APS News

Leaving Science Can Be a Good Career Decision

By Wolfgang Hierse

Many young scientists are struggling to find employment in their field of training. As a young Ph.D. physicist, I know the situation. However, did you ever consider that there are reasons why you SHOULD get out of science, and that there is little reason to be unhappy about it? Let me tell you about my personal perspective on this and how I found a job.

Like many of my university pals, I entered physics because at that time, I felt very strongly that physics is "where the future is made." I wanted to be part of the exciting developments that would shape the next century. Well, what I found is not a place where the future is made, but an industry badly in need of restructuring and, yes, downsizing.

Modern science is fascinating. Much of it is also absurdly over-specialized and badly out of touch with real-world problem and needs. Most results are neither marketable outside science, nor even communicable to more than some 100 people on the globe at any given time. In my view, this is the real cause for the present dismal funding situation. Make no mistake about economic factors and hostility against science: nobody would dare touch science if it were obvious that science generates solutions to society's most pressing problems. Unfortunately, taking society's problems more seriously than personal inclinations would be a tremendous mental step for the average researcher. The situation will probably be resolved differently. The scientific establishment will not change its attitude. On the other hand, young researchers will be forced to leave until science has shrunk to a size commensurate with its perceived usefulness or political clout.

For most of us, there will be no well-paying, secure job in basic research. There will be no way to pursue your hobby regardless of accountability, and get paid for it. If that was your dream, that's sad. But then, this dreamt-of position is a thing of the past, a privilege that really shouldn't be there, except for a few absolute geniuses. However, if your goal in life is to do something useful, what are you unhappy about? Science is not about employment, or tenure, or grants and funding. It is not about being allowed to do what you like. It is not even about your personal little happiness, but about doing what you feel MUST be done. Science means generating and using knowledge to solve problems. In this way, being a scientist is not something that anybody can take away from you. If you tackle problems nobody has solved yet, if you do whatever it takes to solve them, if you believe in the power of reason, you are a scientist.

In contrast to what one might have expected in the 60's, the problems of the 21st century will not be the colonization of the solar system but rather reducing environmental pollution, controlling population growth and coping with the depletion of natural resources. While traditional scientific research will help solve these problems, it is fairly clear that the good old scientific discovery alone won't do the trick anymore. Most of our major ills are not primarily due to the lack of scientific and technological knowledge. The technology is there to feed and house everybody on the planet. The actual problem is within our heads, not so much in the tools we hold in our hands. The success of science and rational problem solving will not be determined by abstract insights but by the number of people that you can convince to go along with you.

My three-month job search resulted in three offers from management consulting firms, one offer of a computer-oriented job at a major chemical firm, and one temporary post-doc position at a company producing scientific software. I chose to join the consulting firm McKinsey last August. It seems to me that these people care about the right problems. I also have the somewhat disturbing impression that what they are doing is actually science in a way - the way it should be.

Wolfgang Hierse is with McKinsey & Co., Germany.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin