Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Do you really want to be a scientist?


(Note: original text republished in full, without any changes.  Unfortunately, all the values are still current 10 years later)

Let’s make the necessary caveats first, before the police on duty come and tell me that I’m doing a disservice to Brazilian science. Of course I’d like to see more young people become scientists, and I want to contribute to that. But I’ve decided that it’s part of my job as a science communicator to make it public and known what it’s like to become a scientist in Brazil. My goals here are to raise people’s awareness of the reality of a scientist’s career and, perhaps, to generate a certain amount of astonishment and revolt; and to help young people choose a career in research consciously, despite everything that follows. But, above all, what I would like is to generate enough indignation to make the career of a scientist (1) actually exist, and (2) be valued.

Having said that, let’s get down to my anti-propaganda campaign about science in Brazil!

You who are young and considering becoming a researcher: did you know that…

– during university, your scientific initiation internships will only be paid 400 reais – that’s right, less than the minimum wage? This is the current amount set by the CNPq. And that’s IF you get a scientific initiation grant, because Faperj, for example, currently limits its awards to ONE grant per researcher, and CNPq-PIBIC to two grants. In a medium-sized laboratory, this will no longer be enough to guarantee grants to all trainees – which means that it is vexingly common to have trainees working for free;

– when you finish university, unless you get a job in industry or private companies, to do research you’ll need to apply for scholarships of R$1,350 to do a master’s degree? Meanwhile, your colleagues with degrees in administration, engineering or law will already be entering the job market, earning starting salaries (with all labor rights) of R$3,000 to R$7,000 or more. Oh, did I mention that although you’re expected to work 40 hours a week full-time during your master’s degree, you won’t have any employment rights? This is because your work is not yet considered work…

– …it’s easier to get a Science Without Borders scholarship to do your UNDERGRAD abroad than it is to get a postgraduate scholarship at home? That’s right: we export our undergraduates, but we don’t have enough scholarships to keep them in postgraduate studies at home.

– when you finish your master’s degree, unless you get a job as a researcher in private companies (of which there are very few), you’ll necessarily have to do a doctorate? The reason is that the position of “researcher” in our country is almost non-existent; only research institutes such as INCA or Fiocruz offer jobs (through public tenders) for researchers (and they often require a doctorate). All other job possibilities for a researcher are as a “university professor” – and this position, also only accessible by public examination, is today essentially restricted to those who already have a PhD.

– So, three years after graduating, you’ll have to apply for grants of R$2,000 a month to do a doctorate? I’ll say it again: your colleagues will already be in the job market, earning real salaries, having their work called “work”, with the right to vacations and 13th salary – and, if you’re lucky, you’ll have signed a paper agreeing to receive TWO thousand reais a month for the next 4 years. And be very happy to have a scholarship: as our detractors say, you should be “very happy to be getting paid to study”. Except that you won’t be “studying”; you’ll be working, generating knowledge, and contributing to universities publishing the scientific articles that serve as a basis for evaluation on the world stage.

– What do you mean that, during all those years of postgraduate study, in order to receive a scholarship you can NOT have any other source of income? Yes, you can have another job and do your postgraduate studies without a grant – but it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to finish your postgraduate studies that way. In order to receive a scholarship, you will have to sign a humiliating declaration that you have no other source of income. Well, more or less; Capes decided a year ago to accept the accumulation of a scholarship with a “real job” IF it is in the same field as your postgraduate degree. Guess what the chances are of you getting that “real job”? That’s right.

– Now, with your doctorate in hand, you’ll have earned the right to compete for positions as… Professor. That’s right: not “researcher”, but “professor”. That’s because public universities, where good science is done in the country, only hire “professors”. In other words: with a LOT of luck, you’ll be hired, at least SEVEN years after graduating, to do something you’ve NEVER done: teach. Your net starting salary (your first real salary!) will be around 5,000 reais – but make no mistake, your “basic salary”, the one the government will use to maybe one day pay your pension, will be not much more than 2,000 reais…

– it is more likely, however, that you will NOT get a job straight away once you have your doctorate and will have to enter the limbo of post-doctoral students? A “post-doc” is exactly what the name implies: someone who already has a doctorate but doesn’t yet have a job. It’s a limbo created by the system to keep the ever-increasing number of new PhDs who can’t find jobs either as researchers or teachers interested. According to the same CNPq table, a new doctor receives a grant of R$3,700 a month, tax-free. In other words: remember that starting salary of your fellow graduates? An aspiring scientist finally earns the right to a similar amount… SEVEN years after graduating. Oh, of course: still without any employment rights, because you “don’t work”. Let me do the math for you: at this point, you’re nearing your 30th birthday, and officially? “never worked”;

– By now, you are for all practical purposes a scientist – but you still don’t have the right to apply for research grants from funding agencies? In order to manage a research grant, you need to have an employment relationship with a research institution – and apart from the very few de facto researcher positions at Fiocruz, INCA, IMPA etc, you can only manage as… a university professor;

– IF you manage to pass the university professor exams AND do actual research, you won’t initially earn ONE CENT MORE for it? You’ll have the same number of classes to complete, classes to prepare and update every semester, but the research work you’ve dreamed of is… up to you. If you decide not to do research and just teach, as you were officially hired to do, that’s fine. Perhaps your colleagues will turn up their noses at you, because they’ve forgotten that their job is also only as teachers, not researchers, but you’ll be strictly correct if you only do your job as a teacher.

– Despite all this, your progression in your university career will depend on your research work? You read that correctly: you were hired as a TEACHER, but your job evaluation will be based on your activities as a RESEARCHER…

– IF you’re productive enough, in a few years you’ll be able to apply for a CNPq Researcher grant, which supplements your salary by R$1,000 a month. And that’s all the financial incentive you’ll get for doing research.

Have you given up yet? For the sake of Brazilian science, I hope so… yes. This is my anti-propaganda campaign for the betterment of science in my beloved country: I hope you’ve been outraged enough to consider doing something else with your life. We need a crisis, and a sudden lack of interest on the part of our young people would be very, very, very telling.

But I know that you choose to be a scientist anyway, despite all this. When I entered Biology in 1989, the situation was even worse. Science in the country persists thanks to these idealistic young people, who want to contribute to the nation’s progress despite being mistreated and undervalued, and who agree to embark on a “career” that won’t give them the financial means to live an independent life before the age of THIRTY – and then some?

Originally published on September 27, 2012

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