Ever since Obama’s State of the Union address in January, we have been hearing more and more about American “exceptionalism” and about so-called “STEM” careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Engaging young minds in these all too critical areas of study is supposed to be the key to Americas future - paving a way to our supremacy in the 21st century and beyond.
Spin vs Reality:
Sadly, the spin is far better than the reality. As someone who holds a doctorate in a STEM field and makes a living selling real estate, I can state with confidence that the “promise” of what a rigorous STEM education is supposed to achieve, far exceeds the cold reality. Cutting to the chase - the problem comes down to this: If a student is expected to spend all of their twenties and much if not all of their thirties in post-graduate studies and post-doctoral training - then there had better be jobs at the end of that pipeline…and high paying jobs at that.
The need for enough high- paying positions is not hubris or even elitism gone wild. When a doctorate and three post-docs are the entry level requirement, the the need for decent if not high compensation is apparent. No one goes through all of that thinking that all that awaits them is a life of grinding poverty. Its simply not realistic. to expect the best and brightest to put themselves in harms way like that.
Why salaries matter so much…
Logistically, with a pipeline that long, the need for a higher salary is all the more urgent. In my former field it takes about 15 years of post graduate training (doctorate and postdocs) to even be in a position to land a “real job.” That means that the nascent scientist has been toiling their entire youth away in slave labor - working about 12 hours a day 6-7 days a week for less than $30k a year. By the time they emerge - they are penniless and either middle aged or on the cusp of middle age. Many have families who are crammed into student housing or some dump of an apartment near campus. At that stage of life, with no means by which to have earned any savings for a home, college for the kids or even for retirement - they need highly paid work - and they need it bad!
A long training period means having to make up for time lost on building up their nest eggs. After all, most of their peers from college who took law or business degrees have been socking money away for over a decade and with compounding interest are already sitting on a nice healthy financial cushion.
More often than not, the work they find pays poorly at best. Because you can’t get away from market forces even in biotechnology or academia - if supply exceeds demand - salaries can be decimated. Those who find jobs, find the income paltry at best. Many can’t find work at all and continue to yet another post-doc. They are caught in the post-doctoral logjam - along with all the other victims of the US PhD glut.
Yes - I said the Ph.D. glut…
You know there is a problem when the journal The Scientist has a panhandling post-doc on its cover who lists his degrees on a cardboard sign and at the bottom it states “Will work for food!”
Thats how the dream and all that hard work can turn into a nightmare. You see, the training of a scientist or engineer is long and intense, but it is also specific. If there is no market for what you do - you are not trained to do anything else - and if you are middle aged or approaching middle age - you are in big, big trouble.
So there you are - educated to a level that exceeds most physicians. You’ve worked nearly two decades 70 hours a week, year after year for slave wages and you look around and realize that you are either unemployable or grossly under-employable.
Go back to school for - say - a law degree? an MBA? That depends…can you even afford to go back to school? How old will you be when you are out? Once someone hits the 40-year mark - entry-level positions even for MBA’s and lawyers become scarce.
The lucky ones find work in some related field. Others are not so fortunate. I cast my lot trying to start my own business - first as a real estate agent and now in my own business. I literally felt a business start up was less of a crap shoot at my age than further education. When Congress cut funds for a supercollider being built in Texas in the early 90s, many of the physicists ended up on Wall Street. They went from atom smashing to market crashing in one shot. What a productive use of a 15 year education!
But that begs the next question - how could we possibly have such a glut of scientist in the midst of what the media tells us is a huge shortage? That is the topic for another blog.. To be continued……
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