Tuesday, January 20, 2015

science definitely doesn't cost you your firstborn

I've seen this link a couple places in the last day or two. In addition to the clickbaity nonsense title based on the calculation that the monetary opportunity cost of a postdoc is the same as the monetary cost of raising a child (go figure, an economist calling out a biologist for confusing money with utility!), I take issue with the content as well.

Academic science is a fantastic career. I'm intellectually challenged every day, I learn new things all the time, I dictate my own hours, I can work from home or from another country if I feel like it, I get to decide what projects to work on, I can work on my own or with other people however I like, and I get paid very well. That's worth a hell of a lot of money to me, and my revealed preferences prove it - I can't even fathom the monetary cost of leaving my awful, but lucrative, finance job to go back to school and stay in academia, but it was the easiest decision I ever made.

Economics is indeed one of the best academic fields to be in as far as academic prospects go (although I anticipate that economic postdocs will become the norm pretty soon). My friends in other fields like astronomy and biology have it much much worse, and I consider it one of the most phenomenally lucky things that ever happened to me that I stumbled on economics as a university freshman*. But clearly, the reason it's so hard to get an academic job is because so many people want them. Apparently there's more of a supply and demand imbalance in biology than in economics, lucky for me, but the point remains, biologists jump through these hoops because that's how much they love their job (despite the fact the author starts his post by saying how much they all seem to hate it. C'mon, everyone gripes about the parts of their job they don't like.)

On top of that, the fact the opportunity cost is so high is, by definition, because there are other very good options. So not only do they really love what they do, if they had a change of heart, they'd have a great way out. Other fields that people love to go into so much that they are willing to put up with extremely low wages and other inconveniences (music, art, literature...) don't even qualify them for anything else.

So yeah, tradeoffs suck. There's no good solution to that. The only way to balance supply and demand is to increase supply (hah!) or reduce demand by either cutting academic wages or making it more unpleasant to get an academic job. Both are going on and neither one is popular and there's nothing to do about it.

One thing I completely agree with, though, is that people shouldn't be taken by surprise by these circumstances. I certainly never heard one word about "postdocs" in high school or got any advice about anything post-PhD in college. I don't think the phenomenon is specific to science, but it's unfortunate in any context how divorced reality is from kids' ideas of professional life. The things you learn in school bear effectively zero resemblance to related jobs, so pursuing what you love is a terrible strategy compared to what suits your personality and priorities, and I have no idea why this is so thoroughly ignored by school counselors etc.

*both because I really wouldn't want to have to move several times in quick succession at this point in my life, with a partner whose career is as important to him as mine is to me, and because economics is uniquely well suited to my reclusive tendencies... And since I didn't anticipate any of these factors, it was pure dumb luck they worked out.

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