Skip to content ↓
MIT student blogger Bryan O. '07

The Double Edged Sword by Bryan

On Time Magazine's article titled: "Are We Losing Our Edge?"

The February 13 edition of Time Magazine had an interesting article that I think would make for some good discussion.

For a full reference, you can see the article here.

Basically, what I gathered from the article is that the US is no longer the superpower when it comes to scientific development. Other countries are becoming equally competititive in this new era where communication occurs rapidly and information is only a keystroke away.

There was one part of the article that made me feel a bit uneasy.

“If we compare what our best undergraduates get paid as a graduate student vs. what they get paid in investment banking, there’s no doubt that there’s tremendous economic pressure to suck you away from what is perhaps your first academic love.” As for teaching science at the precollege level, salaries and working conditions are even more dismal.

Students at elite universities are getting that message loud and clear. Melisa Gao, 20, is a senior majoring in chemistry at Princeton, but when recruiters from consulting firms and investment banks showed up on campus last fall, she went on several interviews, and she will take a job as a consultant after graduation. She says, “They love the fact that science majors can think analytically, that we’re comfortable with numbers.” Increasingly, science majors love those companies back. Gao says, “There are no guarantees if you go into science, especially as a woman. You have to worry about getting tenure. Or if you go into industry, it takes you a long time to work your way up the ladder.” If you go into finance or consulting instead, “by the time your roommate is out of grad school, you’ve been promoted, plus you’re making a lot more money, while they’re stuck in lab.”

Even at M.I.T., the U.S.’s premier engineering school, the traditional career path has lost its appeal for some students. Says junior Nicholas Pearce, a chemical-engineering major from Chicago: “It’s marketed as–I don’t want to say dead end but sort of ‘O.K., here’s your role, here’s your lab, here’s what you’re going to be working on.’ Even if it’s a really cool product, you’re locked into it.” Like Gao, Pearce is leaning toward consulting. “If you’re an M.I.T. grad and you’re going to get paid $50,000 to work in a cubicle all day–as opposed to $60,000 in a team setting, plus a bonus, plus this, plus that–it seems like a no-brainer.”

There’s a lot of validity in this statement. Teachers and professors make less money than those who go into banking. The life of a graduate student sometimes is less than glamorous.

I still love science.

One of the things I have been encountering lately is my engineering friends deciding that they want to leave the sciences and go into banking or consulting. This week alone, walking up and down the Infinite, I’ve run into a bunch of friends on their way to interviews with some of the world’s biggest banks and consulting firms. I won’t lie; I really used to want that for myself as well. I wanted to wear the pinstripe suit and walk down Wall Street into my office on the top floor with my own personal cappucino machine. Today, I want a some lab space and research journals to publish my findings.

What happened?

I really don’t know. One of the things I’ve observed is that these days a lot of people associate success with $ucce$$. Research careers may not necessarily yield stock options and company cars; they probably won’t, but I still think these jobs are just as important as the person at Goldman Sachs. Without science, where would we be? What I consider success has dramatically changed. I spend countless hours in lab watching the hours go by until I get an interesting data point that highlights some feature worth writing a paper about. I’ve become paper-hungry but not with regards to money, but to how many journals I can get in before I graduate and the ultimate success, FIRST AUTHOR.

As for MIT students leaving engineering and the sciences for consulting and finance, to each his own. I’ll take my lab bench any day. Personally, my experience here has reaffirmed my unquenched desire to play with the unknown, and for me, I find that in science and engineering. Inventing my own equations and just going for it.

What do you think about this article?

18 responses to “The Double Edged Sword”

  1. Sam T says:

    I totally agree with your views of success. Sure at a major consulting firm you get lots of money, stock options, company cars, etc. But beyond that you get almost nothing. My idea of success is totally independent of money; my idea of success involves history books. Nothing can take that kind of success away, not even death. Just look at who we study in our classrooms. Newton, Einstein, Planck, Maxwell, etc have been immortalized in history. They were never that rich (except Newton), but their ideas will live forever.

    In regards to America flunking science, (if you don’t like arrogance do not read any further) that

  2. Wenhao Sun says:

    It’s a funny story really. I’ve encountered several ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ changes in my last four years. Being Chinese, business or law was very appealing, especially because China will really be opening up to the world in terms of economics and service in the next decade or so. I’ve also considered computer science and writing programs, because my parents do that and I’ve done it for a bit and it is very fun. But really, when it comes down to it, I think being a research scientist would really be the best option there is. (I’m not writing this just because of this particular post, I actually believe in this.)

    I once asked my friend, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and he responded “Rich.” We laughed, and then I said, “Why?” And so he looks at me and says, “I don’t know, because I’ll be rich!” I don’t think that’s what I want though. I mean, even if I could drive a Mercedez or even a Lamborghini to work every day and work as an investment banker to make a thousand dollars a minute (and negative two thousand the next), would it really be worth it in the long run? The problem with being rich is that it is so transitory. The richest man in the world, Bill Gates, will likely be forgotten in 100 years. But Newton, Galileo, Maxwell, Einstein, Etc, these are scientific giants whose laws and theories will literally live on for as long as this Universe lives. And I really think that’s something special. To be immortalized in science, even if it’s not for something HUGE like the invention of calculus and modern physics, is something that is eternal. And truthfully, scientists have changed the world more than anyone else. What’s going to have a more lasting impact on the world, Hitler, or Einstein? Maybe that’s debatable, but I’d side with E = mc^2.

    And here’s an interesting fact, did you know Einstein was offered the presidency of Isreal? He declined, saying:

    “Equations are more important to me, because politics are for the present, but an equation is something for eternity.”

    And that’s really what’s significant in the end, isn’t it?

    – Wenhao Sun

  3. Shikhar says:

    hi all,

    interested in some serious discussion on this topic check this out..especially last 2 pages

    I post under the name of vampiro here.

  4. Shannon says:

    It’s interesting that you bring up these points because just yesterday I had a conversation about this.

    I was talking with a friend of mine who wants to be an architectural engineer, and he said he had just realized that he wasn’t going to be getting out of school until his later twenties. “Even then,” he said, “I’ll only start out at like 35,000 and I’ll have to work my way up. I don’t know about engineering anymore.”

    Of course, this is a guy who has wanted to go into this field for as long as I’ve know him.

    What people need to realize is that money is not the end all be all of life. I recognize that becoming a research scientist may not be the most, shall we say, financially rewarding career, but it is a goal I’ve held for as long as I can remember and money is not going to change the satisfaction I do/will get out of it. As I put it to another friend of mine: “Don’t come running to me when your organs fail and MY stem cell research is the only thing that can save you.”

    Science will change the world. That to me is more rewarding than any monetary incentive.

  5. Shannon says:

    Oh, and Sam I just read your post and I have to say it made me laugh. It seems that everyone who comes to MIT has that spark and idea that they can change the world, and I absolutely agree with you. Anything is possible.

    Somehow I don’t think posting third quarter profits will pull that off.

  6. This is taking this a bit off topic, but I wanted to give my opinion of a successful life. It has nothing to do with becoming rich or famous (though that wouldn’t be bad either). My idea of a successful life is simpler. Love another person with all your heart. Bring new life into the world and be a good parent. Being a role model in your community and helping other people is more important than raking in millions or discovering some new theory. I think living for the present and doing the little things are much more important than becoming immortalized in history. My heroes are those that make sacrifices to better the world without seeking recognition for their actions.

    Sorry for that. I know it doesn’t really pertain to the subject at hand but I wanted to say it.

  7. Sam T says:

    I don’t know if I’m alone, but the recognition is secondary to me. Sure it’d be nice to get some, but what I’d much rather have is a better understanding of the world. Lots of people weren’t recognized during their lifetime but still had amazing ideas/talents.

    By the way reading the comment above makes me feel like crap. I wish I could think like that, who knows maybe I eventually will, but this idea that I have to find a better understanding of the world has been deeply ingrained in me ever since the passing of my cousin.

  8. Laura says:

    Hmm…so I don’t know what I want to do yet…I may not follow up on a career pertaining to my math or engineering degree, but…


    Blech. *makes grossed out face*

    No way. =)

  9. Siddharth says:

    “The richest man in the world, Bill Gates, will likely be forgotten in 100 years” – Wenhao Sun

    I plan to stick around for 100 yrs just to tell u ur wrong raspberry No way that dude’s getting forgotten!! He’s done so much stuff… including preparing the world for when I burst onto the scene.

    Sam T, love ur sense of humor/”arrogance”, its just like mine!!!! we should talk :D [email protected]

    hey simple life, i think ur dead on a/b the love thing. but, love doesnt pay the bills. i hope to get rich not so i can buy big houses or fast cars, but b/c being rich would take so many worries off my mind. i could work on some pet project that has maybe 0.000001% chance of succeeding, but i wont care, b/c i like what im doing and i dont have to worry about it being profitable. plus, i’d be able to stay home w/ the wife and eventually kids. i plan to get rich so i can retire, basically, and do stuff for ppl i care a/b and just ppl in general. for example, kids of alcoholic, who dont get the education they need b/c mommy and daddy spent so much money getting permanently drunk. no fair those kids have to lose out just b/c their parents suck.

    meh, im mad again now :(

  10. dally says:

    Sure, your goal in life shouldn’t be to get rich. But money is still very important, even for reasons that don’t have to do with yourself. My parents are very well off, and I have had so many opportunites because of that. Should I deprive my future kids of things that I had, just to follow my passion? Or should I go into another, more profitable field that I still like, even if it’s not my passion?

    I don’t know, this has been on my mind a lot recently. I hope I figure it out before I graduate from college!

  11. Anonymous says:

    Haha, you’re right Siddharth, Bill Gates won’t be forgotten I’m sure, but he’ll probably be only as well known as Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, which, although impressive, really doesn’t stack in comparison to Einstein. And what about the 2nd richest person in the world? 3rd? 20th? Not likely.

    The simple life/SamT: You two are absolutely correct. Recognition should not be a motivation for scientific work. I think it was Richard Feynman who wanted to make a fool of himself at the Nobel Prize ceremoney because he just didn’t care for the prize. It’s much more noble (haha… pun intended) that way. My original point, however, wasn’t recognition, it was just lasting importance to the world. Even without widespred recognition, the people who created the silicon chip have been the ones who have changed the world, and not Bill Gates. Recognition is kind of the thing for people who have done absolutely revolutionary things, but really, how many people like that are there? 10 maybe? Yeah. But it’s the compendium of scientists who have gotten us to where we are today with technology, medical science, etc. So just because you’re not widely recognized doesn’t mean you aren’t impacting the world.

    As for me, I won’t deny that I’m an idealist. Realistically speaking, money and standard of living will be a very big deal for a lot of people. But really, for those who have been fascinated with the natural world since they opened their eyes, would they be more happy in a BMW or doing research? Obviously not everyone has this motivation. I can’t even say for sure that I will in 20 years(I sure hope so though). But these people are the ones who are going to take humans to Mars and beyond, cure cancer, find a grand unified theory of physics, etc.

    And also, who says that they can’t get a little rich on the way? Authors like Hawking make a lot of money too, and I’m sure someone could do some investing on the side (hey, they have the brains, why not?) and live comfortably while doing what they enjoy.

    – Wenhao Sun

  12. Erin says:

    I have also recently come to the realization that my passion for becoming a research scientist may not exactly provide for the most comfortable life. I come from a fairly well off family and the idea of not having everything that I have now is not exactly the most pleasing thought. However, when I think about the fact that I would be giving up something rather trivial- material comfort- for something that I am truly passionate about, then it doesn’t seem so bad anymore. I figure that I will be happier working with my passion with a less comfortable life than having more money but being endlessly bored with what I am doing. Like others have already said, I am definitely prepared to live less comfortably than perhaps I am used to if it means that I can pursue my dreams of studying the universe and maybe making some wonderful discoveries. smile

  13. Anaya says:

    I think this topic is interesting, if somewhat depressing. it has a lot of truth in it, esepecially regarding the “siphoning” of students away from the cutting edge of science and towards the field of big business. I have noticed a distinct trend in modern america away from science and engineering, and I must confess it is a little disheartening when I open my scientific american magazine and almost all of the articles dealing with experimental genetics and biotechnology originate in korea. Still, the reality of the science industry today is that most pure science employment must be sought for reasons of personal fulfillment rather than monetary reward. Perhaps someday the government or some other american institution will eventually step in and begin adding incentives to a scientific career in order to increase our now-depleted store of national science capability by making it financially beneficial topursue science. But until then ,we shall simply have to rely on those whose innate passion drives them towards the field of scientific discovery in spite of a slight defficiency in monetary gain, to keep the light of knowledge going in our somewhat Benighted, or perhaps just befuddled, nation. Moreover,when one consiers many of the great sceintific theories and the eccentric and often financially depleted people who unveiled them, isn’t that how it has always been?

  14. Anonymous says:

    That is so true (this is Amram, a junior living in Holland, acquaintances made smile ) however I don’t know if you can really insist that much on how important it is to really conserve this puritane kind of science. I mean, obviously it would be nice to just do science for science, but that would definitely be utopian. Science should be derived in order to get ourselves to live in a better world, no matter what that implies. Obviously this is the hardest part, cos ”better world” might stand for something that doesn’t appeal to many people around the globe anyways.

    And by the way, back to those money-eager people, I’d just like to say that getting the money in itself shouldn’t really be the objective. What you plan on doing with it is what’s important (Sam T italian supercars are great wink but i don’t think they’re getting us around anywhere in the big picture smile )

    Oh yea another big question: what is the big picture according to you guys anyway? (that was deep and sort of derived from the main subject but we)

  15. Anonymous says:

    “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”

  16. Dan Simonson says:

    This article delightfully reminds me that the empire’s on the brink of collapse. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. Soon, the whole system’s going to come crashing down, and it’ll be awesome to watch… just ask George Carlin.

    Anyone who majors in a science or math, or engineering, and proceeds to work as a number cruncher is heartless. They’ve been laboring their entire life for one reason alone, success, not because they care about or have passion for anything that they do. In High School, these people played three sports and ran six clubs. It wasn’t because they enjoyed any of it–it was because they knew this was the “path to success.”

    These people have no moral fiber. Their world exists around climbing on top of others and expunging earth of those who interfere with their ascent.

    These people get mixed up with the other type, those who care about… no, they LOVE what they do. These folks are empassioned by Calculus, build things, live and basque in the beauty of the universe. The first scientists were these people; they did it without incentive to get paid or be recognized and, instead, only out of curiousity.

    A lot of the corrputed individuals still hang around in the sciences. They have no integrity, they don’t care about the field, only about how important they become in it. They would love to be Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein, but they’ll never make it there. You know why? Because their heart doesn’t lie in it, and, without that, the bastards could never fool all of us.

  17. “The richest man in the world, Bill Gates, will likely be forgotten in 100 years” – Wenhao Sun

    Ever heard of JP Morgan? Andrew Carnegie? John D. Rockefeller? All of these men were drowning in money and are still drowning in fame.

  18. Wenhao Sun says:

    Ever read the previous posts?

    See above:

    Haha, you’re right Siddharth, Bill Gates won’t be forgotten I’m sure, but he’ll probably be only as well known as Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, which, although impressive, really doesn’t stack in comparison to Einstein. And what about the 2nd richest person in the world? 3rd? 20th? Not likely.

    – Wenhao Sun