Friday, November 11, 2005

The True Model for Academic Science Careers

Cosmic Variance is doing another career vs family debate, quite a good one.

But this got me thinking: as legend has it, scientists (at least in theoretical physics and math) do their great work early, and then for most of them, that's it. They're done, and just hang out as mediocre teachers and reactionary pundits, with a rare few becoming great administrators. (great good or great bad, either way they're great...)

So, why are universities paying megabucks over the decades to keep these bums on, they're washed out, far better to hire fresh blood. In fact, if this is correct, the very last thing any sensible research university would do is hire a hot-shot theorist who has just had a huge paper with kazillion cites - 'cause what are the odds the same person will make another breakthrough.

SO... physics departments should switch to an NFL draft model. Pay huge bonuses for the hot shots, and very high base pay even for journeymen researchers fresh out of university, with the understanding that 50-70% will wash out in the first year or two; and that the average career is only a few years, and then you're replaced by some new hotshot.

Sure, there will be a few Doug Fluties and Jerry Rices who hang in there impossibly long still productive; but most people get 3-6 years of research and then they are dumped from the research league.

Then what? Well, there's alway car sales and doing the talk circuit, but think about it - there's high school science coaching, universities where actual teaching is done by faculty, and there will be a steady need for administrators and research coaches at the research universities and centers, for those with the aptitude or connections, who just have to stay in the game. Just like in football.
And then of course there is television, always a demand for someone who can come up with a pithy quote or give inside insight to the fans at home.
Pro-wrestling... not so much.
Nor would I go with the bodyguard business, unless you wanna be the "geeky tech" assistant on the team, who is always killed (or apparently killed but restored after the panel screenings) right before the climax shoot out.

So, you make the big bucks early, with signing bonuses. A small percentage has long productive careers, but most burn out and retire to related but alternate careers where they use their skills but aren't actually doing frontline research per se...

Of course if there are areas of research where long time scales and depth of experience is more valuable than flashes of innovative insight, then they're either screwed, or should go for a different management model.

Any resemblance to the current way of doing things is coincidental.

But, it'd have been interesting to get $200k minimum salary + signing bonus as a postdoc...

PS this post had more contextual freudian mistypes than any to date: "pity quote" and "hot short theorist" being my favourites.


Anonymous Dave Bacon said...

I like it! Well that's cus I'm still young. But I'd better get drafted soon, oh no!

Unforunately I think that young people do all the good work thing isn't all it is cracked up to be. I think the average age of work done for a nobel prize in the sciences is somewhere in their forties. Which seems pretty reasonable.

6:43 PM  

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