Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How other people see chemistry Ph.D.s

From the blog of Noah Smith, a graduate student in economics at the University of Michigan an assistant professor of economics at Stony Brook University and a reasonably prominent economics blogger:
Basically, I think of PhDs as mostly falling into one of three categories: 
1. Lifestyle PhDs. These include math, literature and the humanities, theoretical physics, history, many social sciences, and the arts. These are PhDs you do because you really, really, really love just sitting and thinking about stuff. You work on you own interests, at your own pace. If you want to be a poor bohemian scholar who lives a pure "life of the mind," these PhDs are for you. I totally respect people who intentionally choose this lifestyle; I'd be pretty happy doing it myself, I think. Don't expect to get a job in your field when you graduate, though. 
2. Lab science PhDs. These include biology, chemistry, neuroscience, electrical engineering, etc. These are PhDs you do because you're either a suicidal fool or an incomprehensible sociopath. They mainly involve utterly brutal hours slaving away in a laboratory on someone else's project for your entire late 20s, followed by years of postdoc hell for your early 30s, with a low percentage chance of a tenure-track faculty position. To find out what these PhD programs are like, read this blog post. If you are considering getting a lab science PhD, please immediately hit yourself in the face with a brick. Now you know what it's like.
(Note: People have been pointing out that EE isn't as bad as the other lab sciences, with somewhat more autonomy and better job prospects. That's consistent with my observations. But econ still beats it by a mile...)
I think that's a pretty bogus reading on lab science Ph.D.s, even if it is connected to the infamous (and rightly so) Guido/Carreira letter. Yes, there's a low percentage of Ph.D.s who make it into the tenure track, but that's not the goal of most/many chemistry Ph.D.s. I agree with the characterization of brutal hours, but I think "slaving away" is probably a metaphor too far.

The problem is, in my opinion, that Professor Smith conflates the jobs scenario in biology (and also neuroscience) in which supply is clearly being fueled by (past) NIH funding increases with other fields (chemistry, electrical engineering), where limited economic growth and other structural changes probably have a role to play in the relatively difficult industrial jobs environment.

He goes on to say that economics Ph.Ds. are where it's at, because you're more or less guaranteed a job. Uh, if true, good for them.

UPDATE: There's something missing in my brief analysis, which is trading the correct words for the hyperbolic "suicidal fool or an incomprehensible sociopath". Here's how I would phrase it:
Chemistry Ph.D.s are Ph.D.s that you do if you love the actual doing of science more than you love most other things, including money, status, joy and family.
Readers, care to add your comments?

UPDATE 2: Corrected to note that Professor Smith is, well, a professor. Added the word "industrial."

15 comments:

  1. He's wrong about the sort of PhD pursued by the "incomprehensible sociopath[s]," though. That's always been Econ.

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  2. While even in hindsight I'd still likely do a PhD in chemistry again, I don't know that his characterization is so far off. I recall a discussion before grad school in which I shrugged off the challenges of finding a job in the field: turns out I was wrong.

    The slave metaphor is maybe a bit of hyperbole, but maybe "rented mule" is not so far from the truth?

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  3. applied math is not lifestyle anymore, it is very well paid by Wall Street. Have you seen Margin Call? Many physics majors ended up as quants

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    1. A very interesting movie! Funny, though, I saw it with someone with an econ background, and he thought it was boring.

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    2. I guess that movie was probably not as trilling for someone working in the field, and it was slow - but a great character study and a social commentary. The acting was excellent.

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  4. I would further subdivide chemistry into synthetic organic/inorganic and pchem/analytical.

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  5. "either a suicidal fool or an incomprehensible sociopath"

    The problem arises when one of you turns into an incomprehensible fool or a suicidal sociopath.

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    1. Now, Ash, you realize that...uh, err, uh, U&$**$*%#$*....

      MUST KILL ALL HUMANS! WORLD DOMINATION THE ONLY WAY! EXTERMINATE!

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  6. you do well to highlight the "actual doing" part. it's quite possible to love your standard chem curriculum and enjoy reading new scientific findings, but hate the day-to-day of science i.e. doing the same tedious, mundane task over and over again to eke out a dataset

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  7. Just a small correction: Noah is now an assistant professor at Stony Brook. And of course, all of life's decisions should be boiled down to an economic analysis.

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  8. What was the third category of Ph.D.?

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    1. "3. PhDs that work. I'm not exactly sure which PhDs fall into this category, but my guess is that it includes marketing, applied math and statistics, finance, computer science, accounting, and management. It definitely, however, includes economics. Economics is the best PhD you can possibly get.

      Why get a PhD in economics? Here's why:

      Reason 1: YOU GET A JOB."

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  9. I've heard arguments like this before. At my last univ, we lived around the corner from an econ prof and I asked her at one point if it was true that econ was the field you go into to coast into plentiful positions. She said that PhD supply/demand in econ was more in balance than the science or humanities, but that if you really wanted to ensure your future you want to get a PhD in accounting. Apparently since most undergrads in accounting go straight into the private sector there are almost no graduate students. Typically a dozen or so PhDs come out every year nationally and there are usually more positions open than that in every given year. So accounting is one of the few academic disciplines where there is a legit shortage. Every univ winds up in bidding wars and so assistant profs even at low ranking universities start up at 6-figure+ salaries. So if your only motivation is money, than hey. An accounting PhD sounds like it would rival paint drying but that may just be me.

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  10. I think we should take Prof. Smith's words with a grain of salt.

    First of all, only substandard economics PhD graduates end up teaching for business schools. The best students always end up as faculty members in the economics departments. Second, Prof. Smith got his B.S in physics from Stanford, judging from that alone, he should've gotten into the top 10 economics programs. Instead, he ended up doing his Ph.D studies at the University of Michigan. Then, he got a tenured-track position in a business school from a second-tier university. From that, I think it is clear that yes, while getting a job as a PhD economist might be easier than a PhD scientist (after all, economists are also well-trained statisticians), getting an interesting and meaningful job in economics (read: not policy-related or business data-crunching research) is just as difficult as getting an interesting job in science. Or else, Prof. Smith would've gotten a tenured-track position in an economics department.

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  11. The Iron ChemistMay 13, 2013 at 9:34 AM

    Hmm... Not much of a difference between the two. Most graduate students enter a Ph.D. in the sciences because they like the material, so that point's off. The "life-style" graduate students pay to get their worthless degrees whereas the "life science" graduate students get paid (albeit a pittance) to get their worthless degrees. Maybe the "life-stylers" should hit themselves in the faces with two bricks?

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