…That is the question. I meet quite a lot of young people these days, many of whom are keen to become scientists. And I encourage every one of them to study science to the highest level. But I never encourage anyone to become a scientist, even though the profession has turned out well for me.
My situation. I am now 51 years old and earn a salary of roughly £48,500 p.a.. I spoke with a Physics Professor the other day who is a little younger than me and he earns £53,000 p.a.. Admittedly, my colleague has excellent pension provision and I have relatively poor pension provision, but you can see the ballpark salary range that is achievable. This is a good salary, but most people who embark on a scientific career, even with PhD’s, will not reach this level.
I have no complaints whatsoever about my situation. In fact, I feel grateful to be able to earn a living doing anythingrelated to Physics. And NPL is a very nice place to work. I do interesting things – no two days are ever the same – and I work on projects that push the limits of what human beings know about certain topics. And although I feel privileged to be able to do that, the work is challenging and stressful – or at least I find it so.
A salary comparison. Looking around I see that my salary is about the same as a senior teacher and comparable with a skilled artesan – a plumber, electrician or plasterer – who in these parts charges £250/day and who will be busy most days. Based on a standard 220 working days per years (6 weeks holiday) this amounts to £55,000 p.a.
A scientific career: Nowadays students have to become profoundly indebted in order to even embark on a scientific career. However, most people will not make it to the point where they are earn a steady salary. Assuming they get a good degree and that they successfully complete a Ph.D. – generally the most difficult thing most people ever do – then they may get taken on for a fixed-term postdoctoral position. Or two. Or three. And so at the age of somewhere between 30 and 35 they will find themselves impressively qualified, probably still in debt, and facing the prospect of endlessly chasing temporary post after temporary post. And it’s at this stage that most people give up and do something else. And many of them wish they had given up earlier.
Summary: If you follow a career as a scientist, then you will probably leave when you are 30-ish and do something else. If you are successful, then when you are 50, pretty much the best you can hope for is to earn as much as a self-employed plumber. So when asked by young people what they should do, I have no hesitation in encouraging them to study science. But if they want to earn enough money to buy a house and bring up a family, I tell them they should really do something else.
And if despite my advice, someone feels compelled to become a scientist, then whatever I say will have made no difference, and when they have become a scientist, and they reach the age of 51, they will understand why I said what I said.