Science careers: rough today, rough in 1886

Science has changed a lot over the past hundred years or so, but the lives and problems of scientists have, in many ways, remained surprisingly constant.  In a previous post, I described how, in 1804, a mathematician was already lamenting the decline of mathematics education — a problem that still concerns us today.

Another perennial problem is the difficulty of finding jobs in science, much less building a career.  This was illustrated by a pair of letters I stumbled across this evening in 1886 issues of Science!

The first, written by “C.B.” of Brooklyn, N.Y. and dated September 4th*, is titled, “Science for a livelihood”, and reads:

Some time ago I read in your journal a stirring editorial, calling for young men to devote their energies and life to the cause of science, and deploring the lack of persons who were willing to encounter hard work and poor pay because of love for investigation and study.

Early this summer, after graduating from a first-class scientific school, I made application to four agricultural stations in this and other states for some position, pay no consideration whatever. Having been brought up on a farm, and having a first-rate scientific education, a love of the natural sciences (in which I have done a little practical work), and an excellent physique, I thought myself fitted for investigation in scientific fields, particularly as I love it above all else.

In every case I received answer, ‘Places all full.’ I have begun to doubt if investigators and workers are needed in the natural or experimental sciences, and think that a poor young man who cannot afford to give money to the work has no call in this field.

Am I right?

Aside from the style of language, and specific choice of field work, this letter sounds eerily similar to the circumstances of many a graduate of science.  Hearing of a deplorable “lack of persons” going into the sciences, the student works hard, gets a respectable degree only to find that there are in fact no jobs available.

The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, but it is noteworthy that another person was compelled to write after reading of “C.B.”s difficulties.  This letter, by “W.F. Flint”, of Winchester, N.H., and is dated September 13*.

I am interested in the communication from C. B., Brooklyn, N.Y., under the above caption in the issue of Science for Sept. 10. Like C. B., I graduated with a good scientific education, had done some practical work, and possessed a greater desire to labor in scientific fields than to do any thing else.

Instead of making application to only four schools, however, I applied to over sixty, and received a negative answer from all of them, and at the end of it was told by an eminent professor in Harvard university that there were at least fifteen applicants for every vacant place of the kind in the United States.

That was nine years ago, and my experience since confirms me in the belief, that if the student is without wealth. and has no friends who will forward him in his chosen field, he will do wisest, and be most independent, if he turns his attention to agricultural, mechanical, or any other honest occupation by which he can make some money; and then, after his money is his own, he can put as much of it as he sees fit into his scientific work. Such a course may be galling to pride, and a disappointment to friends, but, in all probability, there are few positions in this country where a student of small means can find sufficient work in the natural or experimental sciences to earn bread enough to keep the wolf from the door.

Emphasis mine!  This correspondent applied to sixty schools — in the era before online applications!

The two correspondents seem to agree that it is extremely difficult to find a scientific position, and that it is especially hard to do so without an independent source of income.  This is depressingly similar to the situation today, in which graduate students (and even postdocs) are paid remarkably low salaries and often find it difficult to get employment after graduation.

So students in the late 1800s had difficulties similar to those students face today.  I’m not sure if this is discouraging or reassuring!  Let me know what you think in the comments.


* C.B., “Science for a livelihood,” Science 8 (Sept. 10, 1886), 236.

** W.F. Flint, “Science for a livelihood,” Science 8 (Sept. 17, 1886), 258.

This entry was posted in ... the Hell?, History of science. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Science careers: rough today, rough in 1886

  1. Damon Diehl says:

    From C.B.’s letter, I love that in the 19th century an “excellent physique” was a looked-for feature in aspiring scientists.

    From Flint’s letter, I’m still puzzling about how any amount of bread might discourage a wolf.

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