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Ask Slashdot: Advice For Budding Scientist? 279

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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 07, 2012 @05:58AM (#39605397)

    Patents do not affect scientific research at university institutions. I know first hand of PLENTY of research based directly on methods and techniques which are patented, and nobody gives it a second thought.

    The biggest problem with academia is the number of people vying for a very limited number of positions/jobs. Be prepared to go to where the work is, and that may mean the other side of the world (Europe, Asia, Australia, etc). Also be prepared to spend a fairly long time in a non-tenure track position, and to have to relocate multiple times from temporary position to temporary position.

    Disclaimer: I am a current PhD student leaving academia to go into industry, my brother is a Post-doc in Physics looking for a tenure track position for a while now.

  • Fraud?? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Barsteward ( 969998 ) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:05AM (#39605411)
    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.
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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....

  • by boristhespider ( 1678416 ) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:56AM (#39605593)

    Mod up on the travel aspect - if you're not willing to move away from your home country then you're in the wrong field and may well find yourself struggling to get work. If you refuse to move from your home city then you're shit out of luck. Academia is extremely unstable up until you get a permanent position, and there aren't many of them going around and you very rarely get a chance to pick where your permanent position will be. (Exceptions exist; schools like Cambridge and Oxford in Britain have a long history of hiring their own - although even that can't be assumed for Oxbridge graduates, not least because there are so many of them - and I get the impression a few of the Ivy League are similar. But even there, people generally have to move around.)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 07, 2012 @07:00AM (#39605609)

    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 grant for C.elegans research at CSHL! And why didn't I stay with C.albicans! And skipped ribosome structure and translation control (back then when I met Ada Yonath, years before she was awarded with the anticipated Nobel Prize).

    Most about science (about a career in science, that is) is about socializing. And some fields make it easier to get your research well while establishing fruitful contacts. I was definitely on the sucking end.

  • 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.

Thus spake the master programmer: "Time for you to leave." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"