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May 28, 2023

The priceless benefits of being an academic

By DUY PHAN | October 20, 2016

Said no one ever.

It is well-recognized that most academics are not rich. There have been many concerns that scientists are underpaid given the long and arduous process, which includes undergraduate education (four years), PhD training (five or more years) and postdoctoral research (five or more years).

Even the scientists who have made it to the promised land of faculty position are still not completely “safe.” Principal Investigators (PIs) need to maintain grant funding for their labs, publish Cell, Nature and Science papers and train students.

It is now increasingly tough to maintain a lab with anorexic funding from the government. Yet, the salaries for academic scientists never really go beyond $200,000, which is high compared to the national median, but low considering that there are much easier options that can allow one to make more.

This really raises the question: Despite all of these tribulations, why might someone go into academic science?

Besides the obvious answer (overwhelming passion for science), there are other often overlooked considerations that might make a career in science attractive.

Firstly, the really nice thing about doing science is that if you mess up an experiment, it is not the end of the world. A scientist can always repeat his or her experiments, and the world moves on.

On the other hand, if you mess up a brain surgery, someone can actually die. Of course it is painful and frustrating to repeat experiments, but it is impossible to bring back a human life.

Secondly, I cannot name another job that gives someone more freedom than being an academic scientist. We all joke about how scientists only pursue research to please the grant funding committees, but the reality is, we can really do whatever we want.

If there is any scientific question that bothers us, we come up with an experiment to answer that question. If there is something we want to do for fun, we just do it.

Often times you will see scientific experts in one particular field jump into a completely different field simply because they are curious and interested. There is essentially no intellectual boundary in academic science. You are free to explore.

Such intellectual freedom will certainly not be found in any private industry, where the major emphasis is on research that makes the most money (mostly translational research).

Academic scientists are also granted a lot of freedom in their time and work. There is no dress code; you can show up dressed however you want. There is no place to enter hours: You simply show up whenever you want and leave whenever you want. Need to go pick up your kids from school? Go right ahead! Need a random holiday to de-stress? Go for it! There are no restrictions holding you back!

I remember once meeting a PI who would frequently take random days off during the week to go hiking. This kind of freedom is not found in any other occupation. If it is, let me know where I can find it.

In light of these freedoms and privileges, it begins to make sense why salaries for academic scientists are “low.” Think about it.  In exchange for money, we have freedom.


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