2 March 2006

Why does anyone think science is a good job?

Such media annointed luminaries like Thomas Friedman have received a great deal of attention for their cries that America needs more education, more math, more science. There's never any discussion on the economic factors that push Americans away from science. Though this article on Women in Science, spurred by recent news of Harvard president Larry Summers resignation, captures precisely the predicament of the state of engineers and scientists in America.
He claimed to be giving a comprehensive list of reasons why there weren't more women reaching the top jobs in the sciences. Yet Summers, an economist, left one out: Adjusted for IQ and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States.

University salaries are not that much lower than they were in the 1970s, but all the other smart people in the U.S. have gotten so rich that faculty and postdoc salaries seem lower. Any resource that is scarce, such as real estate, is snapped up by society's economic winners. A science researcher at Harvard now earns an annual salary that is only 1/50th the price of a family-sized house in Cambridge, a fact that may not be lost on an intelligent female Harvard undergraduate choosing a career.

Science can be fun, but considered as a career, science suffers by comparison to the professions and the business world.

And for whom does a science career make sense for?

The picture so far is pretty bleak. The American scientist earns less than an airplane mechanic, has less job security than a drummer in a boy band, and works longer hours than a Bolivian silver miner. Does this make sense as a career for anyone? Absolutely! Just get out your atlas.

Imagine that you are a smart, but impoverished, young person in China. Your high IQ and hard work got you into one of the best undergraduate programs in China. The $1800 per month graduate stipend at University of Nebraska or University of Wisconsin will afford you a much higher standard of living than any job you could hope for in China. The desperate need for graduate student labor and lack of Americans who are interested in PhD programs in science and engineering means that you'll have no trouble getting a visa. When you finish your degree, a small amount of paperwork will suffice to ensure your continued place in the legal American work force. 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.

Personally, I can also relate to these points. But I continue to work in computer science because it's what I love to do. I've recently accepted a position that pays less than half of what I was making, and a fraction of what I could earn if I was willing to travel around the country for gigs. But I like being home with family, getting involved in my community, and serving in an organization focused on saving souls rather than raking in fat profits. Nothing wrong with the profit motive, mind you, just that the state of affairs for careers in my chosen field is a complete mess. Outsourcing, offshoring, merger consolidations and continued erosion of knowledgeable leadership have turned what was once a joy for me into a thorny pursuit.


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