Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Giving advice

I am not sure what to think about all the advice out there about leaving academia, particularly during the postdoc years.  There are many blogs and articles about leaving - how you should do it, why you should, where to look for jobs, how to tailor your CV/resume, etc. - but a question remains to be answered, namely, "Has anyone actually done it and found a good job?"  I have visited many sites of those who have left graduate school/postdoc and found jobs outside of academia, but they (the ones I have seen anyway) all seem to be stuck in a worse situation or job than when they were in academia!  There may be a few that have found jobs outside they enjoy, but it is very limited.  Where are all the successful, awesome, industry-employed, postdoc-science leavers now?  Sure, you can read the odd article about how someone switched 10 or 20 years ago and is now a scientist at NASA or something, but that is the worst case of misinformation for the current job force (almost as bad as saying the academic market is the same as it was 15 years ago).

Now, assuming that most recent postdoc leavers or would-be leavers (in science) have not found good employment outside academia, what gives us the right (I have done this also) to push people to leave?  Do we want to comfort our agony with more company?  How are we qualified to give this information, provided we haven't made a claim on a good job outside academia?  I realize that staying in the postdoc world may also have emotional problems as well, but I am starting to think that being healthy emotionally is not necessarily achieved solely by leaving your postdoc.

This all comes as I have been re-evaluating my industrial/other job search.  Last year, I felt great thinking that I could find a job other than a professorship and I was comforted that others were forging through the same mess I was.  At the time, and I realize it was my fault, I construed the information I gleaned from others' experience as advice and confirmation that my decision was not foolhardy.  It would only be a matter of time (a few months) to get a decent job, or so I thought (as did others giving advice/experiences on leaving), and that has slowly decayed into another lost year.  Again, given my (and others') poor experience, how do we justify instructing future postdoc leavers?  It's kind of like teaching someone to drive a car without ever having been behind the wheel yourself.

Granted, blogging is about conveying your experiences and feelings, and I guess many blogs out there aren't necessarily about directing the next generation per se, but it often comes off as advice.  What I am trying to say, though not so eloquently, is:  There is no guidance for those in our particular situation, and though we can take solace in recognizing we are not alone, being accompanied on the journey does not mean you are following the right route.

Do you have a different experience than mine?  Am I missing something that you might be aware of?  Like always, I look forward to your input.

Disclaimer:  This may be nothing more than a cry for help in finding 'successful' (whatever that means) science postdoc leavers, and I am not criticizing anyone in particular.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


One year has passed since I started seeking jobs outside academia in earnest, and it is a good time to re-evaluate.  This morning I was trying to count the number of applications that I submitted to academic jobs - and by that I mean 'real' applications for open positions and not just cold-calling by sending CVs to people that I have some links with.  I could only count 6.  Only 6!  All this time I thought I had submitted at least 20 to academic positions, and it was actually only 6.  In addition, it seems my earning power (see last post) is still the best if I were to become a professor.  I don't think 6 applications is enough to judge whether or not I could land an academic job, and I actually had a phone interview for one of them.  It seems (although the sample size isn't big enough to be conclusive) that I haven't given a professorship a fair shot, and that I may have better chances than getting an industry position.

So, the questions are:  "Do I want to be a professor", and "Am I ok with living somewhere (anywhere, really) else?"  The first question is pretty easy - I have been trained to be a professor, I am good at research and writing, and I really do like the work.  So yes, I would be happy with a professor position.  The second question is a bit difficult.  Unfortunately, there will never be an opening in the place I truly want to live (by family and friends), and given my failure at getting an industrial position there also, this means:  if I truly want to live where I want, I should just pack up now (quit the postdoc) and concentrate on settling there and hope that something works out in industry.  And it doesn't make sense to keep getting postdoc experience - it is best to get there and start figuring things out.

I guess I have established that I haven't tried securing academic jobs hard enough (and I don't think I am just saying that because I am falling back on the familiar, but this is always a concern) and that the real question right now is:  "How important is the place where I live?"  I know I am not overly comfortable living as far away from family as I am right now, and it seems to me (right now) that this is very important because I don't want to just show up for funerals.  I also know that being a postdoc has intensified this as I have no means of visiting family and friends because I don't have the budget for it.  Maybe, if I was making more (as a professor or otherwise), it wouldn't be so bad as I could make the trip back for visiting.  Unfortunately, this is not something I will be able to test in the near future, and I will only know it after making the leap.

Also, unfortunately, none of this takes into account the lack of professor jobs.  But, I think I can convince myself (with having over 80 unsuccessful applications) that industrial jobs are no easier to come by.  I need to make a choice.  My current thought process of leaving academia and going the industrial route is seriously hampering my current postdoc production, and is very hard on my mental state as I have become quite depressed lately.  I either need to decide to move back to family and friends and my home city, or I need to temporarily give up the industrial job search and concentrate on my current 'job' and a future professorship.  And this decision needs to be made soon (end of March) so that I can give my notice, quit messing around with my postdoc, and get on with my life.  Hmmm, not sure about this one.  Any advice?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Earning power

It's been just over one year since I submitted my first job application to a non-academic position.  I completely remember this one, and I even wrote down my login credentials for the application site, so I thought it might be nostalgic to check it out.  The funny thing is, the site still says "Application Under Review".  So much for an applicant tracking system...

In trying to stick to logical arguments as I have brought up in previous posts, this entry is a way of proving (albeit in a hand-wavy sort of way) why someone should not go to grad school based on cumulative earning power in a person's life.  I have seen this argument before, and it is typically used to show that getting a university degree is a good investment in the long run financially.  So, with some information I have cobbled together from various sites, here are the 7 life paths of a scientist that I am going to evaluate:

Overall assumptions:
a. Career (academic or otherwise) starts at 18 and ends at 65.
b. Tax brackets:  < $60000, 15%; $60000 - $80000, 20%; >$80000, 25%.
c. Salary increments are performed every year (not for grad positions or postdocs).

Career paths:
1.  No university: $0 student loans, starting salary = $30000/year, ending salary = $60000/year.

2.  B.Sc. to industry:  5-year degree, $50000 student loans, starting salary = $45000/year (this is actually what I was offered out of undergrad), ending salary = $100000/year.

3.  Ph.D. to industry:  5-year B.Sc. + 6-year Ph.D., $100000 student loans (as per my situation - I was 'fully funded' at $20000/year), Ph.D. salary = $20000/year, starting industry salary = $60000, ending industry salary = $120000/year.

4.  Ph.D. + 3-year postdoc to industry:  As above, except 3 years of earning in industry are lost to $40000/year postdoc salary (NIH standard level).

5.  Ph.D. + 5-year postdoc to professorship:  starting professor salary = $80000/year, ending = $120000/year.

6.  Ph.D. + 10-year postdoc to professorship:  As above, but 5 more years are lost to postdoc wages.

7.  B.Sc. + M.D. + residency to medical doctor:  $200000 student loans, 5-year B.Sc + 4-year M.D. (assuming no money is made although this isn't true due to clerkships) + 5-year residency @ 75000/year.  Starting professional salary = $150000, ending = $250000.

And the winner is: M.D.

No surprise there; I really just put that in for comparison.  Second place goes to "Ph.D to industry".  Here is the final cumulative lifetime earnings (net after taxes, and minus student loans, in millions of dollars):

1.  M.D. - $5.2
2.  Ph.D. to industry - $2.56
3.  Ph.D. + 5-year postdoc to professorship - $2.52
4.  B.Sc. to industry - $2.39
5.  Ph.D. + 3-year postdoc to industry - $2.36
6.  Ph.D. + 10-year postdoc to professorship - $2.29
7.  No university - $1.84.

So what is the moral of the story?  Besides the obvious fact that students shouldn't overlook the M.D. route, a Ph.D.'s earnings are maximized if they can obtain industry employment immediately following their grad degree, and having a Ph.D does not give you that much more in lifetime earnings compared to only a B.Sc. (a difference of ~$150000).  The overall cumulative earnings decline depending on the number of postdoc years you have under your belt before going to industry.  In essence, you lose the difference between a postdoc salary and the high-end (near $120000) salaries that you would make if you would have cut to industry straight after the Ph.D.

In terms of these earnings, a professorship is not a bad option, but this analysis does not include the probability of securing this position.  In life sciences in 2011, only 15% of Ph.D. grads held secure, tenure-track positions 5-years following Ph.D. graduation.  Not to mention that attrition rates in grad programs are ~30-40%.  So, if you are starting a grad program today, you have about an 8% chance of having a professorship after 5 years of postdoc.  I don't think anyone would choose this path if they actually heard numbers like this.  8% is quite the lottery for a job that you are supposed to be training for.  I can't think of any other occupation that has such a bleak outlook (apart from other Ph.D. grads).  You would be better off picking anything but the professor route.  So, if professorships are not on the menu, then it is not necessary to go to grad school for training, so you might as well cut out after the B.Sc. as you would make about the same anyway as a Ph.D. grad.

Another thing that isn't mentioned is the relatively poor quality of life for grad students and postdocs - do you want to be spending your younger years sacrificing and worrying about living expenses for the sake of having more earning power when you are closer to 65?  I truly think it is a very good option to enjoy life early and forget about grad school altogether.

For me, I am in my 5th year of postdoc, with no tenure-track positions in sight.  In terms of the numbers, I would be better off now even waiting a couple of more years (up to 8) until I find a professorship, as each year that passes as a postdoc decreases what I can make in industry.  It isn't so much of choosing which way I want to go because of the money I can make - right now it is solely based on what jobs are available.  This past year, out of ~80 applications to industry and ~15 to academia, I had 3 interviews (all industry).  Out of the 3, I got to the on-site stage for one, and didn't get past the phone interview for another.  For the third one I have had a phone interview so far, and I am waiting for feedback.  3 interviews in one year really sucks, because when one finally comes around, it is so stressful to think that the next one won't be for another 4 months or so, so if I blow it...

Anyway, the point is:  There is no reason to go to grad school.  Let the white-hairs figure out how they can populate the professorship ranks with B.Sc. graduates, say no to Ph.D.s and postdocs, and think long and hard about professional degree routes.

I welcome your comments and criticisms.