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Part 1 of What's up with Science?

Time seems to be passing really quickly. Friday has marked the end of 7 months that I've been living here. I don't think I'm settled down yet though - I think that will come once I move into an apartment that I can start modding - you know, a couple of case fans, those blue light things, a great big window in one of the walls, a big-arse water cooling solution and an LED/LCD thing for an always-on email checker (I'm semi-serious about that last one actually).

This last month has been relatively expensive, as I hovered perilously close to using up my entire paycheque from Christmas. This puts a huge dampener on my plans to start shelling out for some new geeky goods such as a NSLU2, a new portable hard-drive thing, and a messenger bag (Crumplers seem to be the best ones). Not only that, but the battery seems to have a terminal disease on my laptop, and I need to start saving for the purchase of the new laptop in June/July (that is as long as Apple hold up their end of the bargain and both release and ship new Powerbooks by then).

So as you can see, it's all getting quite expensive. Now, to try and handle this expense, my plan is to just start cutting back on various bits and pieces, and look for other money-saving things I can do. The reality of the situation is that I really shouldn't have to though. It's no secret that PhD students are poorly paid, but they are uniformly poorly paid - there are no monetary incentives to join a particular lab, and you are not financially rewarded for having good qualifications. The exception to the rule is that the system in Germany pays older students more money. The end result of all of this is that there is an egalitarian system for remunerating PhD students - they're all the same in the eyes of the bean counters. This system works really well for the university, since there's an infinite supply of potential PhD students coming out from the sciences, and one potential PhD student can be simply replaced by another. The reason supply is so strong is that the minimum qualification for working in the sciences nowadays is the PhD, and progress without a PhD will be difficult, or close to impossible. For potential PhD candidates to find the best deal for a PhD, they are essentially driven to shop between countries. This might not be an option for many reasons (the least of which is that you really shouldn't be doing a PhD without a nearby established support network - yeah I know, I realise this now). Since you're not going to find a PhD student who's doing a degree for the money, PhDs get their motivation to continue their work from two places - a desire to establish a career in research as a means of gaining income (eventually), and the love of science. Both fine, but they're not exactly putting food on the plate. I sort of hope this model of enticing PhD students to study is going to break down in the future.

Historically, a career in academic research was seen as more flexible and free than working in a commercial industry, and so science was seen as a way for people to make a living doing what they love. Industry - by contrast, was the intellectual equivalent of the old rock sell-out - running for the money and in the process damning your soul to a lifetime of slavery to the machine. Real dire stuff indeed. Google is changing that perception very quickly however. Although a lot of their jobs require PhDs, it's proof conclusive that you can do innovative research in a commercial company without selling your soul - and not only that, but there's a business model which can actually sustain it. In fact - and this holds true for the computer science field at least - there are a number of both start-up and established companies who have research divisions, although it is a matter of time to see if their business models are as sustainable as Google's. So now (at least for computing based PhD students) there's a viable choice for a PhD candidate outside of academia. Within the biotech space, I don't see too many options available for doing commercial research in an environment like Google's - pharmaceutical companies are notorious for being quite evil to work for. Regardless, when you do the comparison between having a career based in places like Google, and the possible benefits of a career in academia, the commercial based career wins overwhelmingly. In fact, it seems to me that most people try to get out of science and into industry as fast as possible once they finish their PhDs. Why don't they just skip the PhD and go straight into industry?

Now we have companies like Google establishing an attractive marketplace for research-minded people to find a job in, what will universities do to respond? If they don't do anything, will smart people still enrol in the PhD programs? The universities are no longer the only place where people can indulge in some intellectual flights of fantasy, and now must compete with institutions that offer both better financial rewards, but better environments and lifestyles than they currently offer. Institutions like universities are notoriously slow to change - and any change in things like increasing base remuneration packages for PhD students will take years (if not a decade) to come into effect. That doesn't even take into account the lack of money that the universities have to pay the PhD students. It seems to me that the universities will need to find a new way to compete with these companies in a fight to attract the best and brightest minds to the world of science. Okay, it's true that the best and brightest will probably always go to university - but I'm thinking more about the really good, and the pretty damn bright, who will no doubt will be asking questions such as "What can you provide me that Google can't?". I look forward to the communities response.

13 comments

Anonymous *

there are couple of things you need to clarify. Firstly, I would like to know how many research people do goole have. Secondly, how many of those have PhDs and how many has atleasst masters or equivalent qualifications.
Also, if they don't have any post under graduate degree qualification, what level they do their research and what is their position? How many supervisiors do they have.
Once you find out all these you might be surprised. Post a job ad from google, have you ever applied for any position at google? How do you know that condition at google are far better than say at pharmaceutical company.

Really there is nothing "up" with the science. It is probably society has become too much of money minded, especially the young generation. The passion, enquiring mind, fascination to discover new things and so on seems to be in decline.

So..take home message is" WAKE UP _- we need more unselfish people to do some real scinece"

butercup *

Hello anonymous,

The sad thing is that the PhD has become mandatory for getting ahead in science, perhaps for becoming a manager of a project or a lab or whatever, and yet the gaining of a PhD in itself doesn't necessarily give you any of those skills. You may be lucky enough to learn some in the particular institution you land in, but it's not examinable ...

I'm not saying you're not right as regards being money-minded. But really who does *anything* at all without the expectation of a reward. Generally we need to be rewarded with something we can use (food stamps, maybe. Or money is good). And though we also need recognition, praise, a sense of accomplishment, yada yada - we won't last long if that's all we have. Look at how many starving artists there have been throughout history. And a lot of them died from malnutrition or consumption. Wouldn't you say that the best way to help science get ahead is to provide enough money (or food stamps and medical insurance) to keep the good brains healthy while they do all that nice altruistic research?

BTW anonymous, where did you get your PhD and who were your supervisors? Oh and how much are you getting paid? Is it just enough to keep consumption and malnutrition at bay? Or are you taking a little extra just for yourself?

Hiren Joshi *

Hello Anonymous,

First of all, thanks for the comment. Unsurprisingly, I don't agree with you.

Staff numbers are pretty hard to dig up for Google - and at the very least, I haven't managed to Google up any answers to your questions. One statistic I saw mentioned said that less than 10% of staff have PhDs. No idea on the number of people with Masters qualifications. I'm not suggesting that working in industry is a replacement for an undergraduate education at a university at all, but rather that it may be viable to replace a postgraduate career in academia with one in industry now. All this without selling your soul.

I don't know what conditions are like within a big Pharma, but I know that the "geek" culture in Google, and the 20% time on a personal project really appeals to me. The focus is less on short term rewards, and more upon quality. Now, I'm not sure if there are any pharmas who aren't focussed solely on getting as many drugs out of the door as possible, and then marketing the hell out of them. If there are, let me know about them!

Now I really don't agree with your last points. I do not see why it is assumed that people who work in the sciences automatically forfeit their right to receiving a fair remuneration for their work for the good of society. Does this mean that scientists then are really charitable workers? Should we get the same tax breaks as religious organisations, since we're doing this for purely altruistic reasons? I believe rather that most scientists are doing the work for the intellectual challenge. Now, why shouldn't people doing difficult work be paid well for putting the effort in?

One last thing - could you please take the time to sign your comments with a name, so I know who I'm responding to?

butercup *

10 bucks says mr/s anonymous hasn't subscribed to the rss comments feed, so won't know that s/he has some responses to consider ;)

Hmm. Is it considered uncouth to use the expression "10 bucks says" to euro-trash like yourself?

hehe.

Anonymous *

There are few reason why I am anonymous…1) I am not a member of goggle, 2) If I put my name down, it will totally kill the argument and last but not least, I thought Hiren was smart enough to figure this out as this is not the first time we are exchanging comment about science.

Now answers to Buttercup (BTW - who are you!!) question. There are lots of ways of having rewards and I think that job satisfaction way out weights the how much money you earn, this also goes in parallel with how intelligent you are. More intelligent you are more you are likely to want job satisfaction and this means achieving something worthwhile.
As far as my qualification is concern lets just say that I have more right to say about PhD and science than either you or Hiren has. I am not going to say how much I earn, as it does not concern me, since I am very very happy with my job.
Now Hiren, in academia, you spend more than 50 - 90% (depends on which uni) of your time doing your choice of research. They may be getting paid less but there is that security as job is guaranteed for life, regardless how your research going. You should know for example that casual worker are paid more same way in private industry there is that possibility that you may be sacked at any time.
.
I agree just because you are in science you forfeit your right to have more money. How ever you are aware of your ex boss, wanting to earn more money and there are also lots of exception where scientist earns more money. But this is not usual occurrence as it goes totally against the whole “scientist culture” and lets face it scientist don’t make very good businessman, with some exceptions. Thus, proving my point once more that “We Need More Unselfish People To Do Some Real Scinece"

Hiren Joshi *

Ah crap - Hi Mum. Yes, I'm looking after myself.

butercup *

Hi anonymous-hiren's-mum, I'm one of Hiren's ex-colleagues who left the science industry altogether. And not primarily to get more money, but rather to go somewhere that didn't need a PhD and that would also recognise my MBA and provide opportunity for career advancement in project management.

I couldn't get that easily in science without a PhD which struck me as confusing, after all a scientist with an MBA should be a rare and powerful combination. (as per your "scientists do not make good businessmen" comment).

So even if I wanted to advance the cause of science (without even considering the money thing) it was a lot more difficult without that magical PhD.

As for the money thing, Ok sure, we need people who want to advance science for science's sake. They get recognition, publications, peer approval, all that stuff. But to do the good research you need to be free to a) not worry about the essentials for living (food, shelter, health) and b) get the best equipment possible to do your research. Neither of those is doable without money. So even if you are researching for 100% altruistic reasons, or you don't expect to make money from your research, or even to make money for other people, you can't do it because you're too busy hunting and gathering your own food, building shelter and warding off disease, all without the luxury of the equipment (resources, computers, chemicals, lab setup, whatever) that would make your scientific research possible.

We need unselfish people period. But they can't be unselfish about survival and tools. For one thing, it's not humanly possible. If they disregard their own basic needs then they can't really go on to provide benefits back to society. No matter whether they are in science or not.

p.s. I'm not really anonymous. That's why my photo and a link to my blog are visible on this comment.

brionydoyle *

I have to dispute the job security aspect of a position in a university. These days many university positions are grant dependent, maybe lasting for three years. OK, you can get tenure, but you can't generally say that university life is grant dependent.

So, you need to be VERY dedicated to you science to go for it in the face of the fact that:
1. You usually go through at least 10 years of complete lack of security to get to a secure position. The only career path I can think of off the top of my head that is like that is medicine, but at least that pays very well once you've done that. See (2).
2. Even that secure position is not incredibly well-renumerated, so you can't make up for 10 years of not really being able to get a home loan with then paying it off very quickly. Result: continued financial insecurity, even if you have security of income.
3. 50 % is a very much more accurate estimation of how much time you get to spend doing science balanced with the time lecturing (which can be rewarding itself, but isn't science) and the time justifying why you need the money you do need to perform science. I know many academics who spend most of January and half of February (at least) every year preparing grant applications.

I'm a person who tends to just do what I want to do, usually for the personal satisfaction rather than any sort of material reward, but if only those people are doing science, and if they spend a lot of their time worrying about money and hence being distracted from their work, their IS a problem with the system. I do want to work in science, I do want an academic career, I'm not a materially minded person, but I also am seriously tempted by the possibilities of a career in google.

Hiren Joshi *

Thanks for the comments everyone (Yes - even Mum)!

As far as I see it - the argument comes down to this:

Why would I accept less money to work in Academia, when I can have the same intellectual stimulation in one of these Google-like companies? (Did I mention that I sense another Dot-Com bubble coming?)

I think it's a bit harsh to be calling me selfish. All I'm talking about is fair remuneration. Should anyone who enjoys their job be paid in monkey nuts (Don't ask Karl Pilkington)? And yes, I'm not in science to save the world.

As Briony said, I don't think job security is an argument in favour of academia. If you spend all your time in one institution, your career is pretty much dead anyway, you really need to move around to get the promotions. In fact, I know people in the IT field (I'm thinking Phil from Uni) who are always looking for a new job - even when they are happily employed. That's just a fact of todays job market I think.

Anonymous *

one final comment!
Hello you young guys,

This will be my final post as I will not be able to access computer for next two weeks.

You are so right about this comment “scientist with an MBA should be a rare and powerful combination.” I also keep doing management courses for the very same reason I mentioned before. The reason I said about money minded scientist is very true in real life. All you have to do is look at the Unis from inside and you will see what I mean. We lower our standard all the time to enrol more students, get more and more full paying student (with ridicules UAI). I my boss does not want to teach but want to concentrate only on how to get more money… list just goes on and on…

I also agree with Briony, when it comes to research and grants. If you are doing a “right kind” of research there is plenty, if you are not you are pretty much stuck. I was referring to uni only where you will have your wages. I don’t think that academics are that badly paid. Then again I am old fashioned and happy with enough money to support family etc.

Finally, I absolutely agree with Hiren. One has to move from job to job to give you that edge, which only comes from lots of different experience.

Well, you are all very cleaver people and I don’t have any doubt what so ever that you guys are all going to so well in future.

All the best, love - not so anonymous

butercup *

Hi Mrs Joshi :)

You're right, of course. Clever people will do well no matter where they go. Mostly because they are clever enough to find jobs that make them happy, whether that is because of the money or because of the warm fuzzy feeling of "doing good for humanity". I can't speak for everyone out there but for myself I need a bit of both to feel fully satisfied.

It's sad but true in modern society that it's money that is used to measure your achievements - e.g. "I've been employed for x years so I should be paid $Y".

And besides, if I'm being paid $Y all I need is for $Y to be slightly greater than my living needs of $Z so that I can put $W towards a holiday - so have a great trip to India Mrs Joshi!

cheerz
butercup-who-is-also-known-as-Diane ;)

Anonymous *

Just to let you know I am back and ready to roll, so bring on "Part 2 of What's up with Science?"...that is if you dare !

Hiren Joshi *

I'm in the process of doing some research for the second (and further) parts. It'll be done whenever I get it done.

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