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Research Career

Having a good science education is essential for all of us, because that trains one’s critical thinking; while asking a lot more students to join the field is a whole different issue. A number of factors comes into play for one to decide whether he would want to pursue this career, including one’s personality, dedication, and perhaps most importantly, financial status and career aspiration. As a teacher for many students who has spent a few more years than them and has gone through some of these thinking exercises, I believe it is rather important to let students know about the reality of the career path in research rather than telling them a rosy story and blindly motivating them. To me that is just like an academic Ponzi scheme.

Here is a great article “U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there” about the situation (once again), by Brian Vastag from the Washington Post:

That reality runs counter to messages sent by President Obama and the National Science Foundation and other influential groups, who in recent years have called for U.S. universities to churn out more scientists.

What worries me the most during the counseling of younger students, is that many think they study well, can get good grades and hence going to graduate school is a natural choice. My typical response is that “you don’t want to go to graduate school”. Don’t get me wrong. I am very enthusiastic in training students and motivate them about the excitements of scientific discoveries and thinking. However, I often see students, friends and colleagues who have good heart and can study well but ended up getting frustrated about the situation when they are a bit older and have more family obligations. I often give students a few analogies to help their planning.  Here is of them, compare pursuing research as a career to pursuing performing arts (or artists or TV stars, you get the idea) as a career. Don’t just look at the successful ones for inspiration and commit yourself to the path. Also look at the ones that have to struggle for survival. If you like that kind of sacrifice for you and your family and uncertainties for the career satisfaction, may be pursuing research as a career is good for you. In other words, pursuing research as a career requires not only the smartest minds, but also the strongest dedication and good financial flexibility. Unless there is a fundamental change in the system, research is not the career type that would give the stability that many may have perceived.