Why Would a Poor Kid Want to Work in Academia?

A professor cuts a human brain at a lab specializing in multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s. (Neil Hall / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

My colleague Ed wrote a piece last week examining the relative dearth of science professors who are not Asian or white (“Science’s Minority Talent Pool Is Growing—but Draining Away”). He quoted many experts, primarily Kenneth Gibbs Jr., an immunologist and science-policy expert at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences:

Gibbs gathered figures on the numbers of Ph.D. graduates and assistant professors in the science departments of medical schools throughout the country, from 1980 to 2014. The data were stark. During that time, the number of newly minted Ph.D. holders from underrepresented groups grew by nine times, but the number of assistant professors from those groups grew by just 2.6 times. No such gulf existed for well-represented groups like whites and Asians; there, the Ph.D. graduate pool grew by 2.2 times while the assistant professor pool rose proportionally, by 1.7 times. […] In an earlier study, Gibbs showed that women and underrepresented minorities are 36 to 54 percent less likely than white and Asian men to be interested in faculty careers ...

A reader questions the implications of those findings:

Um, why should we assume that minorities with science backgrounds going to jobs outside of academia is a bad thing? Perhaps they feel a private sector or a government career would be more rewarding, or those jobs are in locations they would prefer to live in as opposed to university locations?

Another reader is more blunt:

There is something rather patronizing about the implicit assumption that women and minorities are wrong about their own interests and priorities. Perhaps women and minorities are more likely to go to medical school because—gasp—they actually want to become doctors, not teachers of other doctors.

Ed’s piece did touch on those factors:

But why does the gap exist? Donna Ginther from the University of Kansas wonders if it’s partly because Gibbs focused on medical schools, most of which do not guarantee salary with tenure, and so might be unattractive when compared to other alternatives. Perhaps scientists from minority groups are just seeking employment elsewhere. Gibbs counters that this is unlikely, since almost every sector of academia struggles with faculty diversity. Hiring practices are a likelier culprit.

Here’s a reader in academia with a telling anecdote:

I remember myself and a couple of my postdoc colleagues having a conversation with two really talented young black women who were technicians. We were trying to persuade them to go to graduate school and get on the academia track.

They laughed at us. They told us that we were women in our early thirties who couldn’t afford to buy houses or have children, who spent our nights and weekends working, who didn’t have retirement savings, and who were still struggling to get permanent jobs. Why on earth would they want to be like us? I felt they made a good point.

This next reader has the most relevant perspective of all:

I’m not a PhD, but I am a scientist who recently left a Harvard lab to work in Big Pharma and I’m black. I’m sure there’s some discrimination at play, but I would argue that one of the biggest issues here is the pay associated with academic life.

I grew up in a working-class, inner-city family in Boston and was bussed 1.5 hours both ways to go to school. I was highly modulated to do well because I saw the lives of my schoolmates that were SUBSTANTIALLY better than mine (median income in my neighborhood of $40K vs median income of $150K in the town I went to school in). I realized education was going to be my way out, so I threw myself behind that 100 percent.

In college, I studied 50 hours a week. I was a biology major. This was a total of 16 years of sacrifice in school. Remember, I didn’t have any family wealth, so I had to actually give up stuff to get this education, unlike rich kids who still get family trips and nice clothes while they study. I didn’t know what the professional world would look like, but I assumed a STEM major would get me money.

When I graduated and started working at Harvard, I was making $28K a year. Most construction workers made more than I did. I had to live at home for three years because I couldn’t afford rent anywhere. I became extremely resentful because I felt like I wasted all that effort in school for no payoff.

But I quickly realized that immunology was super hot. My lab was an immunology lab, and I learned that with three years more of lab work, I could jump out of the academic treadmill and go to where the real money is: Big Pharma.

My final annual pay at Harvard was $32K after three years of work. The job I took in the pharmaceutical industry paid $70K, and after a year of working every day, I was given a raise to $90K.

Academia is really the land of the trust-fund kids. The pay is so bad, you need to either have a trust fund or a spouse who will support you. Academia requires a life of sacrifice. I had zero interest in sacrificing a day longer than I had to.

My boss in academia went to Harvard for undergrad and PHD and had five years of postdoctoral experience. She was making $50K. Black and Hispanic people are disproportionately from poor families, so people like me who have the smarts to work at a place like Harvard aren’t all that interested in making $50K a year. You have the chance that no one in your family ever had to be rich. Why waste that? Someone has to generate wealth for the family.

A large percentage of black people know economic struggle. We aren’t likely to take on the burdens of education if it’s not actually going to improve our living standards. You can work tons of hours and make tons of money; or you can work more reasonable hours and make much less money but have tons of family time; but why on earth would you want to work tons of hours for no money?

We have a word for that. It’s called exploitation.

My hours are also better than a science professor. I work 70 hours a week, but that’s by choice. I’m also going to grad school for an MBA. (I want to be a CEO, so I need to prove myself.) My lab is usually done by 5pm. We have some nights that go to 8pm, but that’s not the norm. In academia, 70-hour weeks are the norm.

There are only three kinds of people in the economy: owners, management, and workers. It’s incredibly hard to be an owner, so I’m going to be a manager because they can get rich. Workers in the Anglo-Saxon model are always getting screwed. I would rather do the screwing.

My goal in life is to be rich. That’s what motivated an inner-city kid to pull 12-hour days from 2nd grade till today. I sacrificed my entire childhood to get to this point. I didn’t do it because I was looking to help people. I’m not interested in sacrificing my life for others. It was made abundantly clear to me growing up that the broader society didn’t care about the conditions I was growing up in, so outside of other working-class kids, I don’t feel like I owe this broader society anything.

Racism happens. But I don’t look to blame racism for every ill, nor do I look to pretend racism doesn’t exist like many conservatives do. I was told to pull myself up by my bootstraps and I did.

Would you like to respond to this reader, or do you have your own perspective to share? Please drop us a note: hello@theatlantic.com. Update from a reader who responds to the black scientist whose “goal in life is to be rich”:

Yeah, enough said—none of the scientists I know would describe “being rich” as among their top life goals. Others of us do it because it’s what we love, not because we hunger for status and wealth. Science is more important than that. That certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be well-compensated, but remember that doing science for its own sake is a PRIVILEGE. Not everyone gets let into this weird, little world.

Most scientists agree that to call oneself a scientist one has to have a Ph.D or at least a M.S. and actively contribute to the knowledge of one’s field by publishing regularly in peer-reviewed, high-quality journals. Having an undergraduate degree and working as a technician does not make one a scientist.

Update from another reader, Ben, who has a Ph.D. in Chemistry:

It seems the responding reader is engaging in exactly the kind of patronizing attitude described earlier in the thread. “Oh, this person wants to get rich, therefore their love of science can’t possibly be as great as mine, who will do it for less pay.” I have no doubt that the responding reader is passionate about science, but it’s pretty low to question someone’s scientific devotion merely because they made life choices you don’t agree with. There’s a July note from Mary that talks about the arrogant attitudes of academia; I’d say this first response is a prime example.

One point that's missing from this thread (although maybe also discussed in older notes) that I think is relevant is how the nature of your job changes as you transition from grad student/postdoc to assistant professor. As a student or postdoc, you’re in the laboratory constantly. It’s your raison d’etre. As an assistant professor, your job is to bring in money. It says it right in the job descriptions: “Develop an externally funded research program.” And that means writing grants, all the time, hoping that one of yours is one of the ~30 percent that will be funded. It’s a jarring transition, and for someone who really enjoys being in the lab (like myself), a major drawback of a career in academia. And that’s on top of the long hours and low pay (compared to industry) already discussed.

I love science, and I love that my job allows to me spend most of my time in the lab inventing new things.  But I love other things as well.  Most important, I love being able to come home from work and spend time with my family without worrying about writing another grant, or worrying about my graduate student doing an experiment properly, or worrying about some other research group beating me to a publication. As the reader summed up: “Not everyone gets let into this weird, little world.” Well, not everyone wants to be in that world.

Another reader who left that world is Jessica:

I started out on the PhD path in the late 1980s. I was idealistic, hardworking. I believe it was about the time of the birth of my second child—after my PhD and into my second postdoctoral fellowship—that I resolved to leave science. I had really crappy pay. I was able to look through a roster of state salaries and realize that a dental hygienist got paid more than I did. More than that, I simply felt demoralized and undervalued.

One point that I did not see made in other posts but seemed relevant to me is that most of my colleagues were foreign nationals for whom a chance at a citizenship was a bonus—which was not the case for me. There was a lot of academic dishonesty as well: plagiarized papers and work, but the offenders were not called out on it because the professors would jeopardize losing their labor pool. Though I mastered a body of knowledge, graduate school and post-doctoral fellowship was the most frustrating time of my life.

In my early 30s, I went to medical school and have never regretted the decision. School was a breeze for the most part, even with two little kids. I had the advantage of working long hours for uncertain rewards in the past, so the cycle of school and set exams seemed easier and predictable. Even residency was tolerable—fun actually. I finally felt in medicine that I was on a level playing field.

By now, as a partner in a practice, my salary is much larger—on order of 5-10 fold what it would have been on a traditional academic path. But I also feel much more control over my own destiny. Reviewing the paths of many of my graduate school colleagues, I would say at least half left the traditional path of academics to pursue law, business and medicine.

I really do feel annoyed at the whining about the United States not training more scientists. We do not pay scientists well, and potential trainees are simply reacting to market forces and taking their talents elsewhere.

Eleanor, on the other hand, has a success story from academia:

I take issue with the idea that academics necessarily have horrible lives. I am a freshly-tenured associate professor in STEM at a large research institution. I’m responsible for a medium-sized lab, and I publish at a reasonable clip for my field. So: I have all the regular markers of academic success.

I work 40h/week (on average), no weekends and no evenings. About half my work time is unscheduled and flexible. I can take off any given afternoon to sit at home with my sick kid (as I am doing right now) without seeking permission or documenting PTO, which is a lot more than my friends in industry can say. I never have to worry about my manager cutting my hours or scheduling me on the wrong shift, unlike my friends in service-industry jobs. While I’m not rich, my job pays me enough to own a nice house that’s walking distance from my work, unlike my friends in K12 education.

There are plenty of ways to be miserable in the professoriate. Let’s stop promoting the myth that working unhealthy hours is required.

Update: Read new stories here from black women dissatisfied with academia.