Science Pays

Jan 26 2008 Published by under Careerism, Tribe of Science

A biology teacher in Wisconsin is soliciting guest bloggers for an Advanced Placement class effort [h/t coturnix].

The instructor (Elissa Hoffman) wants her students to become fluent in online learning and discussion.

This brings today's discussion around to the topic of diversity in science, careers in science and a much under appreciated goal of "outreach" efforts. That's right people, we scientists are out there to get hold of your impressionable children and sway them into our "lifestyle"!


Diversity, and the promotion thereof, is a topic that is considered all up and down the science careers. The goal being to lower potential "artificial" barriers to recruiting the very best and the brightest into a career in science. This sort of thing is important to some people, including YHN. The three areas of greatest and most overt consideration are ethnic background, sex and economic background although really, just about any consistently underrepresented slice of humanity needs to be tapped. Smarter = better science doncha know!
The NIH stipend level for graduate student fellowships in Fiscal Year 2007 was $20,772. It's a classic glass half-full/empty situation. Scientists, and academics generally, like to moan about compensation. We had a little discussion on this before in case you are interested. Postdoctoral fellows start at $36,996 and are making $46,992 in with 5 years of prior experience. Is that half-full or half-empty?
What should not be lost in all this is that we are being paid to do science. From the start of graduate school. The fact that "going to graduate school" in the sciences means not that you will be obliged to pay for yet more "school" but that you will be paid to go to "school" is a very important concept to get across to highschoolers who are starting to think about career paths.
The good Dr. Free-Ride was recently pondering the privileges of class via a set of queries which one is supposed to answer regarding one's upbringing. She also likes to talk about the "Tribe of Science" and this relates. It is not chance that the children of academics disproportionately go on to academic careers. It is a matter of cultural "privilege" to understand from a vary young age that intellectual pursuits, careers undertaken in selfish intellectual interest may actually pay the bills! A middle to upper-middle class conceit yes. As are the values of much-delayed gratification. Not to mention the valuing of a nearly vocational, er, vocation over "just a job". How about you DearReader? When did you come to the realization that you could make a living from this science gig?
I think this is one of the most fundamental "outreach" steps that can and should be taken in primary and secondary education. It generalizes quite well to most any "diversity" or "underrepresented group" goals that one might champion. And my experience, limited though it is, with students right up into undergraduate (even at at heavily research-focused universities) ranks is that they are somewhat surprised to find that grad students draw a stipend. That they will be paid instead of having to pay. Now just think, in the absence of this information is the "smart" person going to think "Gee, science is for me!"?

22 responses so far

  • whimple says:

    The fact that "going to graduate school" in the sciences means not that you will be obliged to pay for yet more "school" but that you will be paid to go to "school" is a very important concept to get across to highschoolers who are starting to think about career paths.

    This is a major red flag. As a post-doc colleague of mine used to say, "If there was a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, you'd be paying them for the privilege". Law school, med school, dental school, vet school... you pay them, because it's worth it. Grad school... they pay you: it's going to suck when you're done. Major conclusion: do NOT go to grad school for the money. If you love it, then go. If you're ambivalent, do something (anything) else.

  • Zuska says:

    Only a red flag if you think of graduate science training as leading inexorably and only to academic careers. We all know there aren't enough jobs in academia for all the would-be professors...but there are plenty of jobs outside academia for well-trained scientists and engineers. Telling someone they can get paid for going to grad school is VERY important. Lots of people from underrepresented groups think nothing of considering careers in law and medicine despite the staggering debts they are going to emerge with. And not all of them go into areas of practice or specialties that guarantee tons of money to pay off those debts; often, in fact, they choose areas that are least lucrative. Against this, graduate education in science is still a great bargain. I came from the working class, got a PhD in engineering, and parlayed that into a career in industry that paid me very well AND that provided disability insurance when I needed it. And I had no debts from my graduate education to worry about.
    Children of the working class need to be told more about what a career in science can do for them, and by that I don't mean a career in academia (or, not that only). Graduate and postdoctoral research gave me the opportunity to live in Europe for three years and to travel widely in the U.S. and Europe. And it gave me the time to enjoy those things - vacation time is often much better for postdocs than it is in industry for most other people. It just frustrates me that narrow thinking about only academia as a career path could lead someone to think that underrepresented groups - especially those from lower socioeconomic classes - shouldn't be encouraged to consider careers in science.

  • PhysioProf says:

    The problem isn't that college kids aren't aware that scientists get paid to be scientists. The problem is that they are quite aware of the extremely high entry-level salaries commanded by many law and business school graduates after only three or two years of grad school, respectively.
    Depending on the firm and location, first-year associates at corporate law firms and first-year bankers at investment banks make any where from $150,000-$200,000 (including year-end bonuses). Science careers can't even come close to competing on wages.
    In my opinion, the best selling point for academic science (other than, you know, the science itself) is, "Hey! If you play your cards right, you can end up with a secure job and no fucking boss!" (This doesn't work, of course, for non-academic careers.)

  • PhysioProf says:

    "A biology teacher in Wisconsin is soliciting guest bloggers for an Advanced Placement class effort [h/t coturnix]."
    Something tells me PhysioProf's blogging style wouldn't fit in particuarly well at a high-school blog. Otherwise, I'd volunteer.

  • YoungFrankie says:

    "What should not be lost in all this is that we are being paid to do science. From the start of graduate school."
    To be perfectly honest this thought never crossed my mind throughout my whole undergrad years. It wasn't until I got my PhD scholarship that I realised "hey, people are actually going to pay me to be a grad student! How sweet is that!"
    It's the sort of thing that keeps me going every time I think about how big my student loan is, how dim my potential future earnings are, how tough PhD work is, and how rich all my undergrad lawyer friends are now.

  • bill says:

    DM, I don't think your RSS feed is working -- tried to subscribe and got errors. Maybe you could ask the Collective to check?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Patience on the RSS thing y'all. IIRC, everytime a new SB acquisition goes live, there's a drumbeat of "where's the feed?". It'll happen..

  • PhysioProf says:

    Thanks, DM! I don't even know that the fuck an "RSS feed" is!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "The problem isn't that college kids aren't aware that scientists get paid to be scientists. The problem is that they are quite aware of the extremely high entry-level salaries commanded by many law and business school graduates after only three or two years of grad school, respectively."
    This wasn't exactly the population I think we need to be reaching, although certainly there are some very bright and motivated people who go into these high-paying professions. I'm not at all suggesting the message should be focused on how much one stands to gain financially. I believe that strategy would enhance the number of people who are interested solely in accumulating CNS pubs as the "marker" of success. And you know where I am on that.
    What I try to convey is that one is not going to pay as big a penalty for following a science career as one might otherwise assume. I run across many undergrads with YoungFrankie's experience. That really and truly don't understand that those graduate students are being paid a stipend to be graduate students. (And, btw, they can defer many of their undergrad loans while "training", let's not forget that one!)

  • msphd says:

    Gawd, I am so tired of this 'we need more scientists' bent. I agree with the diversity spin, that's a nice touch.
    The thing is, until we fix the system, it doesn't _matter_ how diverse it is. People will still be funneling in, miserable for a decade+ as grad students and postdocs, and then funneling back out, looking for gainful employment.
    I too was sucked in by the 'they pay me, at least I'm not in debt' mentality. I'm with whimple. It doesn't pay off in the long run, and it's definitely an upper-class conceit to think you can really survive on this kind of income, especially if you need a car to get to work or want to have children (or, ha ha, own a house before you're 40). And may the deities help you if you have a sick relative, or worse, get sick or injured yourself. Scientists do not look kindly on the crippled. Ever notice how few handicapped-accessible benches there are in the wetlab?
    Yup, that's diversity for you.
    Can't we focus on fixing the system rather than propagating it? One of the biggest problems with science right now is that a fresh new crop of naivete shows up every year thinking it's going to be different (better) for them- and it's not.
    I know, I know, in theory it will help if we get more diverse joiners to join and put in their 2 cents. Unfortunately that seems to be all we get- joiners. Who go along, to get along.
    They come in all stripes, all shapes and sizes.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "Gawd, I am so tired of this 'we need more scientists' bent. I agree with the diversity spin, that's a nice touch...Unfortunately that seems to be all we get- joiners. Who go along, to get along."
    Welcome YFSmsphd, glad you made the trip over.
    It is perhaps your usual (inaccurate) thinking that I am a reflexive apologist for status quo at work. The point here was indeed the "diversity spin". Albeit taken from the perspective of the science at large (lowering any artificial barriers such that the best of the best are accessed by TheSystemTM. This perspective is less concerned with the fate of the individuals already in training but the two are not always mutually exclusive.

  • Becca says:

    Frankly, as a middle-class kid, the fact that "science pays" was *over*emphasized to me, although that could just be a quirk of my family. I would have been better off if I had realized 1) there is a very small chance of getting a job where you get to decide what type of science is done 2) it usually takes a very long time to get there (much longer than MD or JD, or even both combined!) 3) although you won't be going into debt during school, you also won't make enough to remotely compare to more stable and/or well-paying options 4) you can be a scientist just about as easily with an MD, but you can't treat patients (and have an associated reliable salary almost anywhere in the country) with just a PhD.

  • JSinger says:

    The point here was indeed the "diversity spin". Albeit taken from the perspective of the science at large (lowering any artificial barriers such that the best of the best are accessed by TheSystemTM.
    Given the quality of the people currently being ground up and thrown away by The System, and given the astonishing diversity it already possesses, sucking in a few more kids by luring them with tales of lavish graduate stipends doesn't seem such a high priority to me. I don't think a shortage of smart people is the problem.

  • JSinger says:

    I came from the working class, got a PhD in engineering, and parlayed that into a career in industry that paid me very well...And I had no debts from my graduate education to worry about.
    Maybe in engineering the numbers work out. (I have no idea.) In basic science, you're looking at 5-6 years of living hand to mouth in grad school, followed by another 3-5 with slightly more income as a postdoc. Buying a house is tricky because you likely have at least two mandatory moves, and your research is at the mercy of a lot of breaks over which you have little control. If you get lucky -- yeah, industry jobs pay decently. No better than a Java programmer with a BS, though, and the jobs are heavily concentrated in very expensive areas.
    OK, there's no debt but the opportunity costs of low-paying jobs until your mid-30s easily wipe out that advantage, and then some. There is absolutely no way I'd advise students that research is a financially sound career compared to other things they could do with the brains and work needed for even a fighting chance in science. Oh, and investment bankers don't take on debt either.
    ...AND that provided disability insurance when I needed it.
    Maybe in an industry job, although it's nothing any educated professional wouldn't get. msphd hit it, though. If you get laid up in grad school or your postdoc, the only thing you'll get is "Gee, you're fucked. Enjoy law school!" And it's absolutely scandalous how poor the heath care is for the people generating the science. Do you know how many students don't see a dentist for the duration of their PhD?
    And it gave me the time to enjoy those things - vacation time is often much better for postdocs than it is in industry for most other people.
    msphd, you want to weigh in on that one...? Me, I'm grateful not to be in lab on New Years Day any more, never mind vacation time.

  • yagwara says:

    I want to second what Zuska is saying, and to disagree strenuously with some of the posters talking about this in utility/expected value terms. I grew up working class, and going to medical or law school was never even considered as an option. It wasn't, "hmm, med school is expensive, but let's see how my lifetime earnings will look...". It was more like considering being an astronaut - something you never even think about because it is clearly impossible.
    At some point I learned that one can be paid to do graduate school, and I went on to do a PhD. The fact that I would be supported brought it into the realm of possibility. But I don't think it was common knowledge in my cohort, so for them, being a scientist probably seemed as absurd as being a lawyer or an astronaut.
    Agreed, there are some exploitive and shitty aspects about the science industry, as compared to other professions. But I don't think the post is talking about people going to science instead of, say, the computer industry; I think it's about people going to science instead of, say, clerical work. There are many more brilliant people working at dead end jobs than you might think, just because they weren't aware of other options at the time.

  • whimple says:

    Yagwara: It wasn't, "hmm, med school is expensive, but let's see how my lifetime earnings will look..."
    You didn't need to do this calculation yourself, because if you had been admitted to medical school, the banks loaning you the money to pay for your education would happily have done this calculation for you. Invariably, banks decide that fronting a new medical student full freight is a money-making proposition for them.

  • yagwara says:

    Yes, but you're missing my point. Neither I, nor anyone I know, would have considered applying to med school in the first place. It was totally outside the sphere of possibility.
    Now, maybe it would make sense, while we're telling high school students that there are stipends for grad school, to also tell them that there are loans available if they want to go to med school. But that's for the doctorin' folks to worry about.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Yagwara, thank you for that eloquent description of your personal situation. By setting this up as a choice between law/business school and grad school, we basically limit our discussion to people within a limited range of wealth.

  • JSinger says:

    Yes, but you're missing my point. Neither I, nor anyone I know, would have considered applying to med school in the first place...But that's for the doctorin' folks to worry about.
    I have no doubt that people can be suckered into making long-term-suboptimal grad school with the lure of stipends and no debt -- you don't need to invoke subtleties of social class to find examples of that! But why on earth would I think it a good use of my time to go around giving students partial information in order to encourage them to make partially informed choices. Scientists, I swear...
    By setting this up as a choice between law/business school and grad school, we basically limit our discussion to people within a limited range of wealth.
    I was going to make the opposite point, actually. Setting up that choice is reflective of the snobbery that one's life only has value if it involves a degree with a "D" in it. Pursuing a career with a bachelors degree doesn't involve debt, and even involves substantial income at the stage where it will enrich you the most. yagwara explains "I don't think the post is talking about people going to science instead of, say, the computer industry". Well, why not? Students can get a CS degree as easily as they can get the prerequisites for any science graduate program!

  • steppen wolf says:

    I keep hearing that the (academic) job market in science is being saturated because of the high number of incoming students/PhD graduates. But discouraging people from going into science is not going to make things "better" - there is a huge crop of students that, frankly, do not even come from the US, as once you get into science, no matter if you are competing for academe or not, you are really entering a global labour market.
    The issue here is that people need to have a choice.
    And to have a choice, you need to be able to 1) know about all possible options and 2) once you know about them, be able to consider them viable. It is ok if the working class kids who finally got into the PhD program drop out at some point along the way - their life is not finished, they are not in debt and, no matter what, they gained skills and know more about what they can do with them. Even in the eventuality of dropping out of an academic career, there is still much they can do - in science-related or unrelated fields.
    But until people are aware that certain paths are actually possible, they will never take them - and they will automatically be excluded from them.

  • phdinprogress says:

    I'm curious as to why you folks think you can live on the research or teaching stipend you earn as a grad student. I'm $50K in debt with two more years to go. Sure tuition increased, but my tuition is paid. Student fees are what sunk me. They went up astronomically, with no end in sight, and now are higher than tuition was the first semester I entered. With academic appointments being what they are, as far as I'm concerned, I'm fucked.

  • Facetious Student says:

    I was a nerd child growing up (carrying both a stethoscope and microscope in hand to recess). A Hispanic born into a middle class family, neither one of my parents are a part of the academia world. Oh and I'm dyslexic as well.
    Going into college I knew I wanted go off to medical school because of the financial and job security. Yet I was told by the system that it was long shot because of my background. In the beginning though, I didn't know really anything about the research arena, I didn't know it was an option. I was lucky enough to have the Undergraduate Research Program Director as a lecturer who introduced me to the amazing PI I research under. Since I've been researching (3 years and now a senior) my passion for research has been drastically elevating. I now want to go for an M.D./Ph.D., but now part of me is wondering if I should even pursue an M.D. I'll however probably stick with the M.D./Ph.D. and take advantage of the MSTP because I don�t want to burden my parents or myself with loans (I want the parentals to enjoy their retirement).
    If anything, start some outreach programs when the undergrads in their earlier years. There are many professional avenues that are completely new to them because they frankly don't know about their choices. It felt that in my freshman year, 1/3 of the individuals I met wanted to become doctors and now that percentage has shrunk. My last two years I headed information outreach sessions for undergraduates about research. In peer to peer meetings, they have so many questions about what can all be done with a Ph.D.

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