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Help Not Wanted

One day, a recruiter for a certain prestigious consulting firm came to my graduate biology department. They’d packed their firm with MBAs, a practice they now realized was a mistake because MBAs are specially trained to lose vast sums of money while somehow justifying annual bonuses the size of the Lithuanian economy.

In desperation, the firm turned to science Ph.D. candidates—and why not? We’re smart. We know how to work with numbers. And the thought of a 70-hour workweek makes us wonder what we’d do with all that free time.

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I applied for a job at the firm, partly out of curiosity but mainly because their office included a magical fridge from which their employees could take a Snapple whenever they wanted. Granted, there was free food in grad school, but obtaining it always required some form of sacrifice or subterfuge, such as attending a seminar on yeast genetics or pretending to be a dean. (My friend Jim, who had a similar situation at an upscale law office, explained that the free goodies are meant to increase the number of hours spent at your desk. “I can go home at the end of the day,” he said, “but at work, there’s free bacon.” Luckier still are the staff members of Google, which famously hires celebrity chefs whom its employees get to eat.)

I didn’t get that consulting job. I just didn’t know enough about business, they said, and that was a fair criticism since to this day I know nothing about business. I recall how they cringed during my third-round interview when I used “cost” and “price” interchangeably. (In the science world, that’s like saying, “I know that DNA and photons are both types of ocelot, but doesn’t Newton’s fourth law state that all flowering shrubs have a prime number of nebulae?”)

But no matter—I would soon have a Ph.D. in a scientific field, my own ticket to vast riches and free bacon. The job offers would pour in, and I’d sit atop a pile of letters from universities and pharmaceutical companies weighing the benefits of a seven-figure salary on a vibrant and dynamic campus versus a seven-figure salary in a vibrant and dynamic industry. In fact, I could probably show up at any of these places, whisper, “I have a Ph.D.,” and live off of the $100 bills thrown at my feet, provided I could pick them out from among the rose petals.

There was, of course, a third option: a postdoctoral fellowship, living in a cardboard box, and drinking my own pee. Choices, choices.

Once I had the letters “Ph.D.” after my name (and the misleading and undeserved prefix “Dr.” before it) I found my prospects less bountiful than anticipated. It turned out I had only one job offer, from my wife’s mother’s college roommate’s husband. (As for dreams of financial success: Today, 4 years later, I finally make a seven-figure salary—assuming you count the two figures that come after the decimal point.)

There was, of course, a third option: a postdoctoral fellowship, living in a cardboard box, and drinking my own pee. Choices, choices.

It is an accepted fact, to the point of cliché, that the United States needs more science majors to someday work at all those surplus science jobs. Without them, we’ll be forced to fill millions of open positions with unqualified interns, holders of H1B visas, and repurposed sex robots.

In fact, just a few weeks ago there was a giant conclave in Dallas, Texas, presented by U.S. News and World Report and sponsored by prominent tech employers, with a keynote by (seriously) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The summit aimed to demonstrate that “STEM Means Jobs.” (Literally, “STEM” means “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” unless it means “some tyrannosauruses eat mandelbread.” One of those two is a mnemonic device used to help remember the other. Guess which is which!)

But, as a recent article in The Washington Post pointed out, the opposite may be true, at least for those with advanced degrees in science. New scientists emerge from grad school and—once their eyes adjust to the sunlight—see that there are no available jobs in their particular fields. These figures may be a little off, but in 2011 there were approximately two available faculty positions, 0.6 industry jobs, and 95 billion new Ph.D. recipients. Which leaves 94,999,999,997.4 people to pursue a future making really precisely crafted hamburgers.

Science skills, new graduates soon find, are no more in demand than any other skills. Those low unemployment figures for scientists? They’re deceptive because scientists toiling in endless postdocs or who find work harvesting pumpkins (which happened to my editor’s former graduate school colleague for a time, after he earned his Ph.D. in physics studying the thermodynamics of black holes) are technically “employed.”

So, yes, we’ll find work doing something, so we shouldn’t complain too loudly. But will that “something” justify the years we’ve spent preparing for “something else?”

Reading articles about the newly discovered (or, more accurately, newly admitted-to) dearth of science jobs, one frequently encounters the “gun to the head” line of reasoning. This rationale arises in the comments section following each article, a space traditionally known as a den of iniquity where civility goes to die. “No one has a gun to your head,” commenters enjoy reminding us. “If there are no science jobs, why study science?”

I tend to scoff at this argument mainly because I went to graduate school in Baltimore, Maryland, where my small stipend allowed me to live in a neighborhood where a gun to one’s head was a regular occurrence. But it’s a fair question. If we choose to become scientists, and we know the job market is tight, how can we complain about the consequence of our own decisions? I’ve thought of several answers.

- School takes a few years. How can we know what the job market for scientists will be like when we’re finished? It may be clear in retrospect that current science students should be warned that their graduation will coincide with the Great Depression of 2018 and the Spontaneous Large-Scale Rat Exodus of 2019. But, today, all we know for sure about 2019 is that iPhones will be thinner.

- We’re filled with passion for science, and passion is the quality that leads one to ignore consequences. (And that’s where babies come from.)

- The world has lied to us. It has been said that science is what you should do if you’re smart, and by staying in school a decade longer than your friends, surely you’re setting yourself up for success. Besides, if jobs weren’t available, my school would eliminate its graduate program immediately. Right?

- Maybe we’re not motivated by money. Maybe some of us would rather fester in a postdoc than thrive at, say, a consulting firm. Maybe some of us think there are more important things to do than destroy corporate profits and the world economy. Suck on that. (Not all of my answers are polite or productive.)

But mostly, what drives us into science—even when we know our employment prospects aren’t good—is something intangible. It’s a feeling that this is what we’re meant to be doing, that our minds are wired for science. In other words, we like it.

I’m glad I didn’t end up at that consulting firm, assembling presentations to advise large companies on whether to buy other large companies. I do, after all, have a job, and it’s even in science. But would I encourage a student to start a Ph.D. program in the sciences? Would I ignore the scarcity of STEM jobs and promote a scientific career anyway? Would I tell my own daughter to become a scientist if that’s her passion?

Hell yes.