Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Career Paths

I don't want to say anything here that I will regret. I don't want to stand up and declare "I am done with academia! No more!" and then be embarrassed by that someday, when I'm feeling less disillusioned and less scared, and am after all applying for professorial jobs. And, of course, I don't want any potential employer to find out I've written anything like that.

But I don't think professorial jobs are the ones I will be applying for when I finish grad school. I'll try to summarize the reasons why not. What's a blog for if not working through your angst? And maybe there are some insights to be had from my experience, who knows?

I didn't start my college career dreaming of being a professor. That was an ambition I picked up as an undergraduate, which is probably when most people who become professors decide that's what they want to be... As an undergrad, you're being exposed to all of these new ideas. It's a thrill. If you're lucky enough to go to a small teaching institution like I did (The University of Puget Sound), you're talking about all of these ideas with your professors. You want to keep talking about exciting, important ideas, to keep making discoveries, to contribute something to humanity. And the way to do that seems to be, become a professor. Because they're right there with you, having these conversations, only getting paid for it. Only it's even better for them, because they're experts, with the respect and attention of everyone else in the conversation...

And then, if you're lucky enough to go to a small teaching school, you sometimes get invited over to their houses (beautiful! Hardwood floors, views of the Sound and the mountains, basement workshops, cute families) and even out on their boat (thanks, Professor Thorndike!). And they travel. Take sabbaticals! Who wouldn't want that? It looks like a dream job. And to get it, you think, all you have to do is stay in school. Undergraduate you doesn't mind that idea at all. You're good at school. And it's a lot less scary than the idea of getting a "real job". You wouldn't even know where to begin to find one of those. And besides, you now realize college hasn't really trained you for a real job (unless you majored in business). Maybe you thought vaguely that you would be a "scholar" or a "philosopher" or a "scientist," but now it starts to sink in that all of those words are just synonyms for "professor." The idea of wasting all that education on an office job, coming home every night to your own empty apartment (assuming you're not married or engaged by the end of college) and no guarentee that there will ever be more... Well, it's depressing. And besides all of that, if you're a scientist, they offer to pay you to go to school! Not a lot by your parents' standards, but more money than you've ever made, more than you've had to live on for the last four years. So you start applying for grad school, and on all your grad school application essays, you say that you want to be a professor, and have a view of the mountains, and make important, meaningful discoveries and contribute to humanity. And you do want that.

So what could possibly have changed in three years that this no longer sounds like a dream come true?

Well, I guess it does still sound like a dream come true, in the same way that winning the lottery does. But I have come to realize that saying "I want to be a professor like the ones I had at Puget Sound" is only a little more realistic than saying "I want to win the lottery when I grow up." As an undergraduate at a place like that, you have a skewed sample set. Every person you meet who went to grad school, also has a faculty position. But as a graduate student, you meet all of the people who didn't get that golden ticket. You meet some people pushing forty who are still grad students (and some who have dropped out after spending ten years of their life in grad school, with nothing to show for it.) You meet post docs, who have earned their PhDs and make a little more money than you do, but who are basically still doing what grad students do: low status lab work, taking orders and sometimes abuse from their faculty advisors, often living in dorms. They are on temporary five or three or one year contracts. After that they are on their own again. You eventually find that you know some unemployed post docs. You meet "adjunct professors," "visiting professors," and "research faculty." These people are older than the post docs, in their forties and fifties and even sixties, but they too are on temporary contracts, which you think must make it hard to have kids or buy a house or even a car. How can they know what they'll be able to afford in five years, after their current employment has ended? You realize that many of them don't have those things, houses or cars or families. You meet tenure track professors who are then denied tenure, which is to say, fired, and the houses and cars and families in which they recklessly invested are now in jeopardy. You come to realize that even the professors who get tenure still have little real job security. Part of their salary comes from research grants which they are expected to get (mostly from the government.) These grants are highly competitive, and are awarded for one or three or five years...

You realize that in all this cut-throat competition for jobs and grants, the ones who succeed aren't necessarily the ones who deserve to succeed. The people who make the hiring decisions and give the grants aren't usually experts in the fields the research is in. So they have two things to rely on, when making these decisions: the applicants' own claims about themselves and their research, and the applicants' record of publications in various journals. So the people who are the most arrogant, the most self-promoting, the most prone to exaggeration and incomprehensible jargon... They win. Assuming they have also published a lot of papers, at least. Hence the phrase "publish or perish". So it's the stressed out, frantic, intensely career oriented, arrogant self-promoters who actually win. Do you really want to be like them?

Worse, you see the incentives to exaggerate the importance of one's research, to make bigger claims for its potential applications than it really warrents. To make it sound more impressive and more successful than it is. And you begin working on research of your own, which you realize cannot possibly live up to the claims made for it in the funding applications. If you are a scientist, you learn that science is hard. That most ambitious projects aren't going to succeed, at least in the short term, because that's what "hard" means. The better you understand your field, and other people's research in it, the more skeptical you get. You don't feel like you are contributing anything signficant to humanity after all. You feel like a fraud. And you suspect that some of the other people in your field, making even bigger claims, are frauds too.

The transition from coddled undergraduate at a teaching institution (a paying customer) to cheap labor at a research institution is a rude awakening generally, for ambitious and academically talented students. Your education is no longer about taking classes, certainly not after the first year. It is more like an apprenticeship. But there are few protections in place for you. If your advisor wants you to work nights and weekends, and you really think they might punish you for refusal in any of the hundreds of ways available to them -- assigning you to meaningless and tedious tasks, grading you harshly in their classes, declining to put your name on papers summarizing your groups' research, even failing you on your qualifying exams or thesis proposal (or simply failing to schedule them), or refusing to graduate you, or refusing to give references and recommendations if you do graduate -- then you'd better work nights and weekends. No overtime pay. (Not that my advisor has punished anyone in any of these ways. But the fact that the potential exists is oppressive enough to make it hard to object to anything he asks us to do.) In grad school, you are not made to feel special. You are not made to feel like a smart person with a lot of potential. You are now (especially when you first start your research) the stupidest person in the room, the lowest person on the totem poll. The things you are asked to do seem impossible. You get used to failure. The ambitions that motivated you as an undergraduate now seem unachievable.

Finally, if you have met someone, if you are no longer facing the prospect of a lonely studio apartment after graduation, you start to wonder how you're going to make it work. You are twenty-five or twenty-eight or thirty years old. Your parents had a kid or three by this age. If your significant other is also in academia (and if you met them in grad school, the odds are good that they are) then you faced the two body problem. Getting any kind of permanent position seems impossible, but getting two in the same state, much less the same city? If you take temporary positions, what are you going to do when one of them ends and the other does not? It seems you will have prioritize. How important is this academic career to you after all, after everything you've seen? Now that you've lost your illusions?

Paints a pretty depressing picture, doesn't it?

Well, that picture is an illusion too, to some extent. Things have been getting better, this past year or so. I am not so new, anymore, and I no longer feel like stupidest person in the room, for starters. I feel more confident about the work that I'm doing, confident of my own abilities. I have gotten over some of my disappointment with the gap between the claims people make and what research can actually achieve. Anyway, not everything fails. some useful stuff does come out of this kind of research. A lot of people do find ways to make families work. The job market is tough, but not necessarily any tougher than the one my mom faced with her law degree, for instance. Making two careers and a family work is difficult for anyone, in any job, and you do have to make sacrifices, but you don't have to sacrifice either one completely.

Finally, and this is an important one for me to remember, because I often lose sight of it in my worry about the future... My life right now does not suck. I have a great apartment near the lake in one of the best cities in the world. My job, while stressful and hard on the ego and low paying and distressingly temporary, is also mentally challenging, with flexible hours, and not what you would call a dead end. I expect to make quite a bit more, not too far in the future, regardless of whether I stay in academia or not. Even post docs make twice what we're paid now, and more than the national average wage. And, of course, I'm married to an amazing guy. I already have a family. Just because we'd like to make it bigger some day doesn't mean it's not happy now. And furthermore, I have wonderful parents and siblings. And great in-laws. And I've been to Hawaii and Europe in the past two years. So really, I need to quit whining and start enjoying it, right?

But taking all of that into account, trying to keep everything in perspective... I think I'd rather go into industry than academia after this. The prospects for job security are better. There is (I hope!) less direct competition with your colleagues, less "publish or perish" pressure, less risk of perishing, in general. And I have been humbled by this experience so that I no longer look at abstract "contributions to mankind" as the only worthwhile thing to do with one's life. I think I would now like to do something a little less grandiose and a little more useful. Like designing products that people actually want. If the justification for doing science is that its discoveries allows us to develop new technologies which then make people's lives better... Well, I wouldn't mind being involved in the developing new technologies part, instead of the discoveries part. There just aren't enough significant "discoveries" out there to really support all of the people who want to make them, anyway.

Of course, that's only part of the justification for doing science. The other part has to do with the value of understanding for its own sake. But I feel like, in a weird way, I now know enough about the universe. I know calculus and quantum mechanics and a bit of particle physics (quantum field theory) and once I've learned a bit more relativity (this winter, hopefully) I will have satisfied the curiosity that led me to major in physics in the first place. As much as I'm likely to really satisfy it, anyway. Unless significant new insights, on par with relativity or quantum mechanics, are found in my lifetime. Odds are they won't be. They're pretty rare, in human history. Odds are I wouldn't be the one of the find them, if they were found. And even if I were likely to find such insights, other people would be equally capable. Things like this are usually discovered independently a couple of times. I'll let them have the fun... Generous, of me, right? If such a revolution happens, there will be nothing to stop me from reading a few papers on it even if I'm not in academia at the time. And nothing to guarentee I'd understand them, even if I were.

And who knows, maybe one day when I'm sitting at the computer designing lenses or lasers or whatever, inspiration will strike. Einstein was a patent clerk, wasn't he?


Simon said...

"The idea of wasting all that education on an office job, coming home every night to your own empty apartment (assuming you're not married or engaged by the end of college) and no guarentee that there will ever be more... Well, it's depressing."

Aye. I left academia after my first degree almost 5 years ago, and recently I've been doing exactly that. It is indeed depressing.

But I can also understand the rest of what you say. I'm speculating somewhat, but I think the big difference may be the family thing. When you have people who are important to you, your work can be slightly less important. You can feel that what you do in life makes a real difference to those few people.
If you're by yourself, then to feel that you're doing something useful you need to make a difference to people some other way, which will usually involve having a job which actually does some good in the world (which mine arguably doesn't at present).

Perhaps. :-)


Anonymous said...

Pyracantha from ELECTRON BLUE here:

Wow, you just made me feel MUCH better about my being an artist working in a commercial setting and selling a fine art picture here and there...
I've been so jealous of the scientist types but reading this gives me an insight into what the scientific life is like from the inside for the ones I don't read about.
Some hi-tech company is probably eager to hire you and you will make much better $ there than in academia.

Colst said...

I just wanted to say, I can definitely relate. I'll be finishing up sometime in the winter or spring and I'm still torn on a career path for a lot of the same reasons.

Oh, and Einstein was only a patent clerk because no one would give him an academic job... scary thought.

Mary said...

Simon -- Your job strikes me as creative and productive, a sort of subset of architecture... But I can understand feeling like it's not enough. But then, maybe we never feel like what we're doing is enough...

Pyracantha -- I thought of you when I was writing this. Your view of scientists seems so close to what mine used to be.

Colst -- congratulations on being so close to finishing. Let those of us back here at the bottom of the hill know what you see from the top, when you get there... :)

Kenz Fahzer said...

Great in-laws! WOO-HOO. Must be true, I saw it on the Internet.