Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A good article that makes me irritated

From the inbox, an interesting article from Nature's news section by Ewan Callaway about a Ph.D. organic chemist from the Schreiber lab who has gone onto finance: 
[Soroosh] Shambayati was born in Iran, attended school in Sweden, and then won a scholarship to study chemistry and mathematics at a university in Los Angeles. As an undergraduate, he was drawn to science for its pursuit of objective truth and the opportunity for discovery. A PhD was the obvious next step, and he found a perfect fit in Schreiber's lab in the late 1980s....[snip]
...The realities of doing science, however, soon butted heads with Shambayati's idyllic view of it. He found that chemical synthesis was slow and full of setbacks — “a bit like banging your head against the wall for long periods of time”, he says — and he was put off by the political aspects of science, exemplified at the time by bickering over who discovered HIV. Still, he did not hesitate to apply for faculty jobs at several top universities while finishing his PhD, and he received more than one offer. 
While in New York for a job interview at Columbia University, Shambayati met up with a friend in banking, who was shocked to learn how little an assistant professor earned. He encouraged Shambayati to move into the financial world instead. “I said 'you're nuts',” Shambayati remembers. “I know nothing about banks or banking. Why would anybody want to interview me?” 
But a good salary was tempting to Shambayati, who felt a deep obligation to support his family; his parents had fled Iran after the 1979 revolution, leaving their house and savings behind. Shambayati set up an interview with his friend's bosses at Banker's Trust, which was later bought by Deutsche Bank. The investment bank was a leader in derivatives trading and was looking for quantitative, analytical thinkers such as Shambayati. He accepted a job earning many multiples of an academic salary, figuring that he could always go back to do a postdoc if things did not work out. 
They did. Finance was an eye-opener for Shambayati, who worked on chaotic emerging markets, losing and making back tens of millions of dollars in a day. He found the trading floor, surrounded by his colleagues, not unlike his chemistry lab, but with “even less privacy”, he says. His career progressed quickly and he moved on to jobs at Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and then Lehman Brothers. (He was there in 2008 when the firm abruptly went into bankruptcy, catalysing the global economic crisis — an experience he compares to “being in a plane crash”.)
In one sense, this is a great article because it highlights people who have been successful at science, but have chosen to work outside of science. It is nice in that it highlights professors (Schreiber, for example) who do not take personal offense at the fact that their successful students do not become tenure-track professors. I really like hearing about Dr. Shambayati's personal background as well as a glimpse of what must have been an extremely traumatic experience at Goldman.

In another sense, I am so tired of these articles. Highlighting yet another physical scientist (or physicist, or mathematician, or wildlife biologist) who decided to go into finance isn't exactly new. Comments about approving or disappointed PIs aren't new either.

What frustrates me the most about articles like this is the implied suggestion that paths like these are still easily open to scientists who wish to follow them. I'm going to guess that now, Goldman gets approximately a bajillion résumés a week from scientists who wish to earn Wall Street cash as opposed to the late 1980s. Web entrepreneurship (the subject of the second set of vignettes in the piece) is a thoroughly crowded field now. Doesn't mean that scientists shouldn't consider it as a potential source of employment (they should), but I just don't feel that these particular stories are relevant. Rant over. 

14 comments:

  1. Not relevant at all. Unless they bring back more manufactory jobs, there is no future for physical scientists. People should go into STATS, Big Data is THE "Thing" now.

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  2. Well, things have changed since 20-30 years ago. It used to be that if you were marginally good at something else (like computers) you could quickly find another position making better money. Because there is so much competition now that is not true: you have to be extremely good at something else to make the jump.

    For me its depressing and demoralizing, realizing I don't have the skills to make the jump. I appear to be a one-trick-pony, and I realize that no matter how much I may love being in natural science research and teaching Im going to be making a poor salary. And, the way our society is, your family (particularly if you are a man) may often look down on you if you make a poor salary.

    That is why I advice all white males not to get a PhD in the natural sciences. If you are a woman or a minority, it may not be so bad.

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    1. Sadly, I tend to agree with this. I would actually not encourage anyone to pursue a PhD in "natural" sciences.


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    2. "And, the way our society is, your family (particularly if you are a man) may often look down on you if you make a poor salary.
      That is why I advice all white males not to get a PhD in the natural sciences. If you are a woman or a minority, it may not be so bad."

      Dude, many women and minorities have to provide for their families too. And they just might have bigger concerns than who is looking down upon them for their salary.

      It just sounds like you're saying that since women and minorities make less than while males in just about every field anyway, it doesn't matter whether they get a good salary or not.

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    3. A different anonymousSeptember 10, 2014 at 9:01 AM

      A good card player does the best with what whatever hand he or she is dealt. But it takes a special kind of stupid to lose with a full house.

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  3. This is the overarching narrative in most areas of the economy. If you're under- or unemployed it's a personal failing- either you're not working hard enough or you chose your career poorly. Structural issues with the economy are minimized. I think it's because people would rather pretend they're in charge of their fate than admit that a good portion of their life is beyond their control. Hard work is necessary but not sufficient for success these days.

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    1. The insufficiency of hard work to ensure success has probably been true; I imagine the misrepresentation of job opportunities and the ignorance of what appears to be a large disconnect between the skills and abilities that people say are useful for employment and what they actually pay for is what gets lots of people's goats.

      While self-blame is certainly a coping mechanism for maintaining self in the presence of massive uncontrollable forces, I imagine the self-blame narrative has other more direct reasons for its continued existence and propagation. Cui bono?

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  4. Just read the piece. I'm not sure how spending 5-10 years of your post-college life on something completely unrelated to your future career can possibly be framed as a good thing. Particularly if you're not being paid very well to do it.

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  5. The entrepreneurship thing is tiring, because being an entrepreneur is nontrivial for people who have invested their lives in starting businesses, and is not likely to be more so for people who spent lots of time trying to do something else. (If you were interested in business, you almost certainly would have been better doing that rather than spending lots of time in school). It also involves lots of psychological risk which most of the people who have spent that much time in school have structured their lives to try and avoid. Finally, considering the economy, it doesn't appear that making anything of use is going to be valued - the money goes to the people who do everything else. (Perhaps running a business and being good at it can get you into the set of people holding those lucrative jobs, although that's not a high-probability play.) The entrepreneurship story seems like a rather transparent ploy to avoid admitting that there aren't going to be jobs and that people are hoping that you'll make them some to replace those they've destroyed.

    A mitigating factor is that people don't always know what they want or what they'll need to do it ("Life is what you do while you're making plans.") and it's possible that it can work out; of course, with lots of people advocating for individuals and society to spend lots of resources towards training people for careers that are either nonexistent or undesirable, one ought to expect more from spending those resources than a free ride for people who could afford to pay their own way and a crapshoot for the payers.

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  6. "What frustrates me the most about articles like this is the implied suggestion that paths like these are still easily open to scientists who wish to follow them"

    I don't know that jobs in finance for chemists aren't as open as jobs for chemists as chemists, either in academia or industry. GS may well get tons of CVs from chemists, but they also likely have more openings than even a second or third tier university. I would also suggest that training in physical sciences, which seems to always boil down to math, is a pretty good way to train for a career in finance. I'd further argue (almost certainly incorrectly) that understanding how particles in boxes behave is a useful preparation for how stocks trade--- I know it works for me (well, except when it doesn't, but that's when the mkt is behaving irrationally....).

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    1. Markets never behave irrationally! Blasphemer!

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  7. The get-rich-quick money is in data mining for consumers response to advertising.
    There exist at least two "bootcamps" for PhDs in New York City to do that. If that suits you, go there and be happy.

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  8. "That is why I advice all white males not to get a PhD in the natural sciences. If you are a woman or a minority, it may not be so bad."
    What the hell does that mean? Are you kidding me??? Is being laid off better somehow for scientists who happen to be in a minority or happen to be women?? What entitled planet is this from?

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