Reality vs what one might like

Many years ago, I had this thought in my head that I wanted to be a physics professor. No, really. I went through all the motions. Undergrad BS, then MS and then PhD. While I was doing this, the Soviet Union collapsed.

How was that fact related to my former desire to be a physics prof?

Simple. Its economics. Its always economics. Anyone tells you differently, they are either lying or selling you something.

A science blogger wrote of his leaving academia after a post doc. His story resonates with me, as everything always boils down to a cost benefit equation. What do you want, and how much will it cost you to get to that point? Once you figure that out, you have to ask yourself are you willing to pay that, and by you, I mean you and your family …

In the early 90’s, the former Soviet Union scientists flooded the western faculty markets. Competition increased, compensation dropped. As the writer noted in his blog, compensation for post docs is appallingly low. But that is because the supply of post docs are so high relative to demand. Its a buyers market.

Its funny how economics works … supply and demand. Scarcity and demand set prices (salaries) employers are willing to pay for labor. Artificial market intrusions to try to control the market have unintended side effects. Force markets to use a monopolistic supplier of labor in a geography (e.g. a local union), and you get market participants seeking lower costs outside that geography. Force a large supply of free agents upon a market, and you get market participants paying a very low price for that labor (post docs).

The calculation that we have to go through is whether or not the benefit to us as individuals is worth the cost to us as families. At the point at which it gets to be too much of a burden, I expect that more people will opt to forgo that career in place of other careers. As I did almost 2 decades ago.

When you hear people decry the need for more scientists and engineers, look closely at the salaries and job openings out there. Chances are there is no shortage, other than that of people willing to pay market rates for such talent. Look at the granting rates for various funding agencies. Chances are they are low as there are too many applicants for not enough money and resources. Funny how that circumstantial evidence around massive oversupply keeps piling up.

The long term implications to the market, and to our society, of driving compensation down by keeping the market continually flooded with talent, is profound. Fewer people will opt to fill these niches, up to the point where there is a real shortage. And then, as the boy who cried wolf, no one will believe it. With all the consequent damage this brings.

Reality can be a very harsh taskmaster, especially if one does not learn the lessons of economics and history.

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