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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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  • by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @05:48AM (#39605371) Homepage Journal
    Those cases are all exceptions. Look around at your department, or the next one over. They're not full of crooks (probably.) The vast majority of upper-level academes are just committed nerds: 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. Life goes on.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      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 man

      • by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:24AM (#39605489) Homepage Journal
        Molecular biology really depends on what organism you're focusing on. Worm researchers, for example, are all really nice people because there's an unbroken lineage and it's a relatively small community. If you were studying mammals, you shouldn't be too surprised that things were a little more cut-throat. Anything remotely medical is unfortunately very competitive, a product of self-aggrandisement that it really doesn't deserve. I obviously can't speak for your particular experience, but coming from a very medicine-heavy school that had a radically different culture between the (faculty of medicine) biochemistry department and the (faculty of arts and sciences) biology department, it seems to me that such is the trend. If you're going into pharma, you're really just asking for it even harder. :) Pick something considered less glamorous by prime time television, and you'll find less careerism and more curiosity.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          On a side note, I am really disgusted by Slashdot. We ACs get hardly recognized ever, and rarely somebody responds ... so, thanks for your reply!

          More on topic: You're spot-on, I was not only in mammals, but, even worse, in humans (neurology: memory formation). There's very tough competition in that field and, even worse, everybody knows everybody else, either as friend (thus promoting each other's findings), or as foe (thus busting "unacceptable" and "laughable" "research").

          Poor me that I didn't get that gr

          • Budding? (Score:4, Funny)

            by AliasMarlowe (1042386) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @08:19AM (#39605789) Journal

            I know young scientists tend to be a bit in the dark about sex and suchlike, but really! Budding is not the way that mammals produce offspring.

          • Ouch. That's definitely right in the glamour hole. When I was entering university I too wanted to be in a field that had big and impressive findings and answered questions everyone's interested in, but since most of my classes were with pre-med students I quickly realized that the culture surrounding human research was absolutely toxic when you really dig down into it. It didn't take me long after that to settle into the other side of bioinformatics, evolutionary genomics. Still answering big and important
    • by flyneye (84093) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:30AM (#39605515) Homepage

      Corruption happens, it happens on campuses, it happens in private facilities, it happens in cases where it is LIKELY to happen in fields it is LIKELY to happen in. For instance, Gov't. commissions a field study of global warming, I'd look for a few dollars to change hands. Tobacco industry commissions research on cancer, I'd bet on some careful wording and outright skewing. Physics? Ask yourself, is there anyone interested in outcomes, enough to pay for the outcome they want to come out of it all? If not, don't worry about it and if they do and it's a lot of money or license to breathe, we'll understand, not condone,not approve,but,hey, par for the course....

      • Corruption is not a problem in science. It's when there is a prior interest to the outcome of a study (e.g. paid by a company). Also, every scientist wants his analysis to be a success -- significant and relevant. The problem is choosing the wrong method for an analysis, and/or interpreting the results in a slightly off way. When every but one method tells you that the results are insignificant and that one method is chosen (file drawer effect [wikipedia.org]). If you're any use as a scientist -- got used to reading litera

        • by kaladorn (514293)

          The problem in the real-world is that a lot of 'science' is funded by people who HAVE an interest in the outcome. Studies with inconvenient conclusions are frequently submarined by corporations (and governments).

          Scientists are no more or less human than anyone else. Some of them enjoy the success that a prominent work evokes and the attention it can generate. Ego can be involved here just like it is in other areas of endeavor.

          Beyond that, scientists have to eat. And scientists can be as encumbered by legal

    • There is a fair bit of nasty backstaby fighting in some subfields, but maybe you could just avoid such subfields.

      There is a much larger problem that real academic science jobs aren't nearly numerous enough accommodate the glut of PhDs. Anyone studying a STEM degree should plan on "selling out" to industry after their PhD or first post-doc. If possible, avoid the subfields that industry doesn't care about.

      If you find yourself with a PhD in a not particularly applicable subfield, then you're basically faced

    • Agreed. I've been a professor for 20 years. I can't imagine a better job. Research is still fun sometimes to the point of controlled obsession, teaching is satisfying and the students are mostly good to great, the downsides of the job are minimal, and the pay is good. There's nothing else I'd rather do. Matt Wood, Professor Dept Physics & Space Sciences Florida Institute of Technology Melbourne, FL 32901
      • 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?

    • by patjhal (1423249)

      Hi Samantha. You answer one side, but I am curious what you are really looking at. The way people seem or their work under duress. In undergrad do you think classmates might have created data especially when their experimental data did not look so good and they wanted a good grade? Did you possibly see activity like that in graduate work? If so does it make you wonder if that type of thing will continue? Work that looked pretty but did not make sense? Would your current position allow you to raise a

  • Advice (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Plagiarize,
    Let no one else's work evade your eyes,
    Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
    So don't shade your eyes,
    But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize -
    Only be sure always to call it please 'research'.

    • Re:Advice (Score:5, Funny)

      by mustafap (452510) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:24AM (#39605491) Homepage

      here are my thoughts...

      Plagiarize,
      Let no one else's work evade your eyes,
      Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
      So don't shade your eyes,
      But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize -
      Only be sure always to call it please 'research'.

      • For anyone who hasn't encountered Mr Lehrer, I recommend a Youtube search for "Lobachevsky"

        • For anyone who hasn't encountered Mr Lehrer, I recommend a Youtube search for "Lobachevsky"

          And just to clarify, the song is of course a work of fiction and parody. Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky was in fact a real-life mathematician, but none of the things attributed to him in in this song are true. Lehrer himself stresses this in the album-notes of his recording.

  • Fraud?? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Barsteward (969998)
    Most of the talk of fraud is from religious nuts, climate change deniers etc. so just ignore these idiots.
  • by Chrisq (894406) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:05AM (#39605413)
    They say that evloution can't be true because the bible says it. And that global warming must be wrong because they like driving an SUV, and because they know they are nice people they cannot be impacting the environment. Most people you meet within science won't be at all like that.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      No most people in science will only be concerned with funding.

    • by ThorGod (456163)

      They say that evloution can't be true because the bible says it. And that global warming must be wrong because they like driving an SUV, and because they know they are nice people they cannot be impacting the environment.

      Bingo! Unfortunately, slashdot isn't immune to the loud, uninformed internet minions. That's the problem with anything on the internet. If you have a question and an answer in mind, then someone's already written up that answer somewhere on the internet with which ever opinion you have of it. So don't rely on internet sources.

      Rely on the scientific method and peer-reviewed journals or sources (aka published professors/fellow students).

      And *please* don't let anybody but yourself decide what makes you happy.

  • by qwak23 (1862090) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:06AM (#39605417)

    If it's what you want, go for it. You may struggle for a few years early on, very few jobs are awesome (pay wise) to start but over time it will get better. Also remember, you're never too old to try something new (with the exception of a few career fields like fighter pilot), if your dream job doesn't work out, you may be able to find another one that you enjoy but never realized existed (science majors have many more options open to them than say, business majors). Success is never guaranteed, but if you don't try, you'll never get anywhere.

    I too would one day like to be an Academic Scientist, and maybe I will get there, I am just taking the extra long route right now ;)

    Best of luck to you.

    • by TeknoHog (164938)

      if your dream job doesn't work out, you may be able to find another one that you enjoy but never realized existed (science majors have many more options open to them than say, business majors).

      Seconded. I always thought I would be a scientist, and I got a master's degree in physics from a rather prestigious university. Since then I have started about 5 PhD projects, each one coming to a halt within a year, mostly due to problems with the supervisor and the department. In most of these cases I was simply unlucky, for example with one supervisor moving to another job. In another example, other people soon followed me as I left an incompetent supervisor. So my one advice would be, find a supervisor

  • Find great mentors. I recommend Richard Feynman.

    You can't go wrong getting his perspectives on science (besides his actual science, which has some relevance to condensed matter physics). I don't know anyone who describes learning about nature better. If what he says doesn't resonate, you might consider leaving the field. If it resonates, you may find you don't care about other people's opinions as much and just enjoy the pleasure of finding things out.

    There are many hours of videos of him online free.

    • by qwak23 (1862090)

      It also helps to have living mentors. ;)

      Finding a good mentor or two is an excellent in any profession. I certainly owe quite a bit to mine.

  • 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 Rich0 (548339) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @07:34AM (#39605673) Homepage

      Agreed. My observation is that you can make a decent living doing ANYTHING IFF you are exceptionally good at it. That doesn't mean getting A's in the average watered-down school class - it means pursuing it with a passion and being recognized outside of school by "peers" who are already established in that industry. Now, that doesn't have to be something recognized as a "profession" per se in school - it could be a trade, or even just your ability to BS or play poker.

      What you can't afford to do is be mediocre at just anything. There are fields you can make a survivable income on with mediocre performance, but science is definitely not one of them. In fact, I'm not sure a college degree is even a worthwhile pursuit for most of them - those incomes are much less survivable if you're repaying $50k in loans.

      So, the important question to ask is just how good you really are. Being above-average in school just isn't going to cut it in most fields - there are no jobs just waiting out there for anybody who can apply and check the 4-year-degree box on. When I size up kids in high school with dreams I usually ask them what they're already doing to achieve them. If they think that the path to success is to do what their teachers tell them to and go to the right college, I inform them that they are in for a world of hurt. If they aren't already doing it outside of school, then chances are they'll never be doing it. Oh, sure, the NIH won't give you a job without so many degrees, but there are lots of "sciency" things you can do on your own time without anybody's permission - whether it be exploratory programs or just reading a lot of good books and interacting online.

      Would-be programmers have no excuses at all - I wish I had half the access to online resources that kids have today when I was their age. There is no reason that a kid in high school can't be making very strong contributions to FOSS/etc. If they aren't, then good luck ever getting a job in the current market.

    • by gweihir (88907)

      Quite frankly, my experience is different. I have seen a number of instances of fraudulent or at least massive misleading publications. Some of them get published, in part at "high-quality venues" (that really are only high-quality with regard to from). Quite a few more, I have seen as reviewer. And one of them, at a prestigious conference, held me back for almost two years, because my Ph.D. adviser was unable to understand my explanation on why that publication was bad. (I saw it in about 10 minutes.) Fort

    • by fermion (181285)
      Unethical behavior is well publicized for certain fields. For instance, medical researchers get in trouble because they ghost write papers without discloser, recommend untested drugs for children because they get paid to do so, and ignore data that does not result in the conclusion the researcher was paid to prove. Of course any field of science that is funded by non-scientist,climate change research,

      The thing with physics is that it is a pretty open subject. Like the recent faster than light thing. I

    • by sgt_doom (655561)
      Cheating and fraud is not rampant, and has never been...

      The problem with the above statement is it completely ignores those lists at the end of every medical journal listing those researchers, Ph.D. students, and research scientists who have been officially censored, or placed upon a censure list, etc.

      Today, the majority of a number of studies in specific categories, reported about daily in the myth-media, are performed not at valid R&D facilities or institutions, but by astroturf firms, etc.

  • Accepted norms (Score:5, Informative)

    by DaneM (810927) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:16AM (#39605459)

    While I can't provide much specific information, I can tell you some general advice.

    Background: My father is an internationally prominent plant scientist and former air pollution researcher. He's also worked at several universities in important positions (department head, etc.). One things that he's mentioned repeatedly (if not often) is the fanatical importance that most scientists and university personnel seem to place upon what's "accepted." Bluntly, this is a pretty blatant problem of inflated egos (endemic to universities and such, in general), but highly educated people are also quite good at pretending they're being rational, rather than emotional about decision-making. The essence of the problem is that if you come up with an idea that's contrary to the current "status quot" belief, and if you promote it shamelessly (as you should), you'll prick the egos of others and be ostracized, criticized, and (if possible) discredited. Furthermore, the success of a scientist seems to be about 40% skill/talent and about 60% political adeptness. Of course, an ethical and self-aware scientist will put away his pride and fear and publish good work regardless of what others think--and sometimes that will pay off in the end. Below is how it might do so.

    I can't provide specific examples of theory-based conflict off the top of my head, but I can illustrate the power of politics (i.e. university politics, scientific community politics, etc.) in science by noting that because my father was able to obtain more grant money than his superiors at UC Riverside, the university decided to close down the department that he headed: the air pollution research department. Of course, this meant a prolonged job hunt and a big move for my dad and his family (including me). (UC Riverside's leaders thereby got rid of the "troublemaker.") If you aren't aware, Riverside is about 60 miles outside of LA and obviously has air quality problems to rival nearly anywhere else. A lesson to be learned from this is that no matter how good a scientist you are, and no matter how good you are at procuring what you need to do good work, ultimately it's the ego of those who provide you with land, labor, and capital that will determine how successful you are. Therefore, it's proven extremely important to foster good will amongst those who can help you do good science. The ethical way to do this (as far as it's been demonstrated to me) is to use your science to help people with real-world problems as much as possible, and show others that helping you is in THEIR best interests.

    My dad now works as a farm adviser (associated with UC Davis), and it's proven very useful to go out of his way to help his "client base" (farmers, primarily) see the value of what he does by helping them to increase their production, and thereby their personal wealth. Essentially, it's good to do a good job, but it's better to "go the extra mile" to bring your good work to those who can make profitable use of it. This strategy has seen my father summoned (from the US where he lives) to China, Italy, Chile, Brasil, Uruguay, Japan, and probably others that I don't recall. By inventing means to help farmers grow their crops cheaper and more reliably (including new methods of testing for nitrogen levels without a mass spectrometer), he's made himself indispensable to the industries and institutions (universities, etc.) that he serves. It hasn't made him "rich," but it has given him job security and a good living for his family.

    So, the bottom line here is something like:

    Do the best possible work you can, but make sure it's actively helping people who need it. That way, when you annoy the scientific community or your academic "superiors," you'll already have people to guard against you being politically maneuvered out of position, since losing you will also cost them money and other resources. Science for the sake of science is good and useful (eventually), but in order to keep it up, you have to provide others with very good reason to help you keep at it.

    I hope that helps.

    --Dane

    • by MCSEBear (907831)

      I can't provide specific examples of theory-based conflict off the top of my head

      Here is a good example of a recent scientific conflict over a new theory. A scientist steps forward with physical proof (electron microscope images) of a new class of solids and is hounded as some sort of religious heretic and fired from his University for daring to point out something that goes against official scientific dogma.

      An Israeli scientist who suffered years of ridicule and even lost a research post for claiming to

    • by gweihir (88907)

      is the fanatical importance that most scientists and university personnel seem to place upon what's "accepted."

      I have observed that as well, both with others and as response to my own academic work. Original ideas are actually the enemy of success as a scientist. Of course this means that most disciplines are carried forward (at glacial pace) by second and third-rated scientist, because the really good ones have already left in the face of this massive ignorance and incompetence. I have also observed a mass

  • by srussia (884021) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:16AM (#39605463)

    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.

    Pick any one.

    • by qwak23 (1862090)

      What if they research methods to have a table that grows food between meals? Would that cover all three? ;)

  • Common Sayings (Score:4, Insightful)

    by thegarbz (1787294) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:19AM (#39605473)

    "The squeaky wheel gets the most oil", and the words "The vocal minority" seem to apply here.

    There are rare cases of scientific fraud which bring out the doomsayers who you'll find pessimistically posting in every article. The reality is there are hundreds of thousands of academics around the world doing real science that brings real benefits to our lives every day. Their results alone should be proof that you can make survive in that chosen industry.

  • 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 boristhespider (1678416) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:52AM (#39605579)

    and so risking repeating others, it seriously isn't that bad. There's a fashion for showing how cynical you are, and how the world's going to hell and everyone's on the make and blah blah blah. It really isn't particularly bad. What you do have is a *lot* of politics, which circles around getting funding if you're a professor, and circles around getting postdoctoral positions if you're not. This does lead to both a conservatism -- which, regardless of what people might tell you is the valid approach for science; something has to be tested to oblivion for people to believe it, even if that means you're likely risking your career doing something too whacky too young -- and to a regrettable amount of brown-nosing and nepotism. There's also a distressing focus on publishing and getting citations, so if you work in a field with a lot of interest but with relatively few people you'll struggle to attract as much attention as someone who picked an easier course. What I've found increasingly annoying recently is that my career is being judged by anonymous referees on journals who clearly just don't know what they're talking about -- I get the very strong impression that they're PhD students very early on in their PhDs -- and I find that offensive. But the point I would make is this is no different from any other field and any other job, and at least in academia you can be sure that the people you're working with are at least as smart as you are. Except some of the referees.

    From my experience in academia -- ten years now since I started my PhD -- the people you'll encounter are very smart, dedicated, professional in their attitude to their work; but you'll have to play the game to a certain extent, attending conferences, networking, making sure the right people know who you are, work in fields which are attracting funding but which aren't glutted or flashes in the pan (in my field that was probably braneworld cosmology; it attracted enormous funding for about five years or so and then it died out, and people who focused exclusively on braneworlds during their PhD find it a bit tough to get new positions), and make sure you put a professional face on all your work, and that you can always defend every choice you've made and every bit of work you've done. So, no different from any other job you want to do well in.

    As for money, no, this isn't the best-paid job, but I get extremely irritated when people complain about it, because it's also really not that badly paid, and we get fantastic benefits. Unless you're unlucky with your lab you have fairly flexible hours, you're doing a job you love (and you better had, because if you don't love it you'll be very much better off doing something else), and there's enormous opportunity for travel, which is fully funded. If you're lucky you get generous allowances while you're away, too. We got an absurd amount to visit Toronto when there was a conference there in the mid 2000s -- something like $60 a day to eat. So we ate cheap during the day and had plenty in the evenings for a big meal and some drinks. I think we even ended making money on it...

    So basically I'd say it's no worse than any other field. It can be very political given the funding situation, but that happens anywhere and in any job, and generally you've got the advantage that your boss isn't a moron, which is sometimes hard to say if you pick other career options.

  • 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.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Also from a working physicist: Fraud is not an issue. Getting and keeping a job is. My degree is in experimental condensed matter physics, from a mid-tier US university, about 15 years ago. Unless you come from a top-five to top-ten research university (in cond matt physics that is), getting a professorship at a research university is exceedingly difficult. As a young scientist, you would be competing against the worldwide pool of physicists for any tenure-track position at a US university. Pick a

  • Most of these problems occur in "sciences" such as psychology or sociology. As a physicist, myou have little to fear.

  • . . . the state of Society, less so . . .

    Actually, the state of science is in the state it always is . . . unknown. That is why we need scientists to at least be able to chip away at some pieces of the Grand Puzzle.

  • The amount of money you'll be able to get in academia depends vastly of where you are, who you work with, and what you do.

    Assuming you're in the US, it will vastly depend on which university you are in. Try to get close to a team in a prominent university. Getting a good job in academia is mostly a matter of relations.

  • 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.

    • I have to say time management is an issue in theoretical physics, too. There's a strong culture of extremely long hours, but when you look at how people are using those hours, they could be at least as productive (and most likely more so) if they just got into work at 9, left at 5 or 5:30, and applied themselves during that time. There's enormous amounts of time-wasting, goofing off, scanning the internet etc etc -- no different from many office jobs, I know, but unacceptable when you're judged on results a

      • by Epimer (1337967)

        Thanks, that's an interesting read. The RSC report I was thinking of is here:

        http://www.theukrc.org/files/useruploads/files/the_chemistry_phdwomensretention_tcm18-139215.pdf [theukrc.org]

        But I was made aware of it during a wider presentation on the topic, which touched on more of the stuff I mentioned above.

        The working practices thing is interesting to me. I was fortunate in not having a supervisor who ascribed to those beliefs personally (he always thought applying extreme pressure was an excellent way to get falsified

        • Well, quite. I've found motivation is the hardest thing to keep up; the initial rush of the research has gone, but you're nowhere near finished, and you're looking at a three, four, five month slog - or more - before you'll even have any results, and then you need to start interpreting them. If you're properly motivated, you push on through it and get it cleared in that time. If you're *not*, and with no-one standing over your shoulder watching you the whole time it's easy not to be, you waste time... so th

    • I've seen far too many friends, far brighter and more talented than I am, become shells of their former selves by a PhD, chemistry in particular. The academic system in particular seems to take the very best talent and utterly destroy it, with science as a whole suffering as a result.
    • Also on the theme of women being too smart and self-respecting for a career in science these days: http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science [greenspun.com]
      "What about personal experience? The women that I know who have the IQ, education, and drive to make it as professors at top schools are, by and large, working as professionals and making 2.5-5X what a university professor makes and they do not subject themselves to the risk of being fired. With their extra income, they invest in child care resources and help

      • by Epimer (1337967)

        Thanks for that, that looks very similar to the source material which I was recounting second hand and somewhat misattributing.

  • 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 ThorGod (456163)

      Just one little point...getting a permanent job isn't easy. I don't care what the field is in! Landing a career was difficult 50 years ago and it's much more so now. Why single science out as a special case when it's clearly not?

      My advice is to be a good student, and start talking to your professors as soon as you can while in college. They'll help you understand the material, of course, but they'll eventually be who helps you find work or take the next educational step. Try to get internships in whatever f

  • One academic per family is enough.
  • Recently I've noticed some alarming pessimism among Slashdotters about the state of science

    So, you are going to make career decisions based on the mindset of a subset of the slashdot readership? For actual advice I would say do what you love and the rest will work itself out.

  • by hengist (71116) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @08:26AM (#39605823)

    People don't do advanced degrees like a PhD for the money (which isn't that great) or the recognition (which is hard to come by) but because they love the work.

    Basically, if you love doing it, do it. If you hang in there, things will probably work out. If not, find something else to do with your life. A while ago I summed up in a blog post my thoughts on doing a PhD: http://computational-intelligence.blogspot.com.au/2011/11/hang-in-there.html [blogspot.com.au]

    Just my $0.02.

  • You will see sciences ugly side eventually, and, if your successful, you will see it often. Put your big boy pants on and suck it up.

  • by golden age villain (1607173) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @08:51AM (#39605901)

    Just go for a PhD and think about an academic career again once you are in your last year. In my experience, you will be disillusioned about science within 4-6 months. Most projects don't work and most PIs have unrealistic expectations and no time for supervision. Salaries suck and long-term career prospects suck, in all fields. There is a lot of jobs in competitive fields but cut-throat competition and no jobs in the other fields. Also I think that fraud is more widespread that a lot of academics would like to admit but it remains anecdotal and it will certainly not have any impact on your career prospects if you are honest. This being said, this is I think the best and most stimulating job in the world (or at least one of them). And I personally work from 9.30 till 9.00 every weekday and some hours over weekends.

    My best advice is to consider it as seriously as you would any other job. It helps to have a clear career plan and know where you are going. Too many students start thinking it will just happen. Once you know in which field you want to work, seek advice about the best labs and apply there. Visit as many labs as you can. Don't be afraid about moving to other countries/states and if an excellent opportunity presents itself outside of what you initially considered, take some time to think about it. The most important things are (1) that you choose a project that you like, (2) that the lab where you work is full of nice people and (3) that your boss is really famous in his field, not necessarily in that order. Don't go for second grade universities, it is not worth it. If you want your academic career to be full of opportunities, you need to do your PhD in one of the top 50-100 best universities of the world and in a really good lab for your field. That will keep most doors opened and put you in the most stimulating environment. This is not to say that good research is not done outside of these but simply that you are guaranteed to get maximal exposure to foreign ideas and people.

  • Now, I am in a different field, but I think I can give some hints.

    First of all, people often want to see things as fraud/not fraud. But that is rarely true. Scientific work has different degree of rigidity depending on who does it and what the goal is. You can see the scale as something like "Fraud", "Criminal negligence", "Bad study", "Meh", "Good study", "Impressive study" and "This should be in nature/science/what-ever-the-top-publication-of-your-field-is". You have to consider the whole scientific proce

  • fraud is rampant and that people honestly trying to do science are less likely to be recognized and obtain tenure

    Dr. Weatherman PhD here. The above is mostly rubbish amplified by the media and those philosophers in Insane Clown Posse.

    The first thing you need to realize is that all universities are different, and the requirements for obtaining tenure vary dramatically from place to place. I would presume for condensed matter physics you're not going to be at a small liberal arts college, teaching a heavy loa

  • by louic (1841824)
    If you are passionate about science like me (I am in my 4th post-doc year in biophysics), do it! But not for the money. You will spend more time at work than anywhere else, and probably work at home too (because you enjoy it!), so pick a field you love and enjoy it! You will not be as well payed as your friends, but will have enough to live comfortably. Money does not make you happy. But a fun job to go to every day will! If you are good, you will have no trouble finding jobs. And you can always start work
  • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @09:36AM (#39606099)

    Money is a bitch of a self-replicator with little regard to its hosts. At some point it'll change from useful symbiont to pathological menace in whatever field you go into.

    So go do what you love best.

  • by sackvillian (1476885) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @10:19AM (#39606323)

    I'm midway through a graduate program and here are the things I wish I was told before I started:

    • -- Your supervisor choice is of prime importance. They will dictate your research projects, your lifestyle, and most importantly, your opportunities to continue on. They write your reference letter, after all, and decide your approach to publishing. Pick a good one! Visit several, talk to their students (over beer preferably) - really, you cannot investigate this question too much.
    • -- Be ambitious about learning about different school's grad-payment policies. Do they require you to TA? Do you want to? Do they have minimum funding guarantees? If you bring in an external scholarship, do they dock your pay or match the funds? Of course it's not about the money but in Canada, I know firsthand that some graduate students will make fully twice what other students make and neither are well compensated.
    • -- Pick a school for its department rather than overall reputation. The supervisor choice is first priority but the second criterion should be the department, as departmental policy and reputation will shape your life in many ways.
    • -- Wherever you go, adopt the following policy: If I feel productive, I work. If I don't feel productive, I do not try to. There will be pressure to always be in the lab or in front of your computer, but the reality is that no human can work eighteen hour days for weeks on an end. So if you can't focus or your research is at an impasse, get out there and do something fun. It won't set you back academically and in the longterm, you'll be happier and healthier!
      • With that said, don't let the naysayers get you down. There are good people in academia and always room for a few more. Good luck!

  • Like getting an MBA. You can make way more money through fraud with an MBA than a Phd. Phds are a waste of time.

  • Fraud has really taken over. At least here at MIT, I know of 3 profs in the physics department who got their tenure by fraud, and that's just the ones I know for sure, the actual numbers no doubt are worse.

  • It's a dirty little secret that the media does not like to talk about.

    Simply put, offshore workers are much cheaper. Expect to be forced to train your H-1B replacement.

  • ... avoid being bitten by radioactive spiders.

  • Preferably underneath a lake. The water helps to both fuel the fusion reactor as well as hide its tell-tale heat and radiation signature.

    .
  • This is advice for science in general, but especially for the notion of "rampant fraud". Many of the people who make that allegation are not themselves involved in science. The vast majority of people working in science are in it because they love it, and they work within established ethical standards. However, like any industry, science does have some bad apples that rise from time to time for varied reasons.

    As for tenure, if you're only finishing your undergrad now you have a long time before you wil
  • ...now why would anyone think that?????

    http://science.slashdot.org/story/12/04/06/139231/majority-of-landmark-cancer-studies-cannot-be-replicated [slashdot.org]

    http://www.thelocal.se/39070/20120213/ [thelocal.se]

    So far, around 150 children in Sweden have developed narcolepsy from the Pandemrixswine flu vaccine, but that number could rise, according to Tomas Norberg, chair of the Swedish Narcolepsy Association (Narkolepsiföreningen).

    http://dangerousprescriptiondrugs.weebly.com/flu-vaccine--narcolepsy.html [weebly.com]

    http://www.ex [exxonsecrets.org]

"And do you think (fop that I am) that I could be the Scarlet Pumpernickel?" -- Looney Tunes, The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950, Chuck Jones)

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