Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What would you tell your kids about a career in science?

The ProdigalKids are too young for career plans, but would you discourage your kids from pursuing a career in science? In academia? What about a BSc/BSE with no plans for academia?

This came up in a conversation with some colleagues, and I was surprised at the split. About half said they would strongly discourage their child from getting a science degree, because they think future prospects for such careers are poor, and the other half saying they thought it was a good idea. After reading all the nay-saying online, I was actually surprised to see that so many of my colleagues are supportive of the idea. What shocked me the most actually was that a couple of my male colleagues said they would discourage a daughter but not a son because sexism. I really wanted to say "Newsflash--your daughters will experience sexism no matter what degree they get", but I didn't.

Most of the nay-sayers are worried about future job prospects, but I am not sure what other career paths they think would be better. I totally get that there are many more PhDs who want to do research/development/something very science-y than there are positions for them, but the overall unemployment rate for PhDs remains lower than the general unemployment rate (even if some/many(?) of those PhDs are in jobs that really don't require one). I believe people try to do what is best for themselves, so I am all for people (even my own kids) taking known risks for desired rewards. The keyword is 'known' here--I think it is really important to make sure people have access to information about career prospects and paths BEFORE they make long term decisions.

The science nay-sayers would discourage even a BSc or BSE, and that I don't really understand at all. Does it really matter a few years after graduation what you majored in as an undergrad? What does it say about someone if they would try to prevent their children from earning a degree they are encouraging their own students to continue? A few people said they would not discourage a science degree, just an academic career. I can kind of understand that, but I don't think pursuing an academic career and ending up somewhere else is a great tragedy. Life is long, and there are many chances to start over or try something different.

Personally, I actually think a science degree is good prep for a wide variety of possible career paths, and would be happy if the ProdigalKids wanted to pursue one. I would even encourage my kids to go into academia, if they had the ability and the inclination (while giving them all the caveats and downsides, and making sure there is a strong plan B). I don't think it is a bad thing to desire a research career, since there are many options if it doesn't work out. If the job market is poor for scientists, it is likely poor for most other choices as well. I don't want to discourage a dream just because the odds are long, as long as my kids are aware of the long odds, and have a reasonable plan if it doesn't work out.

For the most part, I love my job. The downsides would either be present in pretty much any career I chose (sexism, old boy's network, bureaucracy, politics) or are outweighed by the positives (the proposal chase is tedious, but I like being able to work on whatever I can get funding for, the long hours can be draining, but the flexibility is hard to beat). I completely understand why so many people try for TT jobs--it is a great life if you can get it. My own parents encouraged me and my siblings to have a goal and work towards it. They offered their opinion on whether that goal was a good idea or not, but once we were out of high school, they wanted us to make our own decisions about our futures (even if they thought it was a bad idea). They had faith that we would be able to figure out how to make a living. True, one of my siblings changed career tracks a few times, but we all evolved into independent adults capable of supporting our families. I think this is a good idea, and hope I have the stamina to implement it myself. It is really hard to watch your kids make mistakes!


Grumpy said...

I would strongly support a BS in a science/math field, what major do they think is better!?

I not-so-secretly want my kids to go into politics or perhaps be medical doctors. But I'd also be cool with them being photographers or whatever...life is too short not to be idealistic and follow your dreams. But that is probably coming from a place of naive privilege...

prodigal academic said...

Hi Grumpy. I totally agree with you about following dreams--if you can't be idealistic when you are young, when can you be? Of course, the calculation has to be different if you have dependents, as some do in University, but if not, why not go for something that really excites you, good prospects or not?

The anti-BSc folks suggested finance/business/economics. I think if you want your child to attempt the "Masters of the Universe" thing, a science undergrad is good prep for that too. The other suggestion was nursing, since they think a nurse will always be able to get a job and won't be tied to a geographic location (which is probably true, and nursing can be very flexible with shifts if needed, given the right specialty). Nursing seems like the kind of job that is great if you are interested, and awful if you hate it, and isn't necessarily open-ended in career path.

xykademiqz said...

It looks like my eldest son is leaning towards bio (we'll see what he thinks after he's had AP bio this coming year), but will minor (or double major) in music. He is a really good musician (choir and low brass, state-level awards) and while it may not be necessarily an obvious earning option, it's such a great enrichment to one's life to be able to make music that I am very happy to support him in any way I can. He's doing great at school, but other than music, history (blech, I hated it when I was in school), and psychology, he's not passionate about much in particular. He knows I want him to be able to support himself and that other than that he can do whatever he wants. As you say, it's his life, he should have the option to do what he wants with it.

Re business, it seems to be what JD was a couple of decades ago. But there is such a thing as too many lawyers, and there is such a thing as too many managers/business executives. At the end of the day, someone has to have the technical skills to design and make the products that everyone expects to just "make money" on. In that sense, as Grumpy says above, what is really better than a science/math BS?

prodigal academic said...

Hi xykademiqz! Thanks for the comment. I agree re: business. It is the latest fad career. It will lead to a load of unemployed and underemployed business types, just like the state of law right now.

Music is a great minor--it takes both talent and hard work to be successful. I have a friend who started out majoring in music, but then switched to a science major/music minor because she decided music was more fun as a hobby. She still plays in community groups and really enjoys it. Life isn't just about a career anyway.

I loved history too, but I didn't really like the careers it led to, so I went with science (which I also loved).