To be, or not to be, a scientist

Michael de Podesta at work

Michael de Podesta at work blowing dust off one half of a copper resonator. Click for larger version.

…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.

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6 Responses to “To be, or not to be, a scientist”

  1. Edmond Hui Says:

    Bravo. The UK will get the science it pays for. I followed precisely the path you described, got out after my PhD, had some fruitful years in the private sector, and now find myself in education earning a lot less than a plumber or a teacher! But I disagree in one important sense. You make the distinction well further down between being a scientist and being employed as one, but you never really become a scientist do you? Anyone with the correct state of mind IS a scientist, and you teach that brilliantly in protons for breakfast. The difficult trick is to be employed fruitfully as one!

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      It’s true that ‘being a scientist’ is a state of mind, but I was thinking really about careers, and the career options are not really very attractive. For me, being a scientist is not so much a career choice, as a personality defect. And I am grateful that I am able to earn a living at all!

  2. Emma Woolliams Says:

    And furthermore, when you’re studying physics you may well fall in love with another physicist. Now you have the “two body problem” of finding two permanent physics jobs within commuting distance of each other (which usually means in the same organisation). That makes it even harder to accept fixed-term contracts (I know of married couples living in different countries because of their post-doc opportunities).

    Fixed-term postdocs were one of the reasons I avoided going into academia. I think it’s a disaster for anyone wanting a family life that places like NPL are getting increasingly keen on them.

    I’ve heard comments that if you want a physics career you must be so obsessed with physics that you don’t care about anything else (getting married/having children/buying your own flat/having a hobby are all impossible) – I think that’s a very dangerous attitude and limits the diversity of scientific minds!

    Still, as I’m currently being paid a salary just short of yours for 9-months of full-salary maternity leave, I can’t really complain 😉 I don’t know anyone else in my mum-and-baby groups who has a package that good!

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Yes I think the ‘post doc years’ really winnow out those who at the end of their twenties and the beginning of their thirties want – not unreasonably – some clue about how they could even conceivably begin to settle down. Enjoy your salary and maternity leave: you have earned it!

  3. What it pays to study « Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] couple of weeks ago I wrote about why I advise people to study science, but to look for careers in other areas. Areas, which lead to more stable, better-paid […]

  4. Samantha L. Says:

    To be a scientist is one of the most promising dreams that a man could ever achieved. Science are based on facts and studies which is the job of a scientist. I believe until this point in time, there are many people who want to become a scientist someday for the purpose of contributing something to human kind.

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