How does this sound........you go to post secondary school for 10 to 12 years, accumulate tens of thousands of dollars of debt, postpone several major adult decisions such as purchasing a home, getting married, and having kids, and take limited to no vacations. By the time you are in a financial position to have kids, your biological clock has nearly “timed out” adding more stress to your already stressful life. To give yourself the best chance of future success, you also made the sacrifice of moving thousands of miles from home, friends, and family to pursue your dream of higher education and at the same time knowing that you will most likely never be able to find a job in your future profession within a four hour drive of where you grew up. You typically work ~50-60 hours per week; however, some weeks with looming deadlines demand you work greater than 60 hours/wk
You constantly feel like you should be working and feel guilty for taking evenings and weekends off. You have limited to no job security as your current position is guaranteed for about two to three years. Depending on your productivity, along with luck/circumstances that are somewhat out of your control (i.e., grant funding) after two years you may essentially be fired and have to move to another city and in most cases an entirely different state and region. To cap it all off, despite your 12 years of higher education, and hundreds of acquired technical, analytic, and reasoning skills, federal government pay scales from which most scientific postdocs are paid dictate you make no more than $41,000/yr to start your career! Is this starting to sound like a pretty good career choice? Well.....
This is the Plight of the Post Doc! The hard work, dedication, and sacrifices required to become a postdoctoral researcher are not unique to the basic science career disciple. Many professions demand putting off major adult decisions and making sacrifices in order to receive the (years of) training necessary to become successful in that profession. The difference, however, between these careers and a career in basic science research is largely financial as the sacrifices made to pursue those careers are, by in large, worth it. Medical doctors, surgeons, lawyers, physician assistants, MBA’s, accountants, and financial planners receive a level of compensation that makes all that hard work and sacrifice worth it. None of these professions start off at $41,000/yr, job security is based on performance not circumstance, government funding, or grant cycles, and the opportunities for promotion and the ceiling for financial growth are much greater in careers outside of basic science.
The best and worst advice you can give your 18 year old son or daughter is “to figure out what you love to do or are interested in and pursue it to the highest degree.” This advice is completely solid if you make one qualifying statement and that is figure out what you love to do or are interested in and pursue it to the highest degree if you can get a worthwhile return on investment and make a living doing so. What if your son or daughter is really interested in philosophy and more specifically the musings of 18th Century Kant and pursues it to the highest degree (PhD)? How much will it cost him/her to complete this degree? What are the career prospects for this degree? How many different types of jobs require a PhD in philosophy? And can you make a living studying the 21st Century relevance of 18th Century Kant?
Basic science research is the lifeblood of the biomedical industry and is a highly worthy cause. It is where great discoveries happen and where the groundwork for drug discovery, patient care, and an increase in the health and quality of life for individuals is founded. So many of today’s routine medical practices were yesterday’s basic science discoveries! But with that being said, one must ask the question “why in the world would anyone want to pursue a career as a basic science researcher?” when the pay is so little, the job security is so poor, and the demands are so high.
Next week I’d like to share with you why, despite these unpleasant circumstances, scientists still do what they do.
Todd M. Weber PhD, MS, RD