75 percent chance of career failure considered in a positive light

I was chatting with a successful physicist the other day. I said that reading Losing the Nobel Prize made me realize what a risky career choice science was. He scoffed at my timidity. “If you get into a top graduate school, you’re practically guaranteed a post-doc.” (i.e., a $52,116 per year job after 5 years; roughly at age 35 if the PhD program is started at 24 and it takes 6 years to earn the doctorate) What about after that? “You’d have a 1 in 4 chance of getting an assistant professorship.” Once on the tenure track, he considered actually earning tenure to be straightforward.

If we define “success” in science as a long-term job as a scientist, he was saying that the chance of failure was a minimum of 75 percent (maybe closer to 90 percent if we consider the probabilities of not getting into a great graduate school, not getting a post-doc, and not getting tenure once on the “tenure track”). In his opinion this was only a minor detraction from the appeal of a career in science.


  • How Many PhD Graduates Become Professors? (from 2016: “life science PhD graduates in the US have only a 16% chance of finding a tenure track position”; but how many people on “tenure track” actually do get that lifetime guaranteed job?)
  • “Women in Science” (“This article explores this fourth possible explanation for the dearth of women in science: They found better jobs.”)
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