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.