This weekend I was chatting with one of my neighbors about where her son might go to college after he graduates from high school next year. One of her priorities for her son's college education is that he not have to take out immense student loans. She remarked that I must have had a lot of student loans from all my years in grad school. I explained that I didn't take out any loans for grad school because I had an assistantship that paid tuition and a salary, and that this was common in many of the sciences. (I spent a lot of time in grad school filling out paperwork so that my undergrad loans were deferred until I finished my Ph.D., but fortunately I didn't have any new loans.)
She thought this being-paid-to-go-to-school thing was a bit of a 'scam'. I've heard that sentiment before, including from some of my relatives who didn't understand why I didn't have to pay for grad school when their children or other people they knew had to pay for other types of graduate programs. I suppose part of the disconnect relates to the fact that it's not obvious to the average non-scientific citizen that the physical sciences are important. We scientists could do a better PR job with this. I don't know if there's any way to avoid at least some of the "I hated (insert math, chemistry, and/or physics) in school" response, but it would be nice if there were less of this and more understanding of why what we do is important, or at least important enough for universities to pay graduate students in these fields.
I haven't even been able to convince some of my own relatives, though, so I don't have any illusions about it's being easy to change the general view of (non-medical) scientists. I've even had relatives say to me "It's too bad your parents had to pay so much money to put you through graduate school", but then when I tell them that my parents paid no money to put me through graduate school, they say "You mean taxpayers paid for that?", as if it's somehow a waste of money, even if they aren't sure whose money is being wasted.
My neighbor's father seems to be in the same situation with respect to his relatives, or at least with respect to his daughter: he is a science professor at the same university where I work.
5 hours ago