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Don’t become a scientist! Philip Greenspun edition

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I recently came across this essay by Philip Greenspun, which examines, in brutal detail, the negative aspects of a career in science. It goes way beyond my previous writings on the subject ๐Ÿ™‚ Greenspun’s essay was occasioned by the Larry Summers affair, and his main point regarding women in science is that science is such a crummy career choice that only testosterone-poisoned (overly competitive and status-driven) men would be stupid enough to pursue it. I’m not sure I agree completely with that perspective, but I like his essay quite a bit.

Some other themes he touches on: (a) sample bias; people are typically only familiar with the lives and careers of exceptionally successful scientists: In short, some young people think that science is a good career for the same reason that they think being a musician or actor is a good career: “I can’t decide if I want to be a scientist like James Watson, a musician like Britney Spears, or an actor like Harrison Ford.”, and (b) foreign immigration as a source of scientific talent: Science may be one of the lowest paid fields for high IQ people in the U.S., but it pays a lot better than most jobs in China or India.

Incidentally, I met Philip many years ago through a common friend who is a scientist at Harvard, at one of the many parties she hosted. (When I first wrote this post I thought she and Philip had been housemates, but she says that recollection is incorrect. I think I do remember his dog Alex, though.) At one of these parties I met Steve Pinker in the kitchen. After a long conversation about his research I remember thinking: gee, isn’t that all kind of obvious? Don’t you wish you understood Yang-Mills theory? I was still a kid, just like Albert Q. Mathnerd described below ๐Ÿ™‚

You might like to dismiss Greenspun’s perspective on this subject, but keep in mind that the guy earned a math SB (at 18) and PhD in EECS at MIT and founded several software startups. So he’s not entirely clueless about how the academic and real worlds work.

Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States.

This article explores this fourth possible explanation for the dearth of women in science: They found better jobs.

Why does anyone think science is a good job?

The average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following:

age 18-22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college

age 22-30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month

age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year

age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year

age 44: with young children at home (if lucky), fired by the university (“denied tenure” is the more polite term for the folks that universities discard), begins searching for a job in a market where employers primarily wish to hire folks in their early 30s

This is how things are likely to go for the smartest kid you sat next to in college. He got into Stanford for graduate school. He got a postdoc at MIT. His experiment worked out and he was therefore fortunate to land a job at University of California, Irvine. But at the end of the day, his research wasn’t quite interesting or topical enough that the university wanted to commit to paying him a salary for the rest of his life. He is now 44 years old, with a family to feed, and looking for job with a “second rate has-been” label on his forehead.

…Consider someone taking the kind of high IQ and drive that would be required to obtain a tenure-track position at U.C. Berkeley and going into medicine. This person would very likely be a top specialist of some sort, earning at least $300,000 per year. Instead of being fired at age 44, our medical specialist would be near the height of her value to her patients and employer. Her experience and reputation would continue to add to her salary and prestige until she was perhaps 60 years old. [A woman who wanted to spend more time with her children can choose from a variety of medical careers, such as emergency medicine, that involve shift work and where a high salary can be earned with just two or three shifts per week. She could also work from home as a radiologist reading data transmitted via Internet.]

Consider taking the same high IQ and work ethic, going into business, and being put on the fast track at a company such as General Electric. Rather than being fired at age 44, this is about the time that she will be handed ever-larger divisions to operate, with ever-larger bonuses and stock options.

A top lawyer at age 44 is probably a $500,000 per year partner in a big firm, a judge, or a professor at a law school supplementing her $200,000 per year salary with some private work. …

What about the excitement and fun of science?

Is life all about money and job security? What about excitement and fun? Isn’t that a good reason to choose a job? Sure! I love every minute of my $8 per hour job as a helicopter instructor, but on the other hand I don’t say that it is a great career and I can’t understand why there aren’t more women helicopter instructors.

Some scientists are like kids who never grow up. They love what they do, are excited by the possibilities of their research, and wear a big smile most days. Although these people are, by Boston standards, ridiculously poor and they will never be able to afford a house (within a one-hour drive of their job) or support a family, I don’t feel sorry for them.

Unfortunately, this kind of child-like joy is not typical. The tenured Nobel Prize winners are pretty happy, but they are a small proportion of the total. The average scientist that I encounter expresses bitterness about (a) low pay, (b) not getting enough credit or references to his or her work, (c) not knowing where the next job is coming from, (d) not having enough money or job security to get married and/or have children. If these folks were experiencing day-to-day joy at their bench, I wouldn’t expect them to hold onto so much bitterness and envy.

…The most serious concern is that the field that a youngster found fascinating at age 20 will no longer be fascinating after 20 or 25 years. If you have a narrow education and have been earning an academic salary, it is much tougher to change careers at age 45 or 50 than for someone who was in a job where the earnings are higher and begin at a younger age. A doctor who practices for 10 years can easily save enough to finance a switch to almost any other occupation. A successful lawyer can walk away after 15 or 20 years, commute to school from his oceanfront and town houses, and become a furniture maker (my friend’s dad did this).

Why do American men (boys, actually) do it?

Pursuing science as a career seems so irrational that one wonders why any young American would do it. Yet we do find some young Americans starting out in the sciences and they are mostly men. When the Larry Summers story first broke, I wrote in my Weblog:

A lot more men than women choose to do seemingly irrational things such as become petty criminals, fly homebuilt helicopters, play video games, and keep tropical fish as pets (98 percent of the attendees at the American Cichlid Association convention that I last attended were male). Should we be surprised that it is mostly men who spend 10 years banging their heads against an equation-filled blackboard in hopes of landing a $35,000/year post-doc job?

Having been both a student and teacher at MIT, my personal explanation for men going into science is the following:

young men strive to achieve high status among their peer group

men tend to lack perspective and are unable to step back and ask the question “is this peer group worth impressing?”

Consider Albert Q. Mathnerd, a math undergrad at MIT (“Course 18” we call it). He works hard and beats his chest to demonstrate that he is the best math nerd at MIT. This is important to Albert because most of his friends are math majors and the rest of his friends are in wimpier departments, impressed that Albert has even taken on such demanding classes. Albert never reflects on the fact that the guy who was the best math undergrad at MIT 20 years ago is now an entry-level public school teacher in Nebraska, having failed to get tenure at a 2nd tier university. When Albert goes to graduate school to get his PhD, his choice will have the same logical foundation as John Hinckley’s attempt to impress Jodie Foster by shooting Ronald Reagan. …

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Written by infoproc

May 4, 2008 at 4:35 pm

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