Losing the Nobel Prize: on careers in science

Losing the Nobel Prize by Brian Keating, a cosmology professor at UCSD, contains a tell-it-like-it-is description of the life of a scientist (see the previous posting regarding this book). Examples:

Battle is an apt metaphor for what we scientists do. There is a fierce competition that begins the day you declare yourself a physics major. First, among your fellow undergraduates, you spar for top ranking in your class. This leads to the next battle: becoming a graduate student at a top school. Then, you toil for six to eight years to earn a postdoc job at another top school. And finally, you hope, comes a coveted faculty job, which can become permanent if you are privileged enough to get tenure. Along the way, the number of peers in your group diminishes by a factor of ten at each stage, from hundreds of undergraduates to just one faculty job becoming available every few years in your field. Then the competition really begins, for you compete against fellow gladiators honed in battle just as you are. You compete for the scarcest resource in science: money. Surprisingly, not by brains alone does science progress; funding is its true lifeblood. Cosmology’s primary funding agency is the National Science Foundation. But the NSF proposal success rate is currently only about 20%, across all fields of physics and math: the lowest it has been in over a decade.

If you pick science as a career at age 18, how long before you can know whether or not you’ll be successful?

A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences written by Ronald Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University, found that the average age of a first-time recipient of a nationally funded grant has increased from under thirty-eight in 1980 to over forty-five as of 2013.20 More disturbingly, the fraction of first-time recipients aged thirty-six or younger has plummeted from 18% in 1983 to 3% in 2010. The awful conclusion of the study is this: “Without their own funding, young researchers are prevented from starting their own laboratories, pursuing their own research, and advancing their own careers in academic science.” With the success rate so low, the study continues, “it is not surprising that many of our youngest minds are choosing to leave their positions in academic research for careers in industry, other countries, or outside of science altogether.”

So you just have to give it at least 27 years! (from 18-45, assuming that the trend hasn’t continued since 2013) Make sure that your ideas aren’t too novel. Professor Keating cites a study that “once projects go beyond a modest level of novelty, the probability they’ll be funded decreases as their perceived novelty increases.”

The Nobel Prize makes a competitive situation more ruthless:

Yet Mother Nature herself, so red in tooth and claw, couldn’t have devised a more efficient means of incentivizing bitter competition than the Nobel Prize. Indeed, the competition in science is at least as ferocious as in any corporate boardroom; there are many billion-dollar corporations, but the Nobel Prize is science’s most closely held monopoly. Most nonscientists think science is conducted by altruistic boffins, happy to find gainful employment doing work that they uniquely are capable of. Yet competition and science go hand in hand, and have done so since the invention of the scientific method itself.

But there is an important distinction between artistic innovation and scientific discovery. As historian of science Derek de Solla Price opined, “If Michelangelo or Beethoven had not existed, their works would have been replaced by quite different contributions. If Copernicus or Fermi had never existed, essentially the same contributions would have had to come from other people. There is, in fact, only one world to discover, and as each morsel of perception is achieved, the discoverer must be honored or forgotten.” Honor comes to those who do not wait.

In keeping with the zeitgest, the book contains a section titled “Women and the Nobel Prize in Physics”. According to the book, only 2 out of 207 laureates in physics have been “women.” Does this analysis make sense given what we now know about the fluidity of gender ID? How do we know that Marie Curie actually identified as a woman? Could it be that Werner Heisenberg identified as a woman, but was afraid that his Nazi Party colleagues would have been hostile to a gender reassignment?

Suppose that we were willing to make cisgender-normative assumptions and deny the fluidity of gender.

Currently, women make up an unfortunately small fraction, approximately 20%, of the physics faculties at major U.S. research institutions. But that fraction dwarfs the percentage of female physics laureates by a factor of twenty. All other fields—including economics, the newest comer on the Nobel circuit, with one female laureate compared to seventy-five male winners—have a higher percentage of female laureates. Physicists are now asking themselves how the lack of gender diversity is affecting the career choices of young women. And even Nobel Prize winners like Brian Schmidt are speaking up against the prize’s lack of gender diversity.

The lack of diversity in prizewinners gives the message to a young woman deciding on her choice of profession that in physics women are not equally valued. A vicious cycle results in which women fail to enter the field, denying younger women role models; it is the anti-Matthew effect. Women disproportionately miss out on the Nobelist’s noblesse-oblige phenomenon where “Scientists who as young men worked with a laureate received the award at an average age of forty-four, nine years earlier than men who had not.”

Professor Keating proposes awarding the prize to dead women and also patching up some previous prizes retroactively:

future committees can correct past instances of the “Matilda effect,” Margaret Rossiter’s term for the phenomenon wherein men get credit for discoveries that were made by women. The history of the Nobel Prize is replete with examples of this, from Rosalind Franklin’s lost credit for co-discovering DNA to Lise Meitner’s snubbing after she discovered the foundations of nuclear fission.

Awarding Vera Rubin the first posthumous prize would be immensely inspiring to young physicists, and specifically to women. But even if the committee is unwilling to restore posthumous eligibility, it should ensure justice for 1974 Nobel Prize Matilda effect victim Jocelyn Bell Burnell; the prize was awarded to her thesis advisor for the serendipitous discovery of pulsars which she made. Thankfully, Bell Burnell is still very much alive.

Assuming that women behave rationally, most of the book is consistent with “The More Gender Equality, the Fewer Women in STEM” (Atlantic). In a society where nearly every job is available to women, why would a woman take a 27-year chance on becoming successful as a physicist, with the risk that, if unsuccessful, she would be out on the street at age 45, her fertility exhausted? (see my “Women in Science” article on why the more interesting question is “Why are there men in science?”)

The author himself suffers a setback that would be almost inconceivable for a physician, for example (since doctors are scarce in the U.S. whereas there is a huge glut of physics PhDs compared to tenure-track jobs):

Then, one day, a mere six months after I defended my PhD, as I was lost in thought again, Sarah Church walked into the lab and told me she was unhappy with my performance, my attitude, and my work ethic. For the first time in my life, I was fired—my career ended before it even started. I couldn’t help but think this was yet another ironic parallel with my hero, Galileo: both of us had been on the wrong side of the Church. I couldn’t argue with Sarah. I had it coming. The months I’d spent fantasizing about new telescopes were months I should have been working on her projects.

He recovers from this, of course, and his ability and drive were eventually sufficient to earn tenure at the University of California. So the author himself could arguably inspire young people in the same way that Shah Rukh Khan or Michael Jordan might inspire young people to go into acting or professional sports. However, the survivorship bias here should be obvious. The physics postdocs who were fired and went into selling mortgages or teaching high school (starting at age 40 a career that others start at 22) do not write books.

My take-away from the careers aspect of the book is that if you (1) love competition, (2) have a huge appetite for risk, (3) don’t mind working long hours for a minimum of 27 years until getting that first grant, and (4) are mostly indifferent to money, pursuing a physics PhD and an academic job might be a reasonable plan. You’ll get to work with a lot of smart people, for sure, but, as the book notes, quite of few of them may be planning to stab you in the back when it comes time to assign credit for a Nobel-worthy discovery. It is not like most other fields of human endeavor where there is room for everyone to excel in his or her own way.

More: read Losing the Nobel Prize.


19 thoughts on “Losing the Nobel Prize: on careers in science

  1. That’s the cool thing about being a mathematician, you don’t need a lab to do your work. Of course, if you’re a purely theoretical physicist you still are perfectly free to do exactly what work you want without requiring outside funding. You might still have to teach undergraduates to earn a living, but that requirement hasn’t prevented mathematicians and theoretical physicists from doing first-rate research.

  2. Yes, i saw the writing on the wall when i was in grad school. I could go into industry and make money or finish grad work and embark on a multi-year Sisyphean task.

    Needless to say I took the money.

  3. Keating might have a point in that science would have been better off if a woman had gotten his tenure track position. (Every time.)

  4. However, I would say academia is ridiculously bloated and overfunded at this point in history.

  5. Larry Summers before he was publicly neutered and forced to confess his sins, like the intellectuals in China in 1965 forced to wear dunce caps while shoveling dung, pointed out that in math women cluster around the mean while men are over represented on the far left and right sides of the curve and presumably the Nobel in physics is meant to recognize scientists on the far right of the curve. Isn’t it weird that a guy like Keating is either unaware of this apparent fact or thinks it is irrelevant to the over representation of men among Nobel prize winners? Maybe Keating is not all that smart notwithstanding his interest in “cosmology” — a field where I doubt anyone can ever be proved wrong. As for Heisenberg, I am no physicist but i read somewhere that he was a unabashed and shameless supporter of “indeterminacy” so maybe Phil is on to something.

  6. > Isn’t it weird that a guy like Keating is either unaware of this apparent fact
    > or thinks it is irrelevant to the over representation of men among Nobel
    > prize winners?

    Occam’s razor: It is possible (and likely) that Keating knows this, but doesn’t feel like being punished for pointing out an inconvenient truth. He can make the point he wants to make without saying anything that brings a feminist lynch mob to his door. Why provoke them?

  7. Jack: Consider that the book was published by Norton, a big NY firm. The spectacularly skilled novelist Lionel Shriver was axed from a literary panel after arguing in favor of a meritocracy. See https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/11/publisher-defends-diversity-drive-after-lionel-shrivers-attack

    If you’re reading a book published by a mainstream U.S. publisher then by definition you couldn’t be reading the kind of criminal thoughts that you’ve expressed.

    (See also




    and the rest of the posts on this great book by Shriver.)

  8. Fortunately for me, I realized the “18 to 45” problem earlier than some. When I was 24, I realized that I had made more as a technician than a postdoc in the same lab — and that talented scientist had literally 12 years of experience on me.

  9. Fortunately for me, I took my suburban firefighter exam at age 20, scored very well, and dropped out of my undergrad Computer Science program to become a firefighter. In a few short years, I was making over $100K annually for just ten (24-hour) work days per month, and retired at 45 y/o with lifetime health insurance and an (ever-growing) $100K annual pension!

  10. Smart people forget about learning anything & just repost worn out political memes.

  11. @Nowhere Man,

    Good for you. But if we ALL work for the government, to rip the benefits that you have, who will pay us when we retire at 45? For how much longer do you think we can sustain this?

  12. Thanks for the heads-up on the reality of a career in science/research. I will advise my kids accordingly.

  13. Remember the smartest kid sitting next to you in math class in high school? Well, it turns out he didn’t get into MIT

    But a kid who was smarter than him did! But he didn’t quite have the chops to major in physics and chose an easier major.

    But a kid who was smarter than him did major! But his grades and test scores weren’t quite good enough to get into the PhD program at Berkeley.

    But a kid who was smarter than him did! But unfortunately he didn’t finish, as about 50% of his class mates dropped out (the slightly less smart kids went to UCSF med school, which has an attrition rate of below 0.5%).

    But a kid who was smarter than him did! But unfortunately, his thesis wasn’t much and he didn’t get a good post doc.

    But a kid who was smarter than him did! But unfortunately, his publication record didn’t get him a tenure track position.

    But a kid who was smarter than him did! But unfortunately, he didn’t quite keep up the research and publication level to get tenure.

    But a kid who was smarter than him.. did! And she earns about 1/2 the salary, possibly less, than all those dumb kids who got MBA, law, or MD degrees.

  14. I wonder if we’re headed back to the days where all interesting science was done by the children or beneficiaries of rich people. Why grub around the NSF when you could convince a rich guy (or a bunch of enthusiasts) to fund you?

  15. Actually, you can be the dumbest kid in the class and still get tenure at any one of a thousand small religious colleges just by passing the right religious litmus test.

  16. zzazz: If true, that would be great, but not lucrative. https://data.chronicle.com/107512/Ouachita-Baptist-University/faculty-salaries/ shows that one of America’s Top 50 Christian colleges, for example, pays most professors less than $50,000 per year. That is not a great return on 10+ years of college and graduate school. A Massachusetts resident (or visitor who has sex in Massachusetts) could get more than $50,000 per year by having sex with a dentist and collecting child support (tax-free). A high-school teacher who starts at age 22 with a Bachelor’s earned a median salary of more than $59,000 per year in 2017 (see https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm )

    Why do you think it would be easy to get a job at Ouachita, for example?

    (see also https://www.forbes.com/colleges/ouachita-baptist-university/ and https://www.arkansasbaptist.org/read/sarah-huckabee-sanders-from-ouachita-to-the-white-house )

  17. @philg you make it sound like there are an unlimited number of horny dentists running around. According to some quick googling, there are ~ 100,000 male dentists in the U.S., many of whom are presumably wary of impregnating avaricious women. Googling also reveals that there are ~ 1.5 million post-secondary professors (employed). Unless the dental life is more exciting than I imagine it to be, it might actually be easier to get a faculty job.

  18. superMike: None of the lawyers whom we interviewed for http://www.realworlddivorce.com/ChildSupportLitigationWithoutMarriage and the rest of the book said that their clients had found any difficulty in finding high-income temporary sex partners. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clomifene also proved helpful. https://www.autostraddle.com/makin-babies-how-i-self-inseminated-and-you-can-too-279607/ describes a common technique when the future litigants did not have what Bill Clinton characterized as “sex”.

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