2017 OES Wages for the United States

Here is another post in my useful data series. This one is about wages in the United States, as collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is the data from 2017, which I am using because I have the percentile ranges translated into dollar amounts.

This is interesting because of discussions around what the minimum wage should be. Many states and cities within the United States have higher minimum wages than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. There is a movement to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, which would mean a pretty large shift in the wage distribution shown here.

So far, the data on minimum wage increases hasn’t shown big disruptions economically. I’m not sure that would hold if we lopped off the whole left side of this wage distribution everywhere at the same time, but I do see the argument that the minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with other economic indicators.

LinkFest 2016-04-01

April Fool's Edition

The CDC is trying to make 86 million Americans sick

I've long thought the pre-diabetes thing was a bit foolish. While it is a good thing to be able to quantitate, if you don't understand what you are doing it can make you far too certain. Pre-diabetes is a lot like a risk-factor; something that is correlated with diabetes, but is in totality a poor predictor.

It's all Geek to Me

Neal Stephenson's review of the movie 300 is now nine years old, but I still enjoyed reading it. I liked 300 when it came out, and mostly for the same reasons Stephenson did.

My journey through Molenbeek

A nice synopsis of the way in which not particularly devout partially assimilated children of immigrants get radicalized.

These unlucky people have names that break computers

Parsing text is hazardous.

A researcher explains the sad truth: we do know how to stop gun violence. But we don't do it.

Unfortunately for this well-meaning researcher, his suggestions involve pattern recognition, which is currently disfavored.

Peak Water: United States water use drops to lowest level in 40 years

The story is similar for gasoline. Technological progress means we do more with less.

HVAC Techs — Hackers who make house calls

The kind of unglamorous but well-paid job Mike Rowe likes to talk about.

America may DUMP algebra as new study finds it is the main cause of high school drop-outs - and only 5% of jobs need it

This is a fantastic idea. We have raised the bar to graduate high school so far that we are penalizing people of normal intellectual ability.

Immigration and the Political Explosion of 2016

This is a recurring pattern in United States history.

Philosophical Reflections on Genetic Interest

Frank Salter's concept of genetic interest is a philosophical concept that is muddled up with a scientific one. Unfortunately, his philosophy isn't too sharp.

How much of the placebo 'effect' is really statistical regression?

Courtesy of the ever contrary Greg Cochran, a reason to doubt the placebo effect. Here is a recent blog post expanding on this idea, with further reading suggestions.

LinkFest 2016-03-26

Holy Saturday Edition


Ruby Slippers

Gabriel Rossman makes a persuasive case that social construction is real, but the concept is mostly used by people who don't understand it, and have no sense of proportion.

How Does America "Reshore" Skills that have Disappeared?

The first couple of paragraphs of this article accurately describe what it is like to deal with offshore manufacturing in China, in my experience. The article is mostly about training workers to fill new "reshored" jobs, but the beginning of the article is my favorite.

The Author of the Martian Wrote Ready Player One Fan-Fiction, and now it's Canon

Yeah, this happened.

RIP Andy Grove

In 2010 I linked to an op-ed by Andy Grove on American manufacturing. I still think it is relevant. Requiescat in pace Andy.

Book Review: The Art of the Deal

Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex offers up an absolutely brilliant analysis of Donald Trump's book. Go read it, right now. As something of an odd duck, Alexander sees a certain similarity in Trump also being something an odd duck. 

Trumpism after Trump

Ross Douthat sees dark years ahead for the Republican party after Trump. I'm still curious to see what happens when Bernie loses the nomination to Hillary Clinton. Some Bernie supporters seem to hate HRC only a little less than Trump. In October, I pondered whether Trump and Bernie would both end up doing third-party runs, which would put us in the same kind of four-way race that elected Woodrow Wilson. Now that I think about it, that could actually be the worst possible outcome.

Easter, Early Christians and Cliodynamics

Peter Turchin points to data for the Christianization of the Roman world that fits a logistic model.

The STEM Crisis is a Myth

Robert Charette at IEEE Spectrum has a really good piece on the unreality of a shortage of workers with an education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology [STEM].

Charette looks at all the different ways in which STEM jobs and STEM workers are counted. Different agencies count in different ways. He also looks this phenomenon over time in the US, and currently in other countries. India is apparently concerned they don't have enough STEM graduates, which strikes me as funny since US government policy is to suck as many STEM workers from India as possible.

I particularly liked this graph:

STEM Shortage

Joel Kotkin on Zuckerberg et al.

Joel Kotkin at his website NewGeography finds Mark Zuckerberg's immigration enthusiam as self-interested as I do:

Shady 1%This bit is especially good:

Outsource Manufacturing, Import Engineers

Perversely, the small number of jobs—mostly clustered in Silicon Valley—created by tech companies has helped its moguls avoid public scrutiny. Google employs 50,000, Facebook 4,600, and Twitter less than 1,000 domestic workers. In contrast, GM employs 200,000, Ford 164,000, and Exxon over 100,000. Put another way, Google, with a market cap of $215 billion, is about five times larger than GM yet has just one fourth as many workers.

This is an equation that defines inequality: more and more wealth concentrated in fewer hands and benefiting fewer workers.

While Facebook and Twitter have little role in the material economy, Apple, which continues to collect the bulk of its profit from physical goods—computers, iPads, iPhones and so on—has outsourced nearly all of its manufacturing to foreign companies like Foxconn that employ workers, often in appalling conditions, in China and elsewhere. About 700,000 people work on Apple’s physical products for subcontractors, according to the New York Times, but almost none of them are in the U.S. “The jobs aren’t coming back,” Jobs bluntly told President Obama at a 2011 dinner in Silicon Valley.

It is really interesting to think about all those extra manufacturing jobs in the US. US workers are more efficient than Chinese workers, so it would take fewer people to do the same work, probably 250,000 or less, but that is a big chunk of the labor market. There are lots of reasons why companies off-shored manufacturing, but it really does seem like the benefits of this practice have accrued to a very few, while the costs have been shared broadly.

The argument has been made that the net prosperity gain of the Chinese and other emerging economies outweighs the net loss to American workers, but I do notice this argument is never made by unemployed ironworkers from the Rust Belt. Besides, I thought modern economics isn't zero-sum.

Immigration and High-Skill Employment in the US

I had been wanting to look into this subject, and lo, I find that someone else has already done it.

Guestworkers in the High-Skill U.S. Labor Market.

I've long been dubious that we don't have enough native-born STEM graduates in the US. My reasoning is based on my own experience rather than exhaustive data, but I think the things I have noticed are nonetheless potent arguments. First, wages in technical fields are good, but not that good. If we truly had a shortage, in the economic sense, of programmers or engineers or what have you, wages should respond appropriately. If there were a shortage of programmers, I would expect to see companies fighting to pay 18 year old high school graduates $50,000 a year. A real worker shortage looks like thisInstead, you can make that kind of wage, but you need at least a bachelor's degree, if not a master's. Programming is still a field where a true talent can rise to the top regardless of credentials, but in any discussion of larger job trends, such folks are an exception.

Mark Zuckerberg has been in the news lately pushing for more H-1B visas for high-skilled tech workers, but many tech moguls have been pushing for expansion of the H-1B program for many years, along with other different, but related programs. Zuckerberg et al. have been claiming that there aren't enough quality workers available in the US, but I find this less plausible than they simply want to keep their labor costs down by importing cheaper workers.

I can think of one explanation that would support the claim there are not enough skilled STEM workers available in the US. Plausibly, one could claim the existing industry has already skimmed the high-IQ high-motivation graduates, and the remaining workers aren't good enough to do the needed work. However, I don't think the available data supports this either. Let's look and see. Here is what the EPI report notes:

Consider that U.S. students make up one-third of the entire global population of high-performers on tests of science knowledge.


For STEM graduates, the supply exceeds the number hired each year by nearly two to one, depending on the field of study. Even in engineering, U.S. colleges have historically produced about 50 percent more graduates than are hired into engineering jobs each year.

ln the computer and information sciences field, which is where nearly half of high-skill guest workers are employed, we see that about two-thirds of college graduates find jobs in their field 1 year after graduation, and of those who don't find a job, nearly half cite low pay and poor working conditions as the reason. For some of these, I would find it plausible that they weren't actually qualfied for the job. There is a skill distribution amongst college graduates, and not everyone is qualfied to do every job in this field. However, it does seem that the higher number of guest-workers in IT compared to engineering may be associated with a higher number of US college graduates being unable to find IT work because the pay is too low.

College grads working in fieldReasons for not finding work in field

This matches the rate of growth we see in guestworkers compared to US citizens and permanent residents graduating with degrees in computer and information sciences.

Guestworker growth

The authors of the study go on to look at the responsiveness of the domestic supply of graduates to wages over time, looking at both IT and petroleum engineering. In both cases, they find that increasing wages lead to increasing numbers of graduates in the field, while decreasing wages lead to a decrease in domestic graduates, with a suitable time lag. So in a sense, Zuckerberg is correct that the domestic supply of graduates in the computer and information sciences field is decreasing. However, the problem is he's not paying well enough, and importing workers only makes the problem worse. Unless, the domestic supply isn't what Zuckerberg is after, in which case he's getting exactly what he wants. Last time I checked, Mark Zuckerberg is really, really smart. Which is more likely?

Two Good Articles

Two good articles came out in the last week. Ross Douthat exposes the anti-egalitarian heart of our top universities in the New York Times, and Dalliard defends g at Human Varieties.

Nothing Douthat said came as a surprise to me, but I have been following this train of thought for over ten years. However, I think Douthat's article is well done and worth a read.

SUSAN PATTON, the Princeton alumna who became famous for her letter urging Ivy League women to use their college years to find a mate, has been denounced as a traitor to feminism, to coeducation, to the university ideal. But really she’s something much more interesting: a traitor to her class.

Her betrayal consists of being gauche enough to acknowledge publicly a truth that everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively — that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class.

A couple of weeks ago, Steve Sailer wrote on this same subject, using the Hoxby-Avery study as evidence that elite colleges don't bother to cast a very wide net when they recruit students. I wrote an email to Steve about my own choice to go to Northern Arizona University, instead of something more prestigious, which would be almost anywhere. In retrospect, I think my life turned out as well or better with a college education from little-known NAU as it would have with a name-brand university on my diploma. But things are different in the technical world, where you are judged more [not solely!] on talent than education. STEM is healthier than the rest of higher education in this way, although there are still some of the same mechanisms at work. In the physics world, a lot of talented physicists have left academia for quantitative finance in Wall Street, with correspondingly exorbitant salaries. This has slowed down some with the economic downturn, but quant recruitment depends heavily on degrees and connections.

Different but related, is Dalliard's defense of Spearman's g against Shalizi's attack.

As an online discussion about IQ or general intelligence grows longer, the probability of someone linking to statistician Cosma Shalizi’s essay g, a Statistical Myth approaches 1. Usually the link is accompanied by an assertion to the effect that Shalizi offers a definitive refutation of the concept of general mental ability, or psychometric g.

In this post, I will show that Shalizi’s case against g appears strong only because he misstates several key facts and because he omits all the best evidence that the other side has offered in support of g. His case hinges on three clearly erroneous arguments on which I will concentrate.

Shalizi's essay is a more numerate version of Gould's The Mismeasure of Man. Gould was completely off base too, but his book was far more widely read than the many rebuttals it received from psychometricians.


Don't Call Yourself a Programmer

I'm a frequent visitor to the PhysicsForums career section, I try to give the advice I wish I had received when I was younger. I saw a really interesting post this week, Don't Call Yourself a Programmer.

There is a lot of good stuff here. I think the single biggest eye-opener in the whole article is the focus on money. As an engineer/programmer/technical-whatever in the business world, you exist to make the company money. This seems to be a surprisingly difficult concept, given how often it comes up in the career section of the forum.

I like using concepts in new contexts, and I think this one is really useful for understanding the difference between being a scientist and an engineer in America. I've pondered this subject a lot, because when I was little I was absolutely sure I wanted to be a scientist, and I went to college to be a scientist, and I ended up as an engineer.

In a certain sense, the tasks of an engineer and a scientist are very similar. You conduct experiments, write technical papers or reports, go to meetings, and so forth. However, very few people see these activities as the same.

The biggest difference is in the end. An engineer is almost always trying to make a product, something you can sell in the market. A scientist is trying to advance our knowledge about a subject. Science is typically seen as more pure than engineering, which is kind of dirty, since it is about money.

Due to this difference in final causes, most young people perceive scientist to be a higher prestige profession than engineer. Being a Thomist, this implicitly Aristotelian perspective amuses me.

Where the disconnect occurs is in the actual work of a typical scientist and a typical engineer. While in theory young scientists are bravely advancing the frontiers of knowledge, in practice they are grinding away at their PI's latest project, sequencing yet another strain of E. Coli. Everything you need to do is new, in a certain sense of never having been done before, but not really groundbreaking.

Rutherford's famous quip about all of science either being physics or stamp-collecting seems to be more and more true. And I'm not so sure about physics anymore.

Unlike the scientist, the engineer is focused on making a thing that has never existed before. Sometimes this does not involve new understanding, but in my own experience I have seen plenty of new discoveries come out of engineering work that would have been worthy of a dissertation in academia. The real difference is in the end that is pursued, in a sense the discoveries are accidental or secondary to the process, whereas in the scientist's case these discoveries are the whole point of the exercise.

Having seen both sides of the coin, I have come to doubt that pursuing pure science is more effective than trying to make stuff, and having the discoveries come by accident. If I were to win the lottery, I would love to investigate the biographies of famous scientists over the past 500 years [scientist wasn't even a word in English until 1834], because I have a theory that many people we now call scientists spent a great deal of time doing what we now call engineering, and their science was the better for it.

To bring this back to the beginning, in the engineering world you can stick your head in the sand and pretend it isn't about money, but if you can understand a business perspective you will be much more successful. It isn't hard for this to become perverse, but engineering is about efficiency and performing miracles with constrained resources. For a scientist, the money issue is hidden, but still present. You really can pretend that this is all about knowledge and discovery and whatnot, because the PI and the lab manager make all that happen.

More on Twentieth Century Science

From Daniel Lemire, a reflection on the prestige accorded to certain professions. I copied out a section from Daniel's post, and highlighted something relevant to my cocktail party theory of twentieth century science.

I think that Matt’s decision might be hard to understand—at least, his departement chair feels the need to explain it to us—because he is putting into question the very core values of our society. These core values were explored by Veblen in his unconventional book The Theory of the Leisure Class. He argued that we are not driven by utility, but rather by social status. In fact, our society pushes us to seek high prestige jobs, rather than useful and productive jobs. In effect, a job doing research in Computer Science is more prestigious than an industry job building real systems, on the mere account that it is less immediately useful. Here are some other examples:

  • The electrician who comes and wires your house has a less prestigious job than the electrical engineer who manages vague projects within a large organization.
  • The programmer who outputs useful software has a less prestigious job than the software engineer who runs software projects producing software that nobody will ever use.
  • The scientist who tinkers in his laboratory has a less prestigious job than the scientist who spends most of his time applying for research grants.

It is abundantly clear that conptemporary science values less useful activities in and of themselves. What I want to know is: did this change? Were the scientists of the past forced to work on utilitarian pursuits because of necessity, or have scientists simply started to value different things?

g-loading for pilots and astronauts

With the passing of Neil Armstrong, Charles Murray gives us this anecdote about Gemini 8:

Jerry began to reminisce about Gemini 8, Neil Armstrong’s previous space flight. Armstrong and his copilot, David Scott, had rendezvoused and docked with an Agena rocket as part of the rehearsal for techniques that would have to be used on the lunar mission. The combined vehicles had started to roll, so they undocked. But once it was on its own, the Gemini spacecraft started to roll even faster. Unbeknownst to the crew, one of the Gemini’s thrusters had locked on. The roll increased to one revolution per second.

I had known all this, but hadn’t thought much about it. And if you watch NASA’s version on You Tube, it is all made to sound as if the roll was a brief problem, never rising to the level of a crisis.

Actually, it was a moment that would have reduced me, and some extremely large proportion of the human race, to gibbering helplessness, no matter how well we were trained.

Imagine an amusement park ride that sits you in a pod, and that pod is twirled sideways at one revolution per second (you’ve never actually been on an amusement park ride remotely approaching that level of disorientation, because it would be prohibited). You have a panel in front of you with dozens of dials and small toggle switches, and you are supposed to toggle those switches in a prescribed sequence. While spinning one revolution per second. Pretty hard, trying to focus your eyes on those dials and coordinate your finger movement under those g forces so that you can even touch a switch that you’re aiming for. Now imagine that the sequence is not prescribed, but instead that there are many permutations, and you’re supposed to decide which permutation to do next based on what happened with the last one. Heavy cognitive demand there—long-term memory from training, short-term memory, induction, deduction. While spinning at one revolution per second. And now, to top it all off, if you don’t do it right, REALLY fast, you’re going to lose consciousness and die.

Jerry Bostick mused, “So there’s Neil, calmly toggling these little banana switches, moving through the alternatives, until he figures it out.” He shook his head in wonderment. “I’m not sure that any of our other pilots, and we had some great ones, could have analyzed the situation and solved it as quickly as he did.” I could forget about trying to make anything of Neil not being the first choice for the lunar landing.

As Tom Wolfe documented so memorably in The Right Stuff, many of the early astronauts were test pilots, men of exceptional skill and bravery. Now, astronauts are likely to be geezers with PhDs. Astronauts are likely to be very smart and hard-working, but we are probably no longer selecting for the skills Neil Armstrong exhibited.

Being smart is important to be a hell of a pilot, and if you run a statistical model on the data, as the Air Force has done, you will probably find general intelligence highly correlated with skill as a pilot. However, the Air Force decided to ignore the model, and continues to test for pilot-specific skills. Gemini 8 gives you a good idea why.

Science Jobs

The Washington Post has an article on the disparity between our public policy goal of churning out lots of new science PhDs, and the not very well kept secret that many PhDs are unable to find work in their fields.

There are some really good points here. The life sciences have the worst PhD glut by far, but chemistry seems hard hit too. Much of this has to do with other public policy decisions. For example, the cuts to the pharmaceutical industry are probably related to the ongoing drive to cut the cost of drugs and reduce the massive profits that have accrued to brand name drugs. It is understandable why we want to do this, but it means that lots of cushy research jobs will have to be cut.

Traditional academic jobs are scarcer than ever. Once a primary career path, only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years, according to a 2009 NSF survey


The pharmaceutical industry once was a haven for biologists and chemists who did not go into academia. Well-paying, stable research jobs were plentiful in the Northeast, the San Francisco Bay area and other hubs. But a decade of slash-and-burn mergers; stagnating profit; exporting of jobs to India, China and Europe; and declining investment in research and development have dramatically shrunk the U.S. drug industry, with research positions taking heavy hits.


Two groups seem to be doing better than other scientists: physicists and physicians. The unemployment rate among those two groups hovers around 1 to 2 percent, according to surveys from NSF and other groups. Physicists end up working in many technical fields — and some go to Wall Street — while the demand for doctors continues to climb as the U.S. population grows and ages.

 It is normal for PhD physicists to work outside of academia [paging Steve Hsu], especially in the finance industry these days, but you would have a hard time knowing that. I suspect this needs to be true for other fields of science as well, but the skills don't seem to translate as well.

The New American Divide

Charles Murray is taking a tour of the opinion pages, stumping for his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. I've been looking forward to this book for some time now. Murray is arguing that Americans of all classes used to share a common civic culture, but this has greatly changed over the past fifty years. There is a new prole class, with distinctive tastes and life patterns, and a winner class [my terms not Murray's] that earns double or triple what the working class would and shares the tastes of SWPLs. As always, Murray uses databases like the General Social Survey to make his case, often turning up surprising results. For example, the GSS demonstrates that the new upper class is actually far more religious than the new lower class. I'll be sure to pick up a copy of this book when it comes out.

When Americans used to brag about "the American way of life"—a phrase still in common use in 1960—they were talking about a civic culture that swept an extremely large proportion of Americans of all classes into its embrace. It was a culture encompassing shared experiences of daily life and shared assumptions about central American values involving marriage, honesty, hard work and religiosity.

Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America's core cultural institutions.


As I've argued in much of my previous work, I think that the reforms of the 1960s jump-started the deterioration. Changes in social policy during the 1960s made it economically more feasible to have a child without having a husband if you were a woman or to get along without a job if you were a man; safer to commit crimes without suffering consequences; and easier to let the government deal with problems in your community that you and your neighbors formerly had to take care of.


The big business news of the moment, other than cheap oil and gas from fracking, is the continuing growth in US manufacturing. What this hasn't meant is a ton of new jobs. The reason for this is pretty simple, US workers are about three times more efficient than Chinese workers doing the same job. That means you need a third of the staff to get the same output.

The other thing this means is you need to be more efficient to get these jobs. Assembly lines no longer represent rote tasks you can train anyone to do. You have to be capable of learning to operate a complex machine, and meet all the complicated social rules of the modern workplace too. This leaves a lot of people at the bottom of the ability distribution without a means of making a decent living.

The massive productivity of American workers means that we can actually afford to have a significant fraction of the population not doing useful work, but this is ultimately dehumanizing to those stuck at the bottom. I have no idea what to do about this, but it is only going to get worse as the economy improves.

h/t Steve Hsu


John D Cook linked to an article on "grit" by Venkatesh Rao. This article really got me thinking. Ever since I discovered the utility of psychometrics for personality, I have spent a great deal of time pondering the relationship between the gifts we are given, and what we do for ourselves.

Venkat's primary point in his post is our modern economy doesn't align well with the academic disciplines the elite are educated in. He says people call him a generalist because he has a PhD in Aerospace Engineering and he ended up in marketing. However, from his perspective, there was a straight line between those two points. Thus his physics metaphor of external and internal coordinate systems.

The trouble is, we still tend to think in that external coordinate system, and may spend years trying to make that aerospace education turn into an aerospace job when our true skills and interests may lie elsewhere. Katz's now infamous article, Don't Become a Scientist, addressed precisely this mismatch between the disciplinary expectations produced in grad school, and the actual behavior of the job market.

Venkat then turns to what he calls grit, and I would call conscientiousness. He correctly notes this is probably the best predictor of success, over IQ, over family connections, over just about anything. People who bust ass almost always do well.

One point where I would disagree with Venkat is this:

Grit is the enduring intrinsic quality that, for a brief period in recent history, was coincident with the pattern of behavior known as progressive disciplinary specialization.

I don't think this should be in the past tense. Progressive disciplinary specialization is becoming more and more associated with C and less and less with g. What we may be getting is less and less value for our money and effort, because disciplinary specialization [in science at least] often means working under your 50- or 60-something PI in relative anonymity as cheap, but skilled labor.

This is a really good working definition of conscientiousness:

Grit has external connotations of extreme toughness, a high apparent threshold for pain, and an ability to keep picking yourself up after getting knocked down. From the outside, grit looks like the bloody-minded exercise of extreme will power. It looks like a super-power.

Venkat goes on to discuss how what can look like brutal hard work can actually be easy, depending on your skills and interests. Quite true. I think the big takeaway here is that building on your strengths can be more effective than trying to remedy your weaknesses. This is a subject of intense personal interest to me, because once I discovered that I have low conscientiousness, many of my frustrations became comprehensible.

Conscientiousness is a finite resource. As a Thomist, this doesn't surprise me. The part of our mind that touches infinity is our intellect, the rational, reasoning, undying part of us. The rest of us is mediated through a thoroughly material, fallible, limited body. Willpower, like strength, can be depleted because it is material.

Once I knew this, I could understand why my reach continually exceeded my grasp. I like Renkat's point about flow and the results that can come from just keeping doggedly at something. But for me, doggedly keeping at something is very, very difficult. I just don't have a lot of capacity [potentia] for self-discipline. The revelation for me was realizing this is a stable personality trait. There are things I can do, for sure, but it is a limitation I will probably struggle against for my entire life. Since my conscientiousness is so low, I actually do need to exert continual will just to keep showing up.

Engineers sometimes talk about "finding the cliff". This means looking for the failure point so you know where your assumptions are still valid, and where they are not. I found the cliff in my own conscientiousness in college. I was a junior in a physics program, and I knew that I had the mental horsepower to do as well as anyone in the program. I seriously expected to be at or near the top in all my courses. My assumption of mental horsepower is probably accurate. What I was missing was an accurate assessment of my capacity for hard work. This was the point in college where I had to stop goofing off and seriously apply myself if I wanted top honors. I tried to do that. I pushed myself beyond my limits. [who can't give 110%?]

The price I paid was I became sicker than I have ever been in my life. It was years before I really recovered. I fear that I treated my friends poorly during this time. I'm surprised they still talk to me. I was miserable. The worst part of it all was that in order to save myself, I had to give up. I'm being hard on myself. I did just fine in college, but I had to seriously adjust my expectations [the soft bigotry of low expectations] about what I was capable of. This runs against the grain of everything my education had instilled in me, so I thought I was a failure.

Thus it was an incredible relief when I discovered that I had indeed fought the good fight, and finished the race. First place just wasn't for me. I did well with what I had been given.

Thus, while I like the insight with which Renkat advises us to take the path of least resistance, I cannot take him literally, for me the path of least resistance involves a couch, videogames, and that computer guy shape. I have a family to provide for, so I have to keep grinding it out. There are some weaknesses that can simply be avoided, using the mountain metaphor. These are simply relative weaknesses, what are called contraries. To be decisive is the opposite [contrary] of carefully considering the options. Both are strengths in their place. Being too lazy to show up to work is a privation of the good of being a hard worker. This simply needs to be resisted with the tools we have at our disposal.

Further reading:







Nice Guys Earn Less

So says CNN. The Magistra sent me this today. Apparently she's trying to tell me something. I'm not really surprised at the results. The article focuses on social interactions, but I think the real effect likely comes not from being a jerk per se, but the willingness and ability to take risks, to provide critical feedback, and the ability to ignore naysayers. Being a jerk is just a side effect of the personality traits that enable these other things.

Steve Hsu had a post that touched on this. Look at Figure 7. The one we are interested in is A, agreeableness.

The Big Lie about the life of the Mind

One of the most frequent questions asked in the Physics Forums career section is: "should I pursue a PhD in [insert subject here]". Example.

The usual answer that comes out of the assembled geek experts is: "only if you have great passion around [subject] and will never be happy doing anything else." This is indeed a part of the answer, and is often motivated by a fear of being stifled by a boring, mundane job. However, I often find an essential second part missing: "do you have a reasonable hope of success in [subject]?"

Graduate school may be about the "disinterested pursuit of learning" for some privileged people. But for most of us, graduate school in the humanities is about the implicit promise of the life of a middle-class professional, about being respected, about not hating your job and wasting your life. That dream is long gone in academe for almost everyone entering it now.

There are a number of well-known critiques of the academic world and its hiring practices, and these are frequently pooh-poohed by the successful academics one finds in the Physics Forums. One never sees career advice from the failures who couldn't successfully navigate the system, although that might be more useful.

But let us return to the purported benefits of great passion around [subject]. One of the benefits of the academic life is the ability to spend your life delving into your chosen subject, teaching, researching, writing, etc. Yet, this genteel image is in conflict with what the academic world does, and is expected to do. Lurking in the background of all higher eduation in the US is a vocational model linked to national economic output. We need more PhDs to remain economically competitive. Research universities drive change and innovation. More education means higher earnings.

Few truly want to support yet another doctoral dissertation on Proust, and the business of education is expected to provide a cure for cancer soon.  But at the same time, no one seems all that keen on focusing young people into hard science and engineering for the economic benefits, despite our expectation that universities will magically provide us with the technology we want. The romantic image of the life of the mind allows the system to take advantage of idealistic young scholars.

Another Salary Report

From Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce comes another salary report by undergraduate major. No serious surprises here, but I do like their methodology. The CEW breaks down earnings by both occupation and field of study, since in many cases a major in college is not vocational. For example:

However, most majors lead to broad sets of occupations. The underlying data suggests
that this is one explanation of earnings variation. For instance:

Physics majors can be found in

  • Computer occupations (19 percent),  
    Management occupations (19 percent),
    Engineering occupations (14 percent)
    and Sales occupations (9 percent).
  • Also interesting, but not surprising, among the top ten majors with the biggest difference between 25th and 75th percentile earnings:

    Physics  25th $38,000  75th $105,000  Median $67,000


    An American Professor Weighs in on the Academic Process

    Via John D Cook, Matt Welsh explains why he left Harvard for Google:

    There is one simple reason that I'm leaving academia: I simply love work I'm doing at Google. I get to hack all day, working on problems that are orders of magnitude larger and more interesting than I can work on at any university. That is really hard to beat, and is worth more to me than having "Prof." in front of my name, or a big office, or even permanent employment. In many ways, working at Google is realizing the dream I've had of building big systems my entire career.

    A big reason for this is the amount of time academics spend doing things that aren't teaching or research:

    The biggest surprise is how much time I have to spend getting funding for my research. Although it varies a lot, I guess that I spent about 40% of my time chasing after funding, either directly (writing grant proposals) or indirectly (visiting companies, giving talks, building relationships). It is a huge investment of time that does not always contribute directly to your research agenda -- just something you have to do to keep the wheels turning.

    There are good reasons to be an academic, but it is not for everyone.