The Sciences

Hollywood and Vine, California and Lake

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollOct 13, 2008 2:43 PM

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The e-Astronomer (Andy Lawrence) visited Caltech last week, but I missed his talks since I was traveling myself. He posits an interesting comparison between young hopefuls in academia and The Industry -- hanging around, trying to get noticed in notoriously competitive milieus:

Caltech is famous for being a tad competitive shall we say. I got entertained at lunch by various grad students and postdocs. They seemed relaxed, but with a pushy edge. At that stage, young scientists are desperate to get noticed, and are simultaneously confident and insecure - will the world decide you are a genius or a dullard? The next morning I was doing LA tourism with my family. I found myself on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine St, staring at the sidewalk-stars and trying hard to absorb the vibrations of Hollywood history. In the glory days, this was the spot where starry-eyed hopefuls would hang around, drinking coffee very very slowly, just waiting to be spotted and carried off to stardom.

In some significant ways, trying to make a career in artistic fields (movies, theater, art, music) is very similar to academia. Most obviously, the number of people who would like to have such jobs is much larger than the number of jobs. And that means competition, like it or not. Occasionally you will hear the claim that we should be producing fewer Ph.D.s, since there aren't anywhere near enough jobs for everyone who graduates. This is just a clumsy attempt to hide the problem by re-arranging the bottleneck to before grad school rather than after. We certainly need to be absolutely honest about job prospects -- they are always bad, no matter what specialty one chooses! But there is no way around the fact that somewhere along the line, most people who would like to be employed as professional scientists or scholars more generally are going to be disappointed. Still, the ways in which the academic pipeline differs from the road to Hollywood superstardom are equally significant -- and we have it much better than young actors. Even though the numbers are discouraging, we do have a highly structured system, in which training is taken seriously and -- equally importantly -- there is a fairly clear point past which one recognizes that the chances for success are extremely slim. Unlike a struggling actor who hangs around doing local theater and occasional commercials, perpetually hoping for that big break, the up-or-out nature of academia tends to let you know with relative clarity that it's time to look elsewhere. Really, it's more like professional sports than it's like Hollywood -- we have a structured minor-league/intercollegiate-sports system, with explicit coaching and well-known paths to advancement. Indeed, one could argue that in recent years the relentless up-or-out pressure has gotten soft, as more people take multiple postdocs and linger on for a while. (Or, in fields where they are common, adjunct professors and lecturers, which is generally a much worse gig.) From the point of view of the universities that are choosing new faculty members, years of postdoctoral experience provide a lot of data on which to base hiring decisions, which one could at least argue helps the meritocratic case. It's no fun to be stuck in postdocs for years and years, but nor is it fun to be told that you have passed your sell-by date, no more jobs for you. So to all those grad students hanging around in the lounge, trying to say clever things to impress the visiting speaker -- it could be worse! You could be hanging around soda shops, hoping to be discovered by wandering tenured professors.

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