Sunday, March 4, 2012

How to make money in science

Ha.  You can't make money in science.  At least not in the system in which science currently resides (for a business perspective read Peter Kissinger's article at ddn), but bare with me and I will walk through some policy changes and some personal considerations that may make the pursuit of science into what it should be; the main outlet for innovation that drives the economy of the world and your pocket.  Right now, companies are mining the data that is gathered by technicians, graduate students, post-docs, and yes, sometimes, principal investigators (P.I.s) in academic institutions in order to pull forth gold from the dredged up lesser rocks and sediment spewed forth in journals every week.   They take that information and make drugs out of it, or make leaner beef, or genetically modify your corn and then they make money from it.  And the P.I.s, the post-docs, the graduate students, and technicians, well, they mostly don't.   They do, however, get to bask in the glow of a job well done, holding their head up high, knowing that they have done their part for mankind while convincing themselves that they have no need for fancy things; like a working automobile or gourmet macaroni and cheese.  Is it any wonder why the US has seen a decreasing interest in math and science? Any well adjusted parent would be wise to steer their children into athletics or acting because it has at least the same odds of making nothing and much better odds of making a lot [a good discussion of this at Jeff Selingo's Next post at the Chronicle].

 The thoughts of many tenured professors makes it sound like the pursuit of science should only be followed by the purely ideological with no intentions of making even a modest return on the high cost of higher education or high cost of science in this country.  Not to suggest that ideology and service aspirations aren't laudable, but each and every one of us must first and foremost think of our own survival; remember Maslow's hierarchy of needs.  This is why I suggest some key changes to the science education system that may make the pursuit of science more viable for more people. Further I propose that personal choices in science education today will allow you to have a viable financial future by navigating the system as it stands.
One of the failures of the current education system is its isolationist tendencies perhaps due to its roots in training aristocracy to speak eloquently or cross stitch.  Indeed a high proportion of my undergraduate coursework, even with a science major, was focused on creating a cultured individual.  Less focus was driven toward making the individual competent.  While I find it amusing that even the society and government of ancient Rome was full of crackpots and megalomaniacs, I am less sure of how it makes me a better molecular biologist.  I'm not saying that two years of Spanish was a bad idea; some people use this to their advantage, and I thoroughly enjoyed my elective course in logic, and currently intend to use my minor in English; however I do feel that the purpose of a bachelors degree should be to obtain a job; since it seems I'm required to have one but not required to recount the Iliad.  It is therefore that I suggest that a baccalaureate curriculum have an applied focus; with at least a portion of the required courses, perhaps more rather than less, aimed at obtaining a skill set with a specific job cluster in mind.
The concept that certain undergraduate degrees are purely for preparation toward terminal degrees is not a sustainable nor economically viable argument, especially with the high cost of education and our weak economy.  Two reasons come to mind.  One; not everyone can obtain a terminal degree for various reasons including desire, wherewithal, aspiration, and unexpected life changes.  Furthermore it is not ethical to train a glut of individuals for a terminal degree (see NIH report on Biomedical Scientist Concerns) that the market does not support when the market has a much greater need for well trained technicians.  Second; many applied degrees today provide the appropriate theoretical grounding to advance toward a terminal degree making non-applied degrees redundant.  The fact that trained technicians often make more money than trained PhDs is the case in point that applied education is far more important than those on high horses would care to admit.
The above argument suggests that acquired degrees should focus on creating not just prosaic individuals but competent individuals as well.  The division between applied programs from other programs at universities have created an insular world where technical skills are abhorred and theoretical skills are applauded by many. However, society and industry does not see it the same way.  What I propose is a fluid interchange between technical skill and theoretical ability in which an inverse pyramid of learning inundates all comers with basic theoretical concepts and a breadth of industry relevant skills early in their academic career and a reversal by the end of their terminal degree.  Those who embrace the technical side will find jobs and certifications to augment their aspirations while those more enamored by theory will move onward academically into coursework tailored for this desire but with council about professional opportunities that require this broader theoretical footing.  To accomplish this, institutions of higher learning must form solid partnerships with industry, providing their students with the skills that industry desires as they advance or abandon the academic climb.   Industry in turn should be more proactive in their associations with academe.  Several examples of this can already be seen in current practice (see the article Seeding Scientists at Science Careers) but systematization and expansion is still needed.  Ultimately this system will create a workforce that evolves to meet the demands of industry and will support both ideological and financially motivated individuals. 
Finally, and in order to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving marketplace, especially in science and technology (see my Training for our Future post), the educational system must be constantly open to change and willing to expand or contract academic programs that are gaining or losing market share.  Educators and administrators are always reviewing curriculum in order to improve it, but often the changes suggested are limited in scope and don't really move programs dynamically due primarily to the heavy burden of bureaucracy,  the professional careers it puts in flux, and a fear of getting it wrong (see Josh Fischman's Percolator post at the Chronicle).  These changes will become increasingly necessary in an ever changing technical world. 
Tragically, the suggestions that I have pointed out may not be in place in all institutional settings and may never be, so as I have promised, I will discuss how these suggestions can be applied to improving your chances of making money in the sciences a little more feasible.  First, if still possible, choose an applied undergraduate degree rather than a purely theoretical one, you can always augment your coursework with more rigorous theoretical coursework if entrance committees for graduate school recommend them or to expand your knowledge base, I myself have both a biology degree and a medical technology degree, which definitely tempered both sides of the sword.  If you are past that stage, additional certifications may provide you with a similar applied focus that might give you a financial edge.  Furthermore, additional training may be required for my second suggestion, which is to network and find internships within industry either during your undergraduate years or between undergraduate and graduate school.  This will give you some insight into what employers want, which is the first step in modelling yourself to meet the jobs out there.  And lastly, find out what is needed in the market and anticipate changes that might occur in the field.  This may sound hard but you only need to anticipate small changes within a narrow focus area to make yourself specialized enough to succeed (see my Working Hard isn't Enough post).  But don't take my word for it, I gathered a lot of this information by surfing blogs and discussion boards on the subject and you can too.
Fire back if you have anything to add or disagree with anything I have said.

1 comment:

  1. Had I not gone to medical school, I wouldn't have had much to do with my biology and chemistry degrees, which were difficult to obtain. A chemical engineering degree would be more useful.


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