Have you ever read “Don’t Become a Scientist!” by Jonathan I. Katz? It was mildly famous among the people I knew around the turn of the century. The article also has something of a worldwide following if the translations into eight other languages are any indication. Perhaps this is due to one very memorable line: “I have known more people whose lives have been ruined by getting a Ph.D. in physics than by drugs.” If you have never read it, go have a look before continuing here.
Prof. Katz’s central thesis is that going into a career as a physical scientist is a fool’s errand because, “American science no longer offers a reasonable career path.” I find it hard to refute that statement, but I also think it misses the point. Fifteen years ago, it might have made sense to argue, as Prof. Katz does, that law or medicine offer much more “reasonable” middle class career paths than the physical science. That may still be true in a relative sense, but I argue that law, medicine, or the other careers that Prof. Katz suggests are vastly more uncertain and insecure than they once were as well. Stories of law school graduates who cannot find work are common, and the massive changes to the traditional medical profession are just getting started. From my viewpoint, virtually all the academic training currently on offer, however technically excellent, falls short of actually preparing people for successful 21st century careers.
There are many reasons for this, but I think the core conceptual disconnect is what I like to call the “patron model.” This is the idea that if you are a good enough student and gain a lot of excellent technical skill, then there will always be a (reasonably) benevolent employer to take care of the business aspects of life and provide you with steady pay and benefits adequate for a comfortable middle class lifestyle. Clearly, under that world view, the optimal education strategy is to spend all your time building technical skills. This is essentially the path I followed. However, as I entered the “real world” it became increasingly clear to me that the patron model was a brief historical anomaly now in rapid decline.
The reality found outside of academia today is much more of an “entrepreneurial model.” I do not mean that everyone needs to be an actual entrepreneur, but virtually everyone needs to understand that they are a business unto themselves and act accordingly. There is no longer any real shelter from the business aspects of life. You need to worry about the value you generate, your “brand,” your marketability, etc. Think of your employer, if you have one, as more a business partner than a paternal patron. A good employer will think of you the same way, but they cannot and will not take responsibility for your permanent prosperity. How could they, when they cannot even guarantee their own continued existence? Even venerable corporations and national laboratories that have a good chance of outliving you constantly restructure, reorganize, and reinvent themselves at an ever accelerating pace to stay relevant. This will likely be increasingly true of universities also. The odds that your needs and any one employer’s needs will change in sync throughout your entire career are vanishingly small. Therefore, it will be up to you to manage your career trajectory and drum up business from a series of employer “customers” regardless of your profession.
Where does that leave the would-be physicist? Is it really foolish to go to graduate school? Will it ruin your life? I happen to believe that life is about more than making a living, but making a living is an important part of life. The single best reason to go to graduate school in physics (or any other discipline) is that you truly love the subject. Following a passion you truly love is rarely foolish, if you pursue it with your eyes open. In this case, having your eyes open means understanding that following the stereotypical path of graduate school followed by an indefinite number of holding pattern post-docs taken on in hope of a professorship is very likely to disappoint. Instead, I suggest you assume from day one that you will not become a professor and act accordingly: learn about business, invest time in learning how to market your skills and knowledge, start building a network early and never stop. Doing these thing will help ensure that following your passion for physics through graduate school and beyond will never ruin your life. Nor will your extra work diversifying your skills and prospectives go to waste if you do happen to become a professor, which is a lot more like being a small business owner than most people imagine.