Don't Become a Scientist?

Becoming a scientist is scary. In fact, it may not even be worth it.

Now that I am applying to graduate school, I've been reading about what to expect. I've been reading a lot. Books about essay writing, books about the application process, books about being a scientist, memoirs, essays, student blogs, professor blogs, and forum postings (whew!). And you know what I've found out? Becoming a scientist is possibly the economically worst decision a person can ever make.

I'll try to condense the main idea of what I've read, and link you to more reading if you're interested. These "facts" are largely anecdotal, but the opinion is held by many, so I believe there's something to it.


To summarize, a person who studies science as an undergraduate can follow two paths: industry/engineering or academia/research. Under one path, they begin earning good wages right away, and always have good job security and a fair amount of free time. By comparison, the researcher puts their life on hold for 15 years, working twice as hard, with no free time and no good wage until they're 40. And they almost never earn as much as an engineer.

More Detail

To further explain, a person bent on doing research for a living will need to stay in school until age 30 to 34. They'll be required to work post-docs for the following 3 to 5 years at paltry wages (much less than the wage required for happiness). When they do finally land permanent jobs, they're around 40 years old, earning the same wage that their engineering peers have been earning since they were 25. They won't have control over where they live, because their jobs are limited to universities or research labs and are extremely competitive. So it's no wonder that Philip Greenspun asserts that "Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States."

Just for the purpose of a rough estimate, let's assume that there are about 3.7 million 30-year-olds in the U.S. (based on birth rates in the early 80s). This is round about the age of the average PhD graduate. If there are about 69,000 PhD graduates every year, this means you already have to be in the top 2% to get that far.

So, in the top 2% of your generation, your timeline looks like this:

  • age 22–28: earn your PhD, subsisting on perhaps $20k–$30k per year.
  • age 28–32: work as a post-doc for $30k–$50k
  • age 32–38: (<50% chance) work as assistant professor at $50k–$65k
  • age 38–??: (<20% chance) achieve tenure and earn ~$85k as associate professor
  • age ??: (<15% chance) achieve full professor, maybe earn ~$100k

So the very cream of the crop, the 0.3% (the top 15% of the top 2%), just barely manage to crest the 6-figure mark. And this doesn't happen until they're nearly 50. Until they're 38, they will be living below the level required for happiness (which is ~$60k).

Meanwhile, their other friends who graduated in the top of their undergraduate science programs, but who did not pursue graduate degrees, look like this:

  • age 22–26: work as technician or engineer earning $65k–$75k
  • age 26–30: maybe get married, maybe travel a bit, get exciting new job at $80k
  • age 30–35: move where they like, start a family, or pursue hobbies
  • age 35–??: probably become a senior engineer or manager at $100k–$125k

Some Choice Scare-Quotes

"Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States." —Philip Greenspun

"I have known more people whose lives have been ruined by getting a Ph.D. in physics than by drugs." —Jonathan Katz

"Eventually, you will probably be squeezed out of science entirely. You can get a fine job as a computer programmer, but why not do this at 22, rather than putting up with a decade of misery in the scientific job market first?" —Jonathan Katz

"Leave graduate school to people from India and China, for whom the prospects at home are even worse." —Jonathan Katz

"Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one's living at it." — Albert Einstein

"A man of science may earn great distinction, but not bread." — Thomas Henry Huxley

Further Reading

There have been many who warn of the dangers of a career in science. Prof. Jonathan Katz implores, "Don't Become a Scientist!" Engineer Philip Greenspun posits that women don't enter science because they know what a terrible idea it is. Of course, these are scare pieces, and there are some counter-arguments. But it is widely agreed that the U.S. trains far more PhDs than there are jobs available. This Quora question has some great opinions and links to further information.

Some of these warnings do make exceptions for my own field of computer science, where research is booming, so maybe it won't be so bad for me. But it does give me pause.

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3 Responses to Don't Become a Scientist?

  1. peter says:

    don't professors also earn extra money from grants

  2. ntraft says:

    The short answer is: No. If they get paid, it is only to replace their existing salary, not to augment it.

    For the more nuanced details, you can read these posts:

    The most common ways for profs/researchers to make extra money are: writing books, serving on advisory boards, starting companies, and consulting on the side.

    The salary estimates above don't take these extra sources of money into account, and the anecdotal evidence I've heard leads me to believe that it's rather common. So it might be that professors are actually quite well-off, but they do work well above the nominal 2,000 hours per year in order to achieve that. Still, even this is normal when compared to other six-figure salaries (high-powered attorneys, financial associates, doctors, and executives all work long hours).

    So, again, this is a scare story, and science may not be so bad (or, the world outside science may not be so rosy, depending on your perspective).

  3. runnerwei says:

    Scientists in China often eat a large portion of the grant they got.
    Go and be a scientist there, lol

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