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Ask Slashdot: Advice For Budding Scientist? 279

Posted by timothy
from the keep-quiet-about-the-reanimation dept.
New submitter everithe writes "Dear Slashdot, I am nearing the end of my undergraduate years and hoping to continue on in academia, probably focusing on condensed matter physics. Recently I've noticed some alarming pessimism among Slashdotters about the state of science — that fraud is rampant and that people honestly trying to do science are less likely to be recognized and obtain tenure. Obviously I am very interested in doing real and useful science, but am worried that this could conflict with my ability to put food on the table. My question is, how bad is it really, and do you have any advice for how one just starting out might survive in such an environment?"
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Ask Slashdot: Advice For Budding Scientist?

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  • It's not rampant (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JanneM (7445) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:10AM (#39605427) Homepage

    Cheating and fraud is not rampant, and has never been. The vast majority of scientists never go close to any unethical line. Most cheating is likely found out too, sooner or later, and sooner the more flagrant and potentially important it is. Your career will not be affected in any way by the existence of fraud in the field.

    What is a concern, however, is the sheer amount of young researchers and the relative lack of positions for them. Academia is an up-or-out kind of system, and at every step of the career ladder you are competing with dozens or hundreds of other qualified people. To put it bluntly, do go into science as a career if that where your hearts desire lies, but also make sure you have some idea of what to do instead if it doesn't work out.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:11AM (#39605433)

    Some do call the norm an exception ...

    No, sorry, I don't intend to devalue your motivating comment, as the one asking may well be able to find a great lab to work in, but I think reality is more shadowy than it looks like. This is not because science is broken or anything, but because of human nature. Without bad intend, people are prone to lie even to themselves. Get some nice stress put onto your back and see how unbiased your conclusions become!

    Think about how many cases you've heard of, and then how many universities there are, and how many professors, postdocs, and graduate students at each.

    That means: There are so many yet undocumented cases waiting to surface.

    I personally have stopped working in academia because of all the crookery I experienced in molecular biology. I have switched to the pharmaceutical industry instead. Is this an advice? Maybe not, as I found even more crooks in the industry ... there's money at stake, guys!

    Basically, if you're honest, prepare to get fucked.

  • Don't! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:24AM (#39605495)
    Don't Become a Scientist. [wustl.edu] It isn't worth it.
  • by zakaryah (1344891) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:52AM (#39605581)
    Alarming pessimism is the defining trait of Slashdot culture... Science is like any field, and the majority of scientists are like the majority of other professionals - there is plenty to complain about, and plenty to be thankful for. If you want to see how it really works, I suggest trying to attend a small conference or summer school. The Les Houches schools are very good if you can go abroad, otherwise a school which is at least two weeks and has fewer than one hundred participants, mostly students, is ideal. You will meet people doing similar things to what you will be doing in the near future if you stay in physics, and you will learn a lot about the field beyond the textbook and canonical examples level of undergraduate studies. Which is not to disparage the textbooks - if you don't have Altland and Simons' book you should get it, it's fantastic.
  • by Epimer (1337967) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @07:41AM (#39605693)

    As a disclaimer, my undergraduate degree and PhD were in chemistry, rather than physics, and in the UK, not the US.

    When I started my PhD I was planning on staying in academia. By the end of it I was desperate to leave it behind forever. Organic chemistry is somewhat notorious for having some very strange ideas about what constitutes an acceptable work/life balance. It's generally accepted (and emphasised most strongly by the more successful and/or ambitious groups) that as a PhD student or a post-doc, your work is your life. Six days a week is standard, and if you're not still in the lab by at least 7 o'clock in the evening then you're a slacker. As an aside, this leads to extremely poor time management practices, since the accepted solution to any perceived problem is "throw more lab hours at it"; this is partially due to the nature of the field and organic chemistry still being a touch unpredictable and requiring large amounts of experimental work to offset this, but it's an endemic part of the working culture. It also leads to people being in the lab just to be seen to be in the lab, rather than using their time productively. It's ridiculous.

    There was a study commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry a few years back looking at why chemistry had such a poor retention rate of women. Physics has a low proportion of female academics, too, but then it has a relatively low proportion of female undergraduate students. Chemistry, on the other hand, has roughly equal male and female intake at undergraduate level, but the further up the ladder you go the further the ratio becomes skewed in favour of men. So what's up with chemistry? The conclusion was that the field fosters tribal attitudes to adversity (your PhD is a trial by fire!) and very masculine support systems, and that long term prospects are not very conducive to family life. I remember reading a related quote from a US professor which, to paraphrase from memory, said: "I can give you a list right now of all my former [chemistry] students who had a good handle on their career prospects. They're in my 'recommendation letters to medical schools' folder."

    Funding is short for post-doc places and shorter for academics. But there's always industry jobs, right? Wrong. The jobs barely exist. Where they do exist, they're poorly paid, unstable and have poor promotion prospects. Anecdotally, when I was looking for jobs at the end of my PhD the going rate for an organic chemistry industry job (post doc experience preferred) was around £22-24k. That's less than what a sociology student going for any of the generic graduate schemes at a thousand different companies can expect to get straight out of their undergraduate degree, and with less opportunities for advancement to boot.

    So if you want to have a life outside of your work, pursue hobbies or outside interests, start a family, buy a house, be relatively financially comfortable - a career in chemistry (I won't generalise to "science", that would be overreaching) is a very, very poor choice. It won't change, either, because there will always be someone who will be willing to work 12 hour days 6-7 days a week for the prospect of just one more publication. Is it worth it? That's obviously up for individuals to decide, but depressingly enough the smartest thing I could have done with 9 years of scientific training at world class research institutes was to use it as a springboard to get the hell out.

    I'm much happier now.

  • by Elrond, Duke of URL (2657) <JetpackJohn@gmail.com> on Saturday April 07, 2012 @07:42AM (#39605695) Homepage

    For the past 15 years I've had an, let's call it unusual, job working in the astronomy department at the University of Arizona. First as a student employee (research assistant) and now for a private start-up, though my "office" unofficially remains on campus.

    So, I've seen a lot of the goings on in the department, and while I'm certainly not plugged into the faculty grapevine, I see what goes on.

    Fraud? No. It's a friendly and cordial place to work really. If there has been any fraud, it has been either very minor or done by people who weren't around very long. But, astronomy is not like physics or biology. Sure, the grants are still very competitive, but it is expected that you will be looking for the unknown, so somewhat fanciful ideas aren't immediately shunned. Maybe you wont get to use your first choice 10m telescope, but there are many others available.

    The state of astronomy is changing, though. I had a lengthy chat with my boss about this recently. He's about to turn 80, so he's been at this since the Apollo days. Back then, space research got a lot of funding, but that's not true any more. Often, to get a grant you need to try to show how this idea of yours could conceivably help industry. The problem is that a lot of astronomy falls into the fundamental research category. You just want to see how the universe functions. It is a lot harder to get money for that these days. There are subcategories where it is easier, though. I work in the adaptive optics part of the department and this has obvious uses for, among others, the military. This means you can potentially get funding from the defense department, they get something they want, and you still get to do astronomy.

    Having said all of that, do read what a lot of others have posted about the scarcity of jobs for scientists in academia. It's not good. My position is somewhat unique (in both good and bad ways that I wont get into here), so I haven't had to deal with this yet. And perhaps astronomy is somewhat more fortunate than regular physics in that there are fewer students trying to get PhDs, but getting a permanent job still isn't easy.

  • by penguinchris (1020961) <penguinchris@@@gmail...com> on Saturday April 07, 2012 @11:09AM (#39606605) Homepage

    That's great for you but what can you say to young academics today who will find extreme difficulty in attaining such a position?

    Not everyone will get such a position, of course, we understand that. But what can we do to improve the odds?

    Just as in every other part of the economy, there isn't enough funding for all the potential grad students and certainly not enough professor jobs for them once they finish. To me there's a huge disconnect being pushed - politicians call for more students in science and engineering, but once the students are there, there's no place for them to go. And it's outrageous that this is the case - we could have a much stronger science and engineering base in this country than we do (not that it isn't already strong). I'm one of several advanced science degree holders in my circle of friends who can't find a relevant job and can't find a professor with funding for grad students to go back to school with.

    I realize that you as a professor of twenty years are insulated from all that, but surely you've seen such issues in your department, with more well-qualified students applying than you have funding for, and students finishing PhDs and then not being able to find a position?

Those who do things in a noble spirit of self-sacrifice are to be avoided at all costs. -- N. Alexander.

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