In my experience, in many physical sciences research groups are either primarily experimental or primarily theoretical/computational. Of course, all experimental groups have to do at least a little bit of theory, because obviously one has to design and interpret experiments, but, in my field at least, only very few very large experimental groups do have a resident theorist or two, usually as research scientists.
My group is a theoretical/computational one. We do theory and numerical simulations in an applied physics field that is at the interface of physics, materials science, and electronics. I have a number of experimental collaborators and a number of collaborative projects, and then of course I have my own theory-only projects. So I am pretty busy, which is awesome. There is never a shortage of projects, only of time and money.
What I want to write about here is a conversation, or rather a piece of a conversation, that I had with a couple of my close experimental collaborators over dinner a little while back. We sort of started chatting about this but got distracted and never finished.
Is it better to be a theorist/computational scientist or an experimentalist?
This question obviously makes sense in the fields where such a distinction exists, i.e. where people specialize in one or the other. I am not going to pretend I can list all the fields in which this is true. I know it is true in many physical sciences. I have no idea about biological sciences, and am equally clueless about social sciences. (Also, I know there are theory purists in physics who would not be caught dead numerically solving anything and don't consider analytical theory and computational science to be in the same purity category. To them I only give an evil eye and wonder how they managed to stay under a rock for this long.)
Anyhoo, what's better: being a theorist or an experimentalist?
I vote experimentalist.
Don't get me wrong: being a theorist, I think theory has a lot of advantages:
1) I need less funding than an experimentalist in the same field -- once I have my computational resources in check, all I need is money for students and summer salary and an occasional conference, and we're in business. As my postdoc would say: We're nice and compact.
2) I don't need hands in the lab. Even if I were to hypothetically totally run out of money, I could still work on my own, or with a couple of TA-supported students, generate preliminary results, and soon be able to apply for more money. It is my impression that if an experimental lab is broke and empty, it is much much harder to ramp back up.
3) There is a much greater flexibility in switching fields, as there is less of a funding barrier. If I want to switch fields, I don't need shiny new equipment to get preliminary data. All I need time and a little money to fund a student and we're in business.
But then there are cons:
1) At least in my field, the potential to get GlamourMag papers as a lone theorist is virtually zero. A theory-only paper can only go so high in terms of prestige.
2) When I write proposals on my own, everyone wants to see letters of support from experimentalists, as insurance that what I do is real or relevant. No one asks my experimental collaborators to show a letter of support from a theorist. I have the impression that theorists are viewed as naughty children who are about to go off into mischief unless anchored by the wise overseeing experimetalists.
3) We are always second fiddle. Whenever there is an experiment/theory collaboration, the experimentalist is always the lead. My peeps work as hard as experimental students on joint papers, but my student is always second author and I am always next-to-last, never last (i.e. lead senior) author. If my student is first author, you can bet your ass it's just us theory folks on the paper.
4) With some of my collaborators, my group is only contacted when the experimental data is ho-hum. When the experimental data is fantastic, the experimentalists go and publish alone (as one collaborator said "If we get [effect], we don't need you." Being untenured at the time, I couldn't spit into his face.) When the data is ho-hum, theory collaborators are asked to help make sense of the data so the complete paper becomes much more alluring (read: published in higher IF journal).
5) There are fewer employment oportunities in academia as well as industry for theorists. That's why I always say, to any students interested in working with me, "If you can envision at all being happy in an experimental lab, you should by all means do experiment." One professor says that you only need 1 theorist for every 10 experimentalists in academia... Hm.
When I had this brief chat with my collaborators, one of them said that we theorists have it better because "You don't have to sit around waiting for a broken piece of equipment to get fixed."
As though all theory/computation is effortless and there are no roadblocks. I can assure you that sitting for months over a piece of code that you know should work but gives you results that are ever so slightly off is completely mind-boggling. Every branch of science has plenty of frustrating moments.
When I was an undergrad, I was pretty good in the lab, but none of it ever truly appealed to me. Nowhere near to how evaluating contour integrals made my heart flutter (very few men had the same effect on me). How irreducible representations of Lie groups made me positively giddy. And how now that I'm all grown up I get to actually do the best thing of all: come up with mathematical models to describe experimental situations and then solve those models numerically by any and all means necessary. How good models can predict results of measurements to come many years down the road. That's some kick-ass high for a theorist.
Bottom line: I loooooove theory. That's all I ever wanted to do and I get to do it. But, I think experimentalists overall have a better deal. More recognition, more employability. They do have to bring in more money, but they also have an easier time getting money as no one judges their sanity as they do that of "crazy theorists". Sure, equipment breaks, but codes have bugs too. I think at the end of the day most of the big shots in my field are experimentalists, so recognition is strongly on the experiment side. And within collaborations, I think the work of theorists is often undervalued (or maybe it's just within my collaborations).
But, of course, it can be the grass is always greener on the other side.
However, when my experimental collaborator says theorists have it better he says it because he thinks our equipment doesn't break so we supposedly somehow have it easier. When I say experiment is better, I don't say it's becasue they have it easy. It's hard, but you get the recognition. It is ultimately about how well your hard work correlates with the accolades from the scientific community. I think experimentalists win this one, no contest.
Anyhoo, that's my bit of experience. I have made my peace with occasional slights from collaborators, as I feel most of them do respect me, at least to a point to which people doing something as trivial as theory can be respected. ;) I am not even going to go into the whole female thing. (Too many variables make for an ill-posed model!) Let's just say that I am taller than many of my collaborators and am fairly direct, so I don't exactly project as a demsel in distress. While I am sure some of my experiences have to do with gender, I am fairly certain a lot also have to do with the theory/experiment divide as I have witnessed it play out similarly for male theorists.
I am a good theorist, if I do say so myself; I can tell you for sure that without my work some of the experiments would ultimately not have been interpreted as the nice effects that they were and all of us in the collaboration would not have ended up with certain high-impact papers. So I know the worth of what I do, and I certainly know the enjoyment that it brings me. I just wish my group and I got a bit more respect for it from the experimental colleagues. But there is only so much you can do about it, I guess, and I don't lose sleep over it (any more).
So dear readers, who do you think has an overall sweeter deal in today's supercompetitive science (and why): theorists or experimentalists? Comment and/or take the little poll below.