Letter to the Editor
I am writing to you regarding some of the editorials that have been in the IUCr Newsletter recently, in particular those discussing the job crunch in science. I think that it is wrong to sweep the whole issue under the rug as you've been doing in the editorials; but you are not alone, most of the professional societies are doing the same thing. The plain fact is that there are far too many Ph.D.'s, and there are few areas that they can expand into without extensive further training. The other fact is that it is getting very tight out there. Several friends of mine (with structural biology training) are having trouble finding postdocs, and others have been locked into low-paying postdocs for well over five years with no full-time job in sight. Science appears to be devolving into two groups: the haves - with their tenured academic or industrial positions and decent salaries - and the have-nots, with their postdoc or student positions. And while the former can use their salaries to "sustain [them] in the days and years ahead," the latter are trying to figure out how to feed themselves and wondering what the hell they are going to do in life. We as a community have got to face the facts ... we will have to allow our members to pursue alternate careers, and we should provide them with the guidance and emotional assistance to allow them to do this. The societies (such as IUCr) have to be honest with their junior members, not try to, as a friend says, "blow sunshine up their derrieres."
This was not an attempt to be rude, and please forgive me if I come across that way. Several months ago, in an article in the Newsletter (it may have been your editorial), it was said that we needed more crystallographers, not fewer. The issue arrived a few days after one postdoc in the lab had sent off 25 CV's for jobs; he never got as much as an interview. We all know the score, we would just like to have some established people admit to it.
How about some realism for a change? Young scientists sure would appreciate it.Anonymous
Dear Anon:Thank you for your letter. It was not my intention to minimize the problems presently faced by young people seeking employment. In my editorial in Vol. 2, No. 2, I quote some very strong statements about the tenure system by Joel Janin that I thought were consistent with your views. My comments in Vol. 3, No. 2, concerning alternate careers were intended as cynicism not sunshine. I am greatly concerned about big name crystallographers who have cadres of young (but aging) postdocs in their labs and seem unconcerned about what kind of future these people will have. I am just as appalled to hear elder physicists state that they plan to cut back on the number of students they train so that their own jobs will be secure. My Ph.D. advisor was very concerned about whether there were positions available for his students. He seldom had more than three Ph.D. students at a time and no postdocs.
I have had only one student myself and never more than one postdoc at a time and I've tried to advance the postdocs to staff positions. Of course, here at the Hauptman-Woodward staff positions have little more long term security than a postdoc but the salary is a little better. At the risk of seeming to blow more sunshine, I will say that I believe that there is no such thing as too much education. My three children with masters degrees are better for having the education. They can't find jobs that are as high paying as they would like, but they don't regret their education.
I urge students to choose a career that they enjoy doing rather than going where the money is (bank robbing has its perils too). People who can get a Ph.D. are obviously brighter than the average and in a better position than 70% of the population to make a good life for themselves.
For me, working in the field of crystallography is extraordinarily rich and rewarding. The crystals are beautiful, the diffraction patterns are awesome, the determination of a structure is exhilarating and the structures aesthetically pleasing and that's only the beginning. The implication of the wealth of information revealed by the crystal structure with regard to the physical, chemical, and biological and physiological properties of the crystallized material are an endless challenge to be met and mastered. There are too many stealth bombers and peace keeping missiles. Even with 140,000 structures in the Cambridge database, there is still room for more crystal structure determinations to answer important questions about how things work.
The best advice I've seen for job seekers has been appearing in a FASEB Newsletter. It can be accessed by e-mail at email@example.com. Perhaps your letter will elicit some suggestions, guidance, and emotional support.WLD
(I would prefer not to publish anonymous letters, but 'anon' has just secured a good position and requested that his name be withheld. I felt the issue was of sufficient importance to warrant publication without attribution. WLD)