g: 0 Posted By: Rommie2k6
Views: 117 Replies: 4 First, I would like to share my experience as an overeducated, starving scientist, and then I hope to solicit some feedback and advice from fellow FWF readers (who I assume have some level of financial literacy) on how to get out of this hole that I have dug myself into.
Foremost, let's examine on why people pursue a graduate or professional degree after getting the basic Bachelors, so we're talking PhD, MBA, PharmD, MD, etc... The high minded bullshit aside (I want to save lives, it's intellectual challenging, etc...), it's all for money. Generally, the higher your education level, the higher your salary. Most people with professional degrees easily hit $100k/yr shortly after graduation and peak at $200k-500k/yr depending on your profession.
All except me. I'm an overeducated (PhD), starving scientist, working at the interface of chemistry and biology, which is unfortunately overcrowded. I did NOT know this until I was 3 years into my degree, that I had joined an overcrowded field, where supply is way more than demand. In about a year, I'm going to graduate, and I feel royally screwed.
Here's the hole that I have dug myself into. For the past 4 years of my life, I have been preparing myself for a career in the ivory tower, i.e. professor. To be honest, a professor's salary ain't too bad, most of them earn >$100k/yr. The problem is:
a) Intense competition to get a professor position that pays well (we're talking about tenure-track positions at R1/R2 institutions for those who know the lingo, not instructor positions, not teaching positions and definitely not adjunct). In today's world, I'd say you have a 10% chance of getting it.
b) Extremely long times of temporary underpaid "holding pattern" positions between graduation and landing that coveted professor position, also known as postdoc positions. As a grad student, I earn $25k. As a postdoc I earn $40-50k. In comparison, a tech with only a bachelor degree doing "grunt work" in industry gets $50k/yr. Hell, I bet most blue collar jobs earn as much or more than I do!!! In my field, it is the norm that fresh PhD graduates do not get hired as professors. Instead, they spend 5 to 7 years postdoc-ing to get more scientific publications and just hang around until they get a job. To illustrate this problem, I know of a rising superstar in my field, he spent 17 years as a student and postdoc before he finally landed a position at a R1 institution.
c) Combining (a) and (b) together, I am taking a tremendous financial hit to my earnings and retirement. I have run "salary projections" on hypothetical scenario of academic vs industry jobs, based on what information I could gather from sources like glassdoor. I won't bog down with details, but I'll highlight two scenarios:
- For a career in industry that is equally successful (in terms of salary growth) as academia, the industry path will have AT LEAST $1 million more at retirement, which is equivalent to about $300k in today's dollars. The number is conservative, I've only used base salary for these calculations, and not bonuses which are common industry but not in the academy.
- A successful academic career (no more than 5 years postdoc, no more than 10 years for promotion to full professor) will yield the same amount of money at retirement as an industry career that is mediocre (never hitting $100k/yr, some unemployment years).
If these highlights startle you, yes I was dumbfounded as well. Numbers don't lie. The reason for the huge discrepancy comes from the first 5-10 years after graduation. A high paying industry job from the start allows one to save more, and magic of compounding interest works in your favor. Not so, if you are an academic.
Now, here is the REAL kicker. I am GOOD at doing what professors do. Going by metrics like number and quality of papers published (which is how academics are evaluated), I am one of the best students to come out from the lab, I'll say top 10% to give it a number. I've got awards/fellowships that are extremely prestigious (less than 10% success rate). For all my success and good performance, what I am getting in return? NOTHING! If I stick onto the academic path, I'm salary capped below $50k for the next 5 years, regardless of how well I do, and it's unlikely I won't hit a six figure salary until 10 years after I graduate. When I compare myself to others with professional degree, PharmD, PhD in engineering, etc..., those careers make $100k almost immediately after graduation. For those who are not in the ivory tower, I'm sure this comes off as puzzling. I've read a number of finance/career blogs on how to present yourself to get raises and stuff, and it is truly another world inside the ivory tower. There is this perverse culture in the ivory tower that we all do science because we love it and not for money. Yes, I love my work, but screw it if I am not going to see tangible returns anytime soon. The anti-money culture in my opinion is religious and cult-like within the academic world, and it's really frustrating because unlike other clueless PhDs, I am financially aware of the price I am paying.
So why not go to industry then? After all, I have been doing salary comparisons between industry and academic jobs haven't I? That's tricky, here are the considerations:
- From what I have figured, preparing for an industry career is very frequently at odds with preparing for an academic career. I have to chose. Industry values skills, academe values accomplishments and papers. To give an example, let's say that I invented a new cool method to do some sciency stuff. The smart academic will basically milk this method for all its worth and publish a gazillion papers out of it. But that would mean that I have specialized in only 1 thing for the last 5 years, and unless it so happens to fit into the needs of an industry position, that ain't going to cut it. To maximize odds of getting an industry job, one would need to have diverse set of skills with some level of depth, but that would translate to less papers, since the time spent learning new and diverse skills is time taken away from using those skills to get results and publish more papers.
- A likely scenario is that I may not get any industry job offers. What do I do then? Do a postdoc, bide my time and retool/reinvent myself as the industry guy? That's a sound plan, BUT the longer I do a postdoc, the more it makes sense to go into the academic route, especially since I am already doing so well as an academic. Remember that the source of the huge financial differences comes from the first 5 years after graduation. If I can't get an industry job immediately after graduation, and spend the next 3 or so years retooling and rebranding myself for industry and finally get a job in my 4th year after graduation, the salary numbers will look pretty similar as the academic path. Sure industry salary may be a bit higher, but the fact is that 4 years of underpaid postdoc has already happened and the damage is done.
I'm going to stop here now. I'd really appreciate comments and advice from the board. Even if you are not in this field, an outside perspective is going to be a refreshing change.
Lastly, as bit of service to the FWF community, if you know of any young idealistic punk who wants to pursue a PhD in Chemistry/Biology, tell them to run salary projections on possible career path. Honestly, I wish I did it in my first year. If I had, I would have developed myself for an industry position from day 1. But as of now, I'm way deep into the academic hole, and I can't really see any easy way out.