Women in Science

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

On the topic of Women in Science, Phil Greenspun notes that “Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States.” Perhaps there are few women in academic science because they found better jobs:

The average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following:
  1. age 18-22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college
  2. age 22-30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month
  3. age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year
  4. age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year
  5. 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.

Don’t be fooled by sample bias, he notes, if you’re a young student at MIT, surrounded by Nobel-winning science professors.

For whom does academic science as a career make sense?

The picture so far is pretty bleak. The American academic 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. Roger W. Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, in a March 2, 2006 discussion run by the Chronicle of Higher Education summarized the situation of the tenure lottery winners:
“The average full professor, someone who has been teaching for, say, fifteen years or longer, is making five times less than the average president at most institutions; works 60 – 70 hour weeks, uses holidays to do research, and tries desperately to find time to be a good spouse, father, mother, or partner. The life of the mind may seem cushy, but it is not.”

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.

Read the whole thing.

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