This column by Brian Vastag in the Washington Post yesterday is probably going to be shared amongst my postdoc and grad student friends. And as I just saw in his Twitter stream, he says there are ~2700 comments on his story about how there is actually not a need for new scientists and that there are no jobs for them (especially academic jobs). I almost completely agree with his take on things. It is depressing out there for a young life scientist or chemist. He says physicists and engineers (especially tech sector engineers) seem to be doing well in finding jobs outside academia.

I am a life scientist and a postdoc and it’s frustrating. And depressing. And hard to stay positive in the face of no good news on the horizon. And something I’ve been working a decade for seems to be gone: and it’s an important thing- a career. I don’t mind working hard, but I would like to know I’m working to grow and working for something greater. I do like educating and figuring things out in the lab to potentially leave the world a better place, but it would be nice to know that I spent all my time to help myself too. I don’t have the solution. It’s not easy to solve. Just adding funding won’t help. Cross-training might be good for Ph.D.’s currently in the system, but there might not be a job for them in a STEM field when they graduate. I don’t think that current PIs are going to give up there armies of grad students and postdocs because that means they’ll get less research done- and getting less done is not OK – taking a weekend off is kind of anathema to academic researchers. And unfortunately, I love science. I don’t know what else is in my blood to do. So having this swept out from under me seems pretty harsh. Will I adapt? Probably. But I am very unsure of how to build something new from where I am. I am a trained researcher…it’s hard to broaden that out to something else, especially in an economy where getting hired seems dependent on being the round peg for the exact round hole the company needs. There is always the potential that money will come back for scientists as apparently many corporations are recording record profits….maybe they’ll invest some of it in research and development (I’m skeptical that that will happen though). I think all of this has real negative consequences in terms of the quality of research produced (experiments and publications get rushed out, because they are what matters) as well as affecting the morale of any young scientist which will lower their productivity.

Now to the part of Vastag’s column I don’t quite agree with. He paints it as a negative that President Obama has hosted a science fair at the While House and is generally encouraging of kids exploring science. I think educating kids in science by having them be active participants is great. The country may not need more scientists, but it certainly needs more scientifically literate people in the populace- and education is a key part of that. Scientific thinking is useful in all sorts of career fields and who knows, maybe some of those scientifically engaged kids will be more supportive of science initiatives as adults in their non- STEM careers. Science is a democratizing enterprise. It’s a good thing to have kids exploring their world and nature. I still get goose bumps seeing or thinking about many images NASA produces. The ‘Pale Blue Dot’ photo especially. And now Voyagers 1 and 2 are leaving the Solar system! That’s incredible. Science has expanded the universe and the economy in a huge way. It sparks imagination and creativity in minds. So is a good thing.

I’m going to try and end on a positive note. A few years ago, the fact that my career seemed to be dead on arrival really stopped me in my tracks. I was depressed to the point of paralysis. What was the point? Why bother working hard if there’s nothing at the end of it? Well, my mind is different now. Through several scientific breakthroughs in how the mind works and how it learns, I have become much more of a learned optimist in many aspects of my life. I am choosing to think that I can figure out a career- even if it isn’t directly in research science, which I am a bit disillusioned with still. I am choosing to think that the world economy is ‘correcting’ itself and will boom again. Science is self-correcting and self-reflective and things will work out in the long run. Research will always be done. It’s essential to move us into a better and more sustainable world as well as simply to appreciate the wonders of the universe- the very big and very small and everything in between. If I were religious, I ‘d say that science expands God’s creation beyond what’s in The Bible or other religious texts and that’s pretty amazing. So I am not as de-motivated as I was, but am taking some active steps to figure out where to go and what to do with my life.


Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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