in biomedicine make significantly lower wages in the first 15 years of their career than their peers outside academia. And yet, people are desperately vying for these postdoc positions because of the severe lack of academic jobs. Ironically, the 2014 Survey of Earned Doctorates reported that the highest rates of academic employment are reported by doctorate recipients in the humanities and other non-STEM fields with a rate of almost 80 percent, while the lowest rates are reported by engineering—15 percent—and physical science—29 percent—doctorates.
But even once you become a certified scientist, the cutthroat competition doesn’t end. Every year, scientists from around the nation must compete for funding and grants to conduct their experiments. However, grant money is always in short supply and can’t keep up with the rate of young scientists entering the workforce. For instance, the National Institutes of Health, a major funding source for scientists, has been suffering from severe budget cuts for the past several years—all while the cost of conducting experiments has skyrocketed as well. As a result, only about 17 percent of NIH grant applications get approved, a significant decrease from 30 percent in 2000.
The high rejection rate for grant money has fueled a cascade of worrying patterns. For instance, a survey run by Nature found that academic researchers of all ages spend so much time on writing countless applications and other administrative tasks that they spend only about 40 percent of their time on actual research. Not only that, researchers are being worked to the bone to juggle all these tasks. A recent poll of more than 8,000 scientists showed that almost 40 percent of the respondents work for more than 60 hours per week.
Even worse, the ironclad law of “Publish or Perish” dictates that all scientists must pump out as many research papers as they can as quickly possible, or else they risk putting their careers significantly in jeopardy. As a result, many scientists in all fields resort to desperate measures to stay afloat by rushing experiments, exaggerating results and cherry-picking evidence. In 2012, researchers at the biotech firm Amgen could only reproduce six of 53 “landmark” studies in cancer research. In fact, one in three researchers stated that they know of a colleague who has “pepped up a paper” through shady means. Many have even turned to profit-driven “predatory journals” to publish their papers, casting scientific credibility into doubt and proliferating the dangerous culture of pseudoscience.
“[T]he ironclad law of “Publish or Perish” dictates that all scientists must pump out as many research papers as they can as quickly possible.”
It should be clear that the science profession is not as pure and righteous as many may believe, but that doesn’t mean being a scientist is a dead-end job either. Despite all the hardships they face, the majority of scientists seems content with what they do; surveys showed that at least 60 percent of scientists are satisfied with their careers.
Simply put, pursuing a career in scientific research is no better or worse than any other job option that you may end up choosing is. It goes to show that all career paths, no matter how highly society may view them, will be fraught with challenges, but those who are most likely to succeed are those who genuinely love what they do.
Originally published on November 8, 2017, in The Miscellany News: Over-glorification of Scientists Belies Realities of Field