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Why, on average, do scientists not get paid much?

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August 22, 2012 – Comments (21)

My girlfriend recently graduated from college with a degree in chemsitry.  She is now working as a chemist for the local water authority making $25k a year.  There are plenty of jobs that don't require ANY college degree where you make more than $25k a year.  Chemistry is one of the harder degrees to get in college.  (Chemistry, physics, engineering, math, biochem, I guess architecture, chemical engineering).  Now I am not saying it takes a genius to get a science degree, but it takes a lot more work.  You need to study and practice calculus, linear algebra, Pchem, orgo, etc.  Whereas communication majors, business majors, and pretty much all non-STEM majors can pass a lot of their classes with just using common sense.  I was a business major (econ) and I did not have to study much.  I worked 35 hours a week and partied a lot, and was able to get decent grades without much effort.  My girlfriend had to put in 40-60 hours a week to obtain the same grades I did.  It's not as though she is not good at her field (she even came up with a new ligand, and got an A in quantum mechanics), but it requires a lot more studying and work to master.

 

So it seems odd to me that a field which requires a ton of work to get a grasp of pays her so little.  She knows a lot about organic chem, inorganic chem, bio chem, pchem, lasers, waves, optics, string theory, all different types of math, astro physics, thermodynamics, even knows a fair bit about history and english.  She says she wish she studied business like I did, because she is so poor.  I say the opposite....she seems to know everything about everything, and I know nothing.  SHe says knowledge does not really mean anything if you are broke.   she wants to leave science and become an administrative assistant.  She has a friend who was a communication major making $60,000 to book flights and hotels for a company.  She has another friend who did not go to college making a ton of money traveling all over for a fashion company.  Hell, her brother is a doorman at a hotel, and makes more than her.

 

What is the reason?

 

I have a few theories: 

 

1) Science is more static than other fields. Now I know it is changing every day, don't get me wrong.  But once you know a reaction or a concept, it will likely be the same throughout your whole career, where as the stock market changes every day, and interactions with people changes from person to person.  Laws and trends also change every day.

 

2) People pay you, and you need to get money from other people to have it for yourself, so you need to be good with people.  Simple enough.  The only way to get money is to get it from other people.  So people skills are more important than analytical skills, because all the intelligence in the world will get you know money if nobody wants to deal with you.

3) You don't need to know science to do a lot of science related jobs.  Once the research has been done in a field, you can get a lot of people to do the work who don't understand the ideas.  For instance, you can give somebody with no education an instrument and ask him to measure a ph level.  He can do this without knowing what a pH level is, just by readint the instrument.

Any other theories?  

21 Comments – Post Your Own

#1) On August 22, 2012 at 9:53 AM, outoffocus (22.81) wrote:

A few other theories:

1. She lacked the experience (e.g. internships) to get into a higher paying job right out of college.

2. She didnt get a job in a typically higher paying science industry (e.g. defense, pharmaceuticals, college research programs).

One must understand that a degree does not guarantee you a job anymore.  You have to do your research well before you leave college.  You have to connect with the right people and interview for the right jobs that launch you into the career you want.  If she's just in it for the money then that will be a problem in and of itself.  But if science is what she really wants to do then she needs to be willing to put in the time to find out how to get to those higher paying jobs in her field. Our current economy is such that nothing is handed to anyone anymore.  You have to know what you want and how you want to get it well before you walk down that aisle.  From seeing your blogs before you graduated it seems that you already had those things. 

The good news is she still has time. If she really wants to do science then becoming an admin assistant is the worse thing she can do because then she'll become stuck.  But if she's just trying to find what job pays the most then shes going to have a hard time being happy in her career.

Hope this helps.

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#2) On August 22, 2012 at 9:59 AM, outoffocus (22.81) wrote:

Sorry I didnt finish that final thought. 

 The good news is she still has time. If she really wants to do science then becoming an admin assistant is the worse thing she can do because then she'll become stuck.  But she can use this time to research science careers and jobs that pay well and give better experience than her current position. She can also try and network with individuals who are in the job she wants to be in.  She should join a national science association.  She may have to be willing to relocate as alot of science jobs are in the midwest and west coast.  But if she's just trying to find what job pays the most then shes going to have a hard time being happy in her career.

Now lets see if THAT helps. =)

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#3) On August 22, 2012 at 10:06 AM, Valyooo (99.37) wrote:

All of her friends in science are broke too.  Even some of them with PhD's.  Unemployment in chemistry is very high.  It is well known that on average scientists don't make a lot...even ones who made all the right moves.  Some do, if they come up with something crazy, but most don't. Even my girlfriend who came up with her own ligand did not get anything out of it.  Somebody else took her reaction and used it to get into a PhD program at yale.

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#4) On August 22, 2012 at 12:24 PM, geneticbiscuit (98.11) wrote:

No offense to your girlfriend, but why on earth would she take a 25k/year job when, with a chemistry degree an a decent academic record, she could go to grad school, get paid 20+k/year for being a TA (with tuition waved) and in 2 years be able to easily make 50+k with a masters degree.  It seems like she may have been given some poor career advice somewhere along the way...

I also disagree about the unemployment in chemistry being very high relative to the general unemployment (at least in the major hubs:  Boston, NY/NJ, San Diego, San Fransico, etc...).  There are tons of companies out there, and while many of them are laying off, the contracted research and manufacuring industry is growing like crazy to keep up with the shrinking capacity of the major pharma players and startups without resources to keep everything in-house.  Yes, China/India are eating up a lot of that business but there's still plenty going on here.

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#5) On August 22, 2012 at 12:43 PM, yonkmember (69.83) wrote:

I will try to look up the reference, but unemployment in chemistry is not so high, especially as you progress further up the education ladder.  I believe for a Ph.D. in chemistry, the unemployment rate is around 2--3%.  

 I have a Ph.D. in chemistry and wonder about the question at times (although I am fortunate to be paid quite well for my services).  Industry pays scientists well, in my opinion.

I think the truth is, if you are a scientist that finds ways of solving problems that people want solved, you make good money regardless of your level.  You have the ability to go out and find the problems that might need your services in many cases.  The key is using the training and understanding to identify the problems and try to solve them.  In some ways, this mentality converges on that of the businessperson's mindset.

One aside: Scientists have a lot of freedom.  I have justified much of the reduced salary to the freedom as well.

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#6) On August 22, 2012 at 12:45 PM, Valyooo (99.37) wrote:

Well she's not going to grad school because 1) she doesnt want to only make 20k 2) she's not ready yet 3) why would she go to more school just to make 50k, when there are jobs that don't even require a college degree to make that. For instance, personal bankers at citi make about 65k a year. No degree required. She also thinks it makes more sense to get an MBA than an MS because you get paid more in business than science. Seriously, 6 years of school just to make 50k?

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#7) On August 22, 2012 at 12:55 PM, Mega (99.95) wrote:

http://cen.acs.org/articles/88/i28/Salaries-Chemists-Fall.html

http://www.ehow.com/about_7393488_average-chemist-salary_.html

The median salary for a BS in Chemistry is around $67,000 and the average starting salary is around $40,000. And unemployment is quite low relative to other fields.

Oil & gas could be a good area to look for a higher paying chemistry job. Of course, that might require relocation.

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#8) On August 22, 2012 at 12:58 PM, geneticbiscuit (98.11) wrote:

"Not ready yet" is the only reasonable reason not to go to grad school that you've mentioned.  The money is roughly equivalent to what she's making now, and besides - people don't go to grad school to make money while they are there - they go to further their education and prepare for a career, as well as meet a bunch of other people who will be working in the same field and will be a great network to have (especially when starting out).

Additionally, you're making it sound like the only important thing is making lots of money.  If that's the reason she's in chemistry (or anything for that matter), and she doesn't enjoy the work, then she's destined to be unhappy anyway and should get out.  I've known plenty of people who went into banking/finance out of college because of the allure of the paycheck, only to hate it and quit after 2 or 3 years.  They are much happier now making "only" 40k.

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#9) On August 22, 2012 at 1:00 PM, Spudskie (< 20) wrote:

I graduated with a degree in meteorology and worked for nearly 14 years as a consulting meteorologist for various businesses. I never made more than 31K before taxes.

The only way to make any real money in the field is to either work for the National Weather Service (getting paid very well to do very little) or to be a TV weather forecaster for a very large market. 

 

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#10) On August 22, 2012 at 1:05 PM, geneticbiscuit (98.11) wrote:

If the money is really important, but she still wants to be somewhat involved with the science, then there's always patent law...but again, that's way more education.

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#11) On August 22, 2012 at 1:19 PM, TheDumbMoney (38.50) wrote:

Valyoo, she is working a low-level public sector job.  For a high-paying chemistry job she needs to be either in the oil/gas industry or somewhere else in the private sector, such as at PG, which employs skads of chemists.  Then to juice it further she could try to get a business degree while working and go into management for a company.

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#12) On August 22, 2012 at 4:25 PM, JaysRage (88.97) wrote:

Personal banking is sales.   I've known several people in personal banking that got let go for a couple of down quarters in the recession.   Sales pays well if you're good and continually producing....but if you don't.....look out below.   It's a high stress performance-based job at the beginning (first 2-3 years).   Her 25K job is likely a 9-5er.  

As for her chemistry degree, public sector pays lower than the private sector.   Chances are your friend didn't negotiate hard on salary either....probably could have gotten more.   

As mentioned above, graduate degrees are expected in most sciences now.   In addition, most people add something to their chemistry degree to make it more applicable to industry.   

 

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#13) On August 22, 2012 at 5:07 PM, athebob (87.41) wrote:

Also, you must remeber just because somthing is difficult down't mean it will pay well.  Yes difficulty will keep supply of a given part of labor down, but it does not mean there will be demand for it.  For example, just look most olympic sports vs professional, many are difficult and take years to master and perfect, but you may not be able to earn a salary doing them.

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#14) On August 22, 2012 at 6:20 PM, rofgile (99.29) wrote:

Heck, back in the old days they didn't pay you to do science.  You had to be a rich (usually old white gentlemen) person who could lounge around all day and think and play in your self-build lab.  (This is science for most of the history of mankind).

Recent science is much more government funded.  And, the career scheme is a bit crappy because there are so many people who try to do it, but so few actual end jobs.  But at least now, you get paid to do science.

It is possible that you could do something that could make money with science, but that typically will be a type of engineering (such as chem. engineering, biomedical engineering, etc).  

Its tough!

 -Rof 

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#15) On August 22, 2012 at 7:44 PM, ETFsRule (99.94) wrote:

I'm guessing that she is doing some kind of quality control testing, or something similar. I hope I'm not way off the mark with my assumption. If that's what the job is, it's not a good long-term fit.

I have a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and I was lucky enough to get a job as a chemist with a pretty decent salary. I'm working in product development for a large industrial company.

I got my job in 2007, and ever since 2008 my company has had a hiring freeze in place. So it is a very hard time right now for chemists. I have seen recent grads move more than 1000 miles to accept temp jobs paying $12/hr. I'm not making that up.

Anyway, the starting salary for a chemist should be 35-40k.

"She also thinks it makes more sense to get an MBA than an MS because you get paid more in business than science. "

Yes. With a chemistry degree and an MBA, she could get a good job in the private sector in a chemistry-related position (ie: managing a team of chemists, something like that). Although, she probably wouldn't start as a manager - it would take some experience.

"I will try to look up the reference, but unemployment in chemistry is not so high, especially as you progress further up the education ladder."

As of last year, the unemployment rate for recent chemist grads with a BS was 15%... almost twice the nation's overall unemployment rate. Source:

http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/2011/03/well-thats-not-good-news.html

The overall unemployment rate for chemists is 4.6% - which may not sound high, but is the highest it's been in 40 years. Source:

http://bulletin.acscinf.org/node/333

I'm not sure if a chemistry grad can easily get a Master's in some kind of engineering (chemical, environmental, etc). But that would also be a path to a higher paying job.

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#16) On August 22, 2012 at 8:11 PM, TheDumbMoney2 (98.38) wrote:

ETS, while the rate of unemployment for recent grads at 15% is twice as high as the overall national employment rate, or nearly, it is lower than the rate of unemployment for recent grads with non-science degrees.

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#17) On August 22, 2012 at 8:35 PM, ETFsRule (99.94) wrote:

TheDumbMoney2:

That is true, but it is still bleak out there for chemists. The average starting salary for recent chemist grads is only $32k, compared to $44k for recent grads overall (with a bachelor's degree only). Source:

http://www.naceweb.org/uploadedFiles/NACEWeb/Research/Salary_Survey/Reports/SS_April_exsummary_4web.pdf

In my opinion, the job market is very tough for chemists, even compared to other fields. If the unemployment numbers don't show that, I believe that is because many chemists are taking jobs traditionally done by "lab technicians" - jobs that don't necessarily require a college degree.

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#18) On August 23, 2012 at 6:01 PM, JaysRage (88.97) wrote:

3) You don't need to know science to do a lot of science related jobs.  Once the research has been done in a field, you can get a lot of people to do the work who don't understand the ideas.  For instance, you can give somebody with no education an instrument and ask him to measure a ph level.  He can do this without knowing what a pH level is, just by reading the instrument.

This is a growing sentiment in the business and public community, and it also leads a lot of flawed conclusions and bad science, IMO.   When people running the automations and the machines are not capable of adjusting the parameters when the assumptions and parameters of the original science have changed, false results and conclusions occur.    In addition, there is a false-confidence in the machine's or the algorithm's ability to give an answer to a question, even if the question is framed incorrectly. 

Example -- Any person that can open a spreadsheet can run an Excel regression algorithm and get a statistical result to throw in their Power Point and pile their own self-serving conclusions on top of it.   That doesn't make it science.  There is the illusion that the scientist does not add value, since the computer is capable of running the algorithm for them.    

 

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#19) On August 25, 2012 at 3:08 PM, IlanBigfoot (92.76) wrote:

If you want to make GREAT money in the sciences, look into the health fields. My wife graduated with a physics degree, got a Masters in medical physics (anatomy was the big challenge), got board certified, and now makes more than most doctors.

Myself, I graduated with a physics degree, didn't do grad school, and worked a variety of computer and robots-oriented jobs. My pay was usually mid five figures. 

BTW, my dad was a chemist professor until he retired, and he's now a multi-millionaire, thanks to saving with TIA-CREF. PhD science teachers can do well enough, even in high school. 

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#20) On August 25, 2012 at 3:16 PM, NOTvuffett (< 20) wrote:

I think A.Q.Khan made pretty good money, lol.

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#21) On August 25, 2012 at 3:24 PM, IlanBigfoot (92.76) wrote:

I just looked for chemistry jobs in my (small <100k pop) town on one of those iphone apps. There were 29 listed, some QA jobs for local food co.s, a few enviromental, a few teaching (tutoring MCAT, local colleges, etc.), but majority medical: pharma, hospital, devices, lab testing. Some even have signing bonuses! Anyway, tell her don't give up if she likes what she's doing, and keep looking for jobs while she has one. If she has free time, at least try tutoring on your own, you can get $25-50/hr helping struggling students.

 Hope this helps! 

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