I am the “best and brightest” humanity has to offer. I am in the top 1% academically. I obtained a PhD in Genetics from an Ivy League university. I became a postdoc at one of the most prestigious universities in the world: the University of Oxford in the UK. For the last eight years I dedicated my life to cancer research, making great strides for Personalized Medicine, work that saves lives. And what do I have to show for all the long hours, the high-stress, and the good I do for society? Nothing.
I am broke. The System is broke. And this is my story.
I grew up in rural Tennessee. I always dreamed big. I wanted to do something important with my life, help people, and really live it. The best thing for me as a child was not knowing how difficult it is in the southeast to have upward mobility.
I was the lucky kid who never had to study for tests. I always scored in the 99% percentile on the annual state assessments. The school administration tried to skip me a few grades along the way, but my mother was adamantly against it. When I went to college, I had a Presidential Scholarship, a free ride, because of my academic excellence.
As an undergraduate, biology drew me in, particularly the cool science of genetics. It was an amazing world where we were just unraveling the human genome, figuring out what bits of our DNA did what. I realized that if I pursued my PhD in genetics, I could work on cures for diseases and potentially save more lives than even the best MD.
Through perseverance and hard work I made it into Cornell University. I specialized in cancer genetics, and my graduate work culminated in a discovery that will help guide treatment decisions for the 283,000 breast cancer patients annually whose tumors have lost a gene called NF1 (>25% of the 1+ million annual breast cancer cases).
But there was trouble in grad school that had nothing to do with hours, stress, or troubleshooting experiments. Money.
Cost of living is very expensive in NY. My stipend barely covered enough for me to break even each month. I had to be frugal with my money, seldom going out to movies or dinner. My parents always had to fly me home for Christmas. I told myself it was only temporary, that I’d make more money once I became a postdoc. It was a long six years.
My money wasn’t the only money problem. There was no money for the research. My PI (the professor and head of the lab) got rejected time after time for NIH grant funding (and every other funding organization out there). Ivy League, and he was still relying on his start-up money to cover the costs. The stats at the time (which haven’t improved) were that < 3% of all grant applications were funded. Unfortunately my boss was never part of that 3%. In the six years I worked there, he never got a single grant for the cancer research.
I worried as graduation drew close. I had limited time to find my next job. And even if I did, would I ever actually be able to get a faculty position? All of these labs are run by an army of students and postdocs, but there’s only one guy at the top, one PI for each.
My boss was on the hiring committee for the department. He told us the inside horror stories of what goes on behind those closed doors. The national average at the time was that for every one faculty position, there were 200 applications. For our department, there were 300 applications for every one faculty position. As if the odds alone weren’t daunting enough, he told us how the hiring committee got through so many applications.
- University the applicant came from. If the applicant wasn’t Ivy or from one of the best Tier 1s like Harvard, Stanford, or MIT, the application was immediately thrown in the reject pile without a further look.
- Top publication record. If the applicant didn’t have publications in the top journals like Science or Nature…reject pile.
- Name of the lab they came from. If the applicant’s boss wasn’t a Somebody…neither was the applicant. Reject pile.
- Contents of the CV / Resume. Finally, at step 4, the hiring committee would actually bother to look at the real contents of the CV / Resume, like how many publications the applicant had and teaching experience. None of that meant anything if the three previously mentioned items couldn’t save the applicant from the auto-reject pile.
The stats said that only 1/3 of PhDs would even stay in science because there were so few jobs (academia, science writing, industry, etc). That’s right, after 6 years of grad school and even 10 years of postdoc, 2/3 end up outside of science altogether. I knew several myself. One girl finished her Ivy League postdoc and took a job in retail. A guy I knew quit and became a stable-hand at a horse stable. Another went to work at a bakery in Boston. Another traveled the world for a while doing nothing – never knew what became of him. The world’s “best and brightest”, their talents and skills completely forsaken and discarded by the system. It’s not just them who suffers. It’s every human being who will never benefit from the discoveries they could have gone on to make.
But maybe they were the lucky ones. They got out before they lost any more of their lives. For those scientists that made it all the way into a faculty position, there was still a high chance that they wouldn’t make tenure. New faculty get five years to get funding and churn out publications. Otherwise, sayonara. They get a year to find another job (yeah right, who will take them after they failed to get tenure at their current job), and then they have to pack up and leave. I knew a female PI who started around the same time I started grad school. She went on maternity leave along the way. Having children was important to her. She wanted a family. It hurt her publication record and funding chances. She didn’t get tenure. She was gone before I graduated.
Douglas Prasher got the shortest end of the stick. He should have gotten the Nobel Prize. He got the opposite. Prasher cloned and sequenced the gene for Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP). And Prasher was the first to propose that GFP could be used as a tracer molecule. He wrote a grant detailing how GFP could be used as a reporter to measure the levels of gene expression and track the localization of proteins in cells. Every geneticist and molecular biologist alive today uses GFP assays in their research. GFP revolutionized the field and allowed scientists to make rapid leaps forward. Not surprisingly, the work for GFP received the Nobel Prize. Only, Prasher didn’t win it.
You see, that grant he wrote about GFP never got funded. The reviewers of the grant thought his ideas were crazy. Without funding, Prasher didn’t get tenure. He had to close his lab. He gave his GFP samples and ideas to his fellow colleagues. He knew how important GFP was, and he didn’t want it to be lost. With no funding, Prasher was forced out of science altogether. He became a shuttle bus driver for a car dealership.
The semester I taught the Principles of Cell Biology and Development lab course at Cornell, I made my students write a report on Douglas Prasher. I wanted my students to know what they were getting into.
Graduation finally came for me! I proudly marched my parents around the campus after the ceremony. I was doctor! My work in cancer would help a lot of people!
But that didn’t seem to help me get a job. Knowing the potential dead-end of a postdoc position, I first looked into pretty much every other area of science. Science writing, industry, consulting, and teaching. Nothing. So, I caved and hunted for postdoc positions. I sent out over 150 queries and applications.
In the end, my tenacity paid off. I had a choice between three excellent universities: Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford. I found from the lab members during my Harvard interview that Harvard didn’t pay its postdocs’ health insurance (at least not in that department), but Harvard required the postdocs to have it. That’s right. No health insurance, even for the full-time “best and brightest”. And Boston was as expensive as NY. The postdocs only made financial ends meet by relying on spouses or roommates. Between that and the 80 hour work weeks the lab members warned me about, I turned Harvard down.
Cambridge and Oxford claimed to pay better than their US counterparts, and at face value, it certainly appeared that way by looking at the salary conversion from pounds to US dollars. I loved both places, both projects seemed fantastic, and the PIs seemed great. If nothing else, the UK had a great work-life balance that academia in the US completely lacked. Many of the labs worked standard 40 hour weeks (contractually it even states 37.5 hours).
When I chose Oxford, I was full of excitement and hope! A new country! 45 minutes to London! An hour and a half after that to Paris! The city is beautiful, full of ancient architecture that has survived thousands of years. Home to the Bodleian!
I love my job at Oxford. The cancer project is super interesting with a focus on discovering Biomarkers for use in the clinic to improve patient survival and outcome. My boss is great, and I work normal hours.
Money is a major problem. I don’t have a house. On a single income, 65% of my salary is burned directly on rent and Council Tax. By the time food and utilities (phone, internet, electricity/heat, water) are added in, I make $0 at the end of every month. And because I make $0, I can’t save anything to turn things around, like a down payment for a house. Now, I don’t go to the movies at all. I never go out to eat. I’ve never been to London, much less Paris. I can’t afford a pet deposit to get a dog. I don’t have a car. I don’t have cable. I don’t have a TV. I don’t even have living room furniture. It’s an empty room with a modem and the rug the previous owner left behind.
It’s just a phase. That’s what I’ve been telling myself since 2006. And maybe it’s not a phase. I really want to teach, but I know the odds of landing a faculty position - 200:1 anywhere I go (300:1 at a Tier 1 institution).
And every scientist I know is in the same predicament. Science will fail because the System is running the scientists out of it. Every human suffers because of it. Cancer affects 1 in 3. Someone close to you will get it. How many could be saved if the system didn’t fail scientists like Douglas Prasher? Like the 2/3 of the PhDs that are forced out of science?
I am one of the “best and brightest”. Ever since I was a child I felt special, like I was meant to do something incredible with my life. And I have. Only, being a scientist has come at the complete sacrifice of my own life. I put the last eight years of my life on hold, and I’ve set myself up to keep it on hold for the next 5-10 years as a postdoc. But I’m tired of this. I want to go to the movies. I want a dog. I want a family. I want to live my life.
Please, please stop with the "best and brightest". Please. You're embarrassing yourself.ReplyDelete
Ok, now. Find a job that someone will pay you for. Then you're happy, because you're making money. They're happy, because they consider the value of your work to be greater than the cost of employing you. You are not owed anything. Sorry, you're just not. 99th percentile in Alabama state test scores not withstanding.
Since this is an anonymous post, I will answer on behalf of the scientist.Delete
First of all, this person is using "the best and the brightest" ironically.
Second, I don't think we disagree that scientists leaving academia is normal. Only 0.5% of PhDs become professors. That is fine. We do need professors to understand that non-academic careers are not "alternative". They are the norm. And there is nothing bad about leaving academia to do science communication, start a biotech, go into patent law, etc.
Where I disagree is your assessment that there is no problem. The 0.5% that does become professors - do you want these to be amazing scientists or mediocre ones? If the top people are not running the labs and training the future scientists, our research will suffer, there will be fewer spinoffs and commercialization, and the scientists starting companies will be worse because their professors are worse. I would argue strongly that given how much taxpayers spend on basic research (>$50bn per year in US alone), they should get the best scientists leading it.
I am not advocating for more science funding. I am advocating for structural changes that increase support for the 0.5% of the dedicated, brilliant, and forward-looking scientists who are pushing the research into the future.
I wrote a long-form response at:Delete
The goal of public science funding is to get science, not support scientists. That's a cost to the public. If, for little money, the taxpayer can get the best & the brightest to work long hours and produce excellent results, then the taxpayer is getting a great deal.
I am willing to concede this much: some of the people who would have made great PI's are getting pushed out of academia. I know some personally. There are several reasons for this. One of them is money, yes, I do agree with that. Another is disillusionment with the publish-or-perish model of modern science. That model is fundamentally broken, because it selects for the wrong qualities. On the one hand, it selects for sexy conclusions instead of reliable conclusions, and on the other, it selects for quantity instead of quality, aka "impact".ReplyDelete
On the other hand, I don't think the world is losing the productivity of its best people just because those people are finding that industry is their best option. Those people are still in the world, doing brilliant work. They are still mentoring juniors in the same field. They are still running research groups. It just so happens that the selection pressure on their work is more aligned with what people in the real world find valuable. I'm sorry to taint your beautiful ivory tower with my avarice, but money is how you measure what people find valuable. In fact, that's the purpose of money. I think this is what ivory towerians really object to: someone else is directing their research instead of them. If only the government would give them enough of other people's money, they could stay in academia and work on what's most interesting to them instead of what's most valuable.
But "what's most valuable" - (again, dollar value is how you measure value) - is a better selection pressure to direct research than "what I most want to do". There will be exceptions, where the selection in academia would have directed a researcher into a more valuable line of inquiry. But in *aggregate*, "what is most valuable" is a better selector. Just think of how much of the $50bn of other people's money that spent in academic science research each year is squandered on papers that are true fluff or dubious but sexy. But this isn't surprising. In every instance that I can think of where it is other people's money being spent, you will find vastly inefficient (mis)allocations.
The time scale of great science is often at odds with the market force model you present. Market forces tend to be short-sighted/impatient and "the street" (Wall Street) tends to be even more impatient. Just look at any public company, scampering about to hit whatever numbers "the street" has predicted.
So, while market forces make sense in some contexts, I think it breaks down quite a bit when it comes to research, especially pure/basic research. It's akin to having a kid in the back seat asking, "are we there yet?", every day on a six-year-long trip.
I have also felt like I'm gradually being pushed out of academia. Seeing the current state of funding, I've opted for a research and teaching postdoc. While I am definitely enjoying the teaching aspects of the job, I worry about going on the job market again in a couple of years in the hopes of finding a research and teaching job at a state university or liberal arts college. The value placed on my teaching experience may be totally overlooked by some who believe that teaching is secondary to research. Despite being in the field of "higher learning," education and education research are sidelined in favor of bigger science that can bring in more grant money.ReplyDelete
@ Michael: corporations invest in speculative R&D with long time horizons as a matter of course. Five years is normal, and ten years is common. Depending on the industry there is money for even longer-term pure R&D projects. How many PI's are willing and able to pay a post-doc's salary for ten years with nary a paper to show for it? But big industry might advance ten million dollars a year towards a single research project at that timescale. It turns out that corporate executives are not children in the backseat of a car after all! In fact, that metaphor is far more applicable to the average lab PI at a tier 2 university than it is to than the CTO of mid cap or large cap company.ReplyDelete
You explained yourself quite well and I sympathize with your predicament. As for seeking other employment, it's ALL networking. Talk to people, anyone. Be yourself. If you like to kiss butt, then do it, otherwise, don't. Ask colleagues for help and advise.
Job searching for me is a major effort - I have never been good at 'selling myself''. My German upbringing emphasized good honest work. [Aside: If my grandfather, who was a German-trained master metal smith, had lived longer, I would have learned from him and quite possibly never gone to graduate school.]
Glad my academic advisor pushed me away from academic so I can work as a software engineer.ReplyDelete
I'm reminded of what Orson Welles said about it being his greatest regret that when his film career fell apart that he didn't just move on to something else. The truth is, Welles could have done anything and had many other interests. Maybe it's just time to move on.ReplyDelete
A few comments ...ReplyDelete
I exactly feel the same way you do. But I always think about these:
Faraday was a book binder
Einstein was a patent clerk
Ramanujan had no formal education
SN Bose was a self made person
No for the new people:
Venki failed the most popular examination of his birth country (IIT-JEE)
I do not deny that being in science is easy, but it is should not be a choice, it should be something which naturally happens to you. It is should be like breathing... not panting...
Just in-case, lets take an alternate ending of Prasher's story, this work is miraculous and he definitely better than he got.
But let just say if sent out his proposal to 10 different funding organization tailoring it suitable for any company and not just as a basic fundamental research, do you think he would got to do the work...?
My idea here is Faraday bonded books in the night and gave them late so that he can read them for longer time. If you continue to do what you believe is right, just modify/adapt oneself as to what the world wants, after all, we all are humans end of day...
Those are too exceptional examples in my opinion.Delete
And the science research back in Einstein's day required very little funding as compared to today. Especially in biology where a physical lab space and expensive devices are necessary.
This post is too full of hyperbole to be taken seriously. You have $0 every month? Really? I was a graduate student in New York City and lived frugally, but always had money to see a movie or take the Greyhound bus home to see family. I was also a postdoc in New York City. I had two roommates and lived in Brooklyn for the first couple of years, but I had plenty of money. I had cable, I took trips, saved in my Roth IRA, and even adopted a dog! If you are spending 65% of your income on housing, you need to move. The last point I want to make is that if this person really is the best and brightest, and is publishing important science with clinical implications, then he/she should not have trouble finding a faculty job. Fancy pedigree. Check. Great science. Check. So what's the problem?ReplyDelete
1:200 odd is not something one can easily get through even with the great publications record and etc. It sounds like you are not a faculty obviously.Delete
It is absolutely not the case any more that the best and brightest can easily find a faculty job. Here are some sobering statistics:
a. Fraction of PhDs, 6 years-post-graduation in tenure-track positions: 61% in 1963, 38% in 1985, 25% in 1993, 15% in 2003, and 8% now. (Also see the last chart here in the Atlantic by Jordan Weissman, the entire article is superb.)
b. Average age at receipt of first NIH research grant (R01) in 1980 was 37. Average age today for an R01 is 42. Similarly, 16% of NIH recipients in 1980 were 36 years of age or younger. Today it's 3%.
Also, I wonder when you were in NYC as a student and postdoc? Prices do change. And it's a bad assumption that if you did it, everyone else should be able able to sacrifice, live as you, and tolerate the low pay, despite the 8% chance of finding a faculty job.
Our biomedical research enterprise is in a deep crisis.
I was a grad student from 2002-2006 and postdoc from 2006-2012 in NYC. I assume this is a very similar time frame to the post's author. My last reply was not meant to imply that it's easy to get a faculty job, but rather, that if you are really the "best," or in my case, find a research niche that is exciting to particular departments, then there are still positions available. I was also pointing out that the postdoc salary is really not that bad. I lived in one of the most expensive places in the world making the NIH minimum salary, and still felt like I had everything I needed, and did everything I wanted to do. Sure, I didn't go out to fancy restaurants or buy fancy clothes, but I lived in a decent apartment and had everything I needed. There was no real "sacrifice" involved. If a postdoc has $0 every month and no savings, then they are not responsibly managing their money.Delete
Jake and Lenny,Delete
I found the anonymous note a wee bit odd, and on balance I think the guy was just having a bad day. He wrote a post which he should have filed for re-reading and then maybe sending to the round file. Certainly the whiny tone of it is pretty unappealing, and detracts from any valid points he may or may not have. Choosing anonymity is one small sign that he may be as smart as he thinks he is.
I'm appalled by the tone running through all these discussions that anybody with a PhD should get a faculty job. There is plenty wrong with American higher education, but unemployed PhDs isn't one of the problems.
A solid 80% -- my off-the-cuff estimate -- of all peer reviewed published science is obvious garbage. The remainder contains enough variety and contradiction that the argument "What you think is garbage is sure to contain some thin veins of genius" can hold ver-ree minimal plausibility.
By garbage I mean real obvious dreck: puffery, time-serving, resume padding, half-witted mystical nonsense, experimental set-ups which prove only that the reviewing peers are sleepwalking, etc. etc.
An ex-girl-friend, an absolutely first rate research MD, did a meta-study in one of her specialties a few years ago, and waded through 3,000 papers -- pretty much the whole current generation's corpus on her topic -- to find 170 faintly credible papers. Out of these she found five, I think it was, with any useable findings, though the non-findings of the other 165 are a necessary part of the process of science. 170/3000 is just under 6%, lower than my 20% rule of thumb, but I looked through some of her rejects and was, uh, disappointed. I did not find any reason to question her judgement.
The stuff was a horror story -- and of course represented a huge waste of tax-payers' (and drug companies') money, quite apart from suggesting that some of the doctors in practice my be a menace if they are ever conscious.
I think that everybody who's ever been to university, any university, is aware of the vast numbers of the ambulatory comatose among PhD candidates. To read the literature, any literature, is to be aware that a lot of these candidates in fact pass.
Your anonymous letter gives us one small bit of reassurance: at least they don't all get jobs.
No one argues that all PhDs should get professor jobs. But we have clearly reached a point that is destructive on many levels to our scientists and science.Delete
I'm sorry, that's emphatically not obvious. Too many candidates for the job is good news for science, not "a point that is destructive..."
Too many candidates is also a fine answer to your question "Who will train..." It means there are people available to be the section leaders, who make up for the haughty professors aimless blither.
I hear your whine and Anonymous's -- but I really don't see the problem.
@DavidLJ The problem Lenny mentions is for the scientists, not for the public. If you do not care enough to understand that, then why are you writing here anyway?Delete
To DavidLJ, I do not buy the reasoning that everyone who actually deserves a faculty position gets one. Neither does it make sense that everyone who could be faculty gets to be faculty. I think the major problem is that academic institutions, funding agencies, and ultimately the faculty who run the labs are playing into a disingenuous system that frequently demands 100% of a person's life, but offers proportionately little compensation during the prime of someone's life. The reality is that a savvy PhD or post-doctoral trainee should get non-academic training and experience, and even outside of science altogether, depending on their talents and interests. However, many faculty want to continue entertaining the fantasy that these people should work as if they will become faculty and not make preparations in this way because it takes away from research (read: putting 100% of free time into research). It can be destructive to the individuals. Honestly, I see some of the smartest people around me leaving academia because there is so little financial reward for such an incredible amount of effort. So much of one's fate as a scientist depends on the behavior of one's advisor, and they can sometimes be capricious enough to destroy even the smartest individual. There are few institutions that hold advisors accountable for their personal conduct and managerial performance outside of blatant sexual harassment and abuse. I can think of plenty of faculty who are demonstrably manipulative and will use anyone and everyone to advance their careers, and it doesn't matter how smart you are - they practically own you. One could also take the grossly exaggerated rate of mood disorders in academia (practically an epidemic in this subpopulation) as an obvious signal that something is very wrong. One could argue that a truly smart person would know how to "game" the system, but now we aren't talking about science, we're talking about politics and personalities, and science is a byproduct. Modern academia is burdened with so much unscientific nonsense that can set one's entire life back that maybe not the smartest, but at least the most practical individuals are leaving for more rewarding prospects.Delete
Thank you for telling the truth - that science and medicine are unaffordable nowadays. This reminds me of this article about how research is funded, not by the public, but by billionaires...ReplyDelete
My condition only has one doctor treating it in the entire US. Luckily he is also a researcher so he doesn't try to charge us off insurance. Our medical system feels like a bad joke. I used to feel upset with doctors but now I know they are in the same boat, especially the researchers.
Thank you for sharing. I'm sorry you've been mistaken for a monk instead of a scientist. Our society needs to reexamine its values ASAP. We are putting our health and progress at great risk.
[In response to the many comments here, on other blogs, and in the social media of the type "You don't have to live in NYC and do research there; there are other places with lower cost of living" or "No one is forcing you to stay in science; go get a job in industry" I have invited the author of the essay to respond.]ReplyDelete
Thank you for commenting on my essay, My Life as a PhD Scientist – You Should Know Why Science Will Fail. I wrote the essay to raise awareness about the systemic problems that science faces. We have reached a dangerous point where the academic system is not sustainable and will not be able to retain the most talented scientists (be it through lack of research funding, insufficient support of scientists, publish or perish, too many PhDs/not enough jobs). The story of Douglas Prasher, a man who should have won the Nobel Prize but ended up driving a shuttle bus for a car dealership, is a prime example. Despite the problems, I remain in science because of the good I can do for humanity as a cancer geneticist. Leaving science isn’t the answer; changing the system is. One of the best things postdocs in our position can do is raise public awareness and inform students considering this career path.
I'm amazed at the negative comments you are receiving. I guess human nature is to be critical of you, and not the system that you've so accurately depicted that we are all victims of.ReplyDelete
For anyone who thinks the OP is misguided, look at how much the US spends on defense compared to non-military STEM research, and then come back and tell me the system is not setup to fail. Smart people doing good research are being kicked out becomes of a starving, nepitism/repuation-driven archaic funding system. It's terrible for us, and terrible for the world, when our scientists are taking their skills into either the military, or obscurity. WTF
Amazing article. .a real eye opener. Thanks for sharing. For the first person who commented, the best and the brightest was used ironically and it is some what true. To achieve what he did he had to be so.I am thinking about going for a phd and wanted a realistic look This article is one of the best I ve read in a while.thanksReplyDelete
I agree with a lot of what he said, I am also familiar with the harrowing tales of Prasher and Mullis. Should probably state my story first. I am a PhD student from the third world in a department/lab that is very well funded with many international collaborations including the top UK, Europe and Ivy league schools. Sure, from the start, in the world of science I am at a disadvantage. I am not delusional about this. How do I make up for this, it's simple, whatever you do, do not define your field. For instance, I am a medical molecular biologist, not a researcher specific to a disease. This grants me freedom to move between many different fields (biomedical related or not) that gain popularity and therefore funding. At the end of the day, academia is a business and you have to go where the cash is or you will be miserable. Understand that you are on your own and you should make your own way. I have never had a PI actually contribute to my research aside from giving me a project title. This is probably due to the third world thing and them not giving a damn but hey, I can conceptualize, design and maintain my own research independently while also running a lab and acquiring funding for the lab. Yes, where I work students write the NIH grants and PI's sign, hell man a student even managed to get a Gates foundation grant. This is not ideal at all and many students feel done in, but what they don't realize is that they have already acquired many valuable skills in our little forgotten corner of the world compared to the first world. Science is a cruel mistress that will never care about the individual who dares to pry her secrets. At the end of the day we made our choices, we are in the field and we should learn to work the system and not complain about it. After 10 years of study it's too late to turn back.ReplyDelete
People the post is an year old. Even the person who posted would have moved on.ReplyDelete
Seriously, let's focus on research and reading scientific articles. Not these.
Good luck every one.