Do not choose science
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Do not choose science

Last week was Fresher’s Week, and thousands of students have embarked on university degree programmes, from undergraduate to Ph.Ds. Some have faced agonising decisions on the best course to follow.

Computer science and engineering are the few fields in which industrial demand makes it sensible to get a Ph.D- Ivan Debono

Perhaps you are a student reading this and also find yourself at the crossroads. Are you thinking of becoming a scientist? Forget it!

You may be smart, with a passion for science and the ambition to go on to a Ph.D. After graduation, you will have to deal with the real world. That means you should not even consider going into a science course in the first place.

Do something else instead: medicine, law, finance, computers or engineering.

Why am I trying to discourage you from following a career in science? Because times have changed. Science no longer offers a reasonable career path.

If you enrol at university as a science undergraduate, it is in the expectation of spending your working life doing scientific research.

You will be disappointed, probably when it is too late to choose another career.

Universities train a lot more Ph.Ds than there are jobs for. Due to an oversupply of Ph.Ds, the promise of an academic job has been yanked out of reach.

When something is a glut on the market, the price drops. In the case of Ph.D scientists, the reduction in price takes the form of many years spent in holding pattern postdoctoral jobs.

Instead of obtaining a real job two years after their Ph.D (as was typical 25 years ago) most young scientists spend five, 10, or more years as post-docs. They have no prospect of permanent employment and must often obtain a new postdoctoral position and move every two years.

That’s if you’re lucky and do find a job.

In contrast, a doctor typically enters private practice at 26, a lawyer at 25, and is made a partner a few years later, and a computer scientist with a Ph.D has an extremely good job at 27.

Computer science and engineering are the few fields in which industrial demand makes it sensible to get a Ph.D.

Typical postdoctoral salaries (not in Malta, where post-docs do not exist) start at €2,000 per month in fundamental science. Can you support a family on that income? Can you even maintain a relationship?

It just about suffices for a young couple in a tiny flat. When you are in your 30s you will need more: a house in a good residential area and all the other necessities of ordinary middle class life.

Science is a profession, not a religious vocation, and does not justify an oath of poverty or celibacy.

Of course, you could console yourself by arguing that you’re not going into science to get rich. But a doctor or lawyer typically earns two to three times as much as a scientist lucky enough to have a good senior-level job.

You can get a fine job as a computer programmer, but why not do this at 22, rather than putting up with a decade of misery in the scientific job market first?

The longer you spend in science the less attractive you will be to prospective employers in other fields.

The general cheapening of scientific labour means that even among the most talented, many are eventually squeezed out of science altogether.

In the physical sciences, academic jobs above the post-doc level are exceedingly rare. Industry work is practically non-existent outside of the bio-techs (and they have been hit extremely hard by the global financial crisis), there are no jobs in the public sector and the science Ph.D gets extremely low recognition outside the academic community.

What can be done? If you’re still young, pursue another career. This will spare you the misery of disappointed expectations. Young Europeans are starting to wake up to the bad prospects and absence of a reasonable career in science and are avoiding it.

If you haven’t yet, then join them. Leave university to the Chinese and Indians, for whom the prospects at home are even worse.

The surplus of scientists is entirely the consequence of education policies. Funding agencies are bemoaning the scarcity of young people interested in science when they themselves caused this scarcity by destroying science as a career.

They could reverse this situation by matching the number trained to the demand, but they refuse to do so, or even to discuss the problem seriously.

For many years now, governments propagated a dishonest prediction of a coming shortage of scientists, and funding agencies still act as if this were true. The Lisbon Strategy, now rebranded as Europe 2020, is a case in point.

Unless we can provide jobs for our Ph.D graduates, there is no point in contributing further to the swelling ranks of that new 21st century breed: the overqualified and unemployed.

Ivan Debono is a Ph.D graduate.

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