The Nov. 4, 2011 New York Times article on STEM (science - technology - engineering - math) career paths shows clearly and succinctly that NO ONE is engaging in true investigative journalism anymore. The article by Christopher Drew, Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard) shows an appalling lack of insight into the issues facing flocks of interested and engaged science majors. Did this author spend five minutes in a laboratory talking to scientists working in the trenches? No.
Yes, science and engineering are HARD. OF COURSE ITS HARD...Science is fascinating in the abstract - but “doing science” is never easy. If it were easy we would have cures for cancer, heart disease, obesity and all infectious disease coming out of our ears. We’d have a shuttle to Mars where people would take vacations and someone would be working on a Warp engine to go faster than the speed of light by now. I know its hard because I have a Ph.D. from a highly regarded medical school and was a molecular biologist by trade for over 15 years.
However, you don’t need that many scientists. The percentage of people that we need in this country to be actively engaged in R&D is relatively small. That the early classes weed out a large number of students is not a tragedy…though I agree that there needs to be a vast improvement in pedagogy in order to keep students engaged. But the bottom line is that in that lecture hall of 200 students - the world only needs roughly 10 of them to move on to the doctoral level.
The problem isn’t at the undergraduate level. It’s at the graduate level and post-doctoral level. It extends into the industry itself and path that those 10 successful students in that lecture hall are forced to walk to pursue their careers.
STEM Careers at the doctoral level - Let’s talk about the process:
Those who make those initial cuts at the undergraduate level - are shuffled into a literally BRUTAL graduate system. It’s a hazing process of long hours and abuse. Many are teaching assistants that provide a cheap form of labor for the university. All end up in laboratories where they choose a mentor for their graduate careers. “Mentors” may or may not be exploitive - but more often than not - they are. In almost all programs - working outside of the university to make ends meet is NOT ALLOWED. During that time the student gets paid a stipend that is barely subsistence. Labor laws? What’s that? The “mentor” gets a cheap source of labor and is often reluctant to let a good candidate graduate. They then lose that pair of hands that are producing publications and grant money for them. Thus, the “education” required to acquire the Ph.D. can drag on for 7-8 years of full-time study.
The Post-Doctoral Logjam:
Ok - You’ve got your degree and you have earned the privilege of being called “doctor.” Wipe that grin off your face, because now you are entering the post-doctoral logjam. This is where many potentially great minds fall out of the pipeline. The postdoctoral period used to be a temporary situation that lasted 2-3 years. It allowed the newly minted Ph.D. to expand and hone their skills so that they can start their own labs or become a staff scientist in industry. In the heyday of biotech of the late ’80s and ’90s- a newly minted Ph.D. could earn a decent salary completing a post-doc in an industrial setting.
Those opportunities are looooong gone. The increase in monies to the NIH (National Institute of Health) and NSF (National Science Foundation) under Clinton lead to a FLOOD of foreign students and post-docs into US academia. This led to record graduations between about 2003-2006 - just when Bush was cutting the budget to ribbons. Hence the post-doctoral logjam grew to monumental proportions. One post-doc wasn’t enough. Now people were doing two, three, four or more. I saw brilliant mind stuck in that “holding pen” for 10 years or longer. If you are doing the math - that’s 7-8 years to the doctoral degree and another 7-10 years to a JOB….14 -18 YEARS. Post docs are poorly paid (well under $40k in large cities where the cost of living is high) and some don’t even have basic benefits like medical. Most work between 60-80 hours a week.
Once again - this is a cheap source of labor. Labor laws??? Again - WHAT labor laws? It is pure exploitation.
When you finally get to a “real job” - there is no security at all. If you are in industry you are at the mercy of the suits with MBA’s who know NOTHING about science, are paid about three times as much as any of the scientists under them and who can eliminate whole departments almost on a whim. For academia - the pay is once again - terrible and the budding scientist is competing for an ever decreasing slice of the grant money pie. By this time the newly minted “scientist” is often in their mid-forties with NO NEST EGG and no security.
What caused the deterioration of STEM opportunities?
There is plenty of blame to go around…The trouble here is that the powers that be in both academe and business got greedy. The scientist became a commodity who was not valued.
In-sourcing of talent from abroad created a perfect storm. Over-supply made jobs scarce. The presence of so many foreign nationals who knew nothing about “labor rights” exacerbated the situation. Labs are nothing more than high-tech sweat shops that should be a national disgrace.
Those who had made their livelihoods in academia for years were stressed by the decreasing flow of grant monies. They applied pressure to those in the trenches (graduate students and post-docs) to keep their labs open and running. Desperation creates abuse. It was always abusive, but this just made matters worse.
The Bush administration nixed the unionization of teaching assistants and post-docs. Institutions that had unionized had made strides to stem the abusiveness of the system. Working conditions, while far from cushy, improved. But once that was gone - so was all restraint.
The myth that Americans “can’t do” science was perpetuated. Congress was pressured to allow even more students, post-docs and H1-B’s into the country - exacerbating the glut. Industry and academia won because they could crack the “green card” whips and get an outrageous amount of work out of vulnerable people for ludicrous wages.
We have the critical mass of scientists that we need in this country. The trouble is that there are no opportunities - which is why I, along with many other American nationals left the field without looking back.
NOTE: For those who can access it - the comment thread for the article is excellent. Quite a few scientists piled on board. If you want an earful on the reality of this situation - try this link.
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