Larry Summers, women, and jobs in math and science

To judge from the latest it seems that Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, is still getting beaten up for saying that women might not be genetically adapted as well as men for careers in math and science.  None of the news articles go into the question of whether these are good enough careers that anyone should care about the racial or sexual composition of people in them.  More than half of medical students are women.  Every graduating MD will get a job and the average salaries in the career range from $150,000 to $300,000+ depending on specialty.  A new math or science PhD will compete with 700 other applicants for one job, usually paying less than $50,000 per year.  Most of them could have made far more money and had far more job security if they’d gotten a bachelor’s in education at the state teacher’s college and, at age 22, taken a job as a schoolteacher in a public school.

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?

22 thoughts on “Larry Summers, women, and jobs in math and science

  1. Let’s not neglect even more lucrative professions. Why bother with the B.A. at all and all the debt that will come with it. Why not just a high school level trade school and a career as a plumber, auto mechanic or electrician? These guys make a bundle of money, and they have excellent opportunites to start their own businesses.

  2. This was my thought as well. In fact this was my thought years ago when I decided to get a job in the software industry rather than continue schooling.

  3. Another great career dominated by men:

    Commuter pilot, put yourself through thousands of hours expensive flight training so you can compete for a $20K per year job.

    Why don’t you see more female commuter pilots? Is it genetic?

  4. Feminism may want to shift from doing all those things men do, to maybe things which would increase the quality of life for women.

    But it seems they are dedicated to closing the gap in smoking and binge drinking. But we still beat them in obesity, suicide, and heart disease.

    We cannot allow a mine shaft..sorry suicide gap.

  5. The answer is simple, and actually is complimentary to women.

    Women have evolved sufficiently to get a grip on their vanity and limit it to harmless play with external appearances: clothing, make-up, men and cosmetic surgery being the extreme.

    Men have not evolved. Just like in the times of hunters-gatherers they play lottery with their whole lives in an attempt to stand out of the crowd. This is compounded by genetic inability of humans to intuitively understand probability (see Nassim Taleb).

    As a result, there’re thousands of grunts living and dying in the trenches for every Paul Dirac, Bill Gates or Michael Schumacher.

  6. Where’d you get your salary figures? The ones for MD’s are right, but most new science PhD’s are paid more than $50k. Try $70k-$140k for a top-ranked school. (In general, for bachelor’s degrees, science and engineering are paid the most, and PhDs are paid more than lesser degrees. The only degree programs that pay higher than science PhDs are MD, and maybe lawyers.) Factor in the crazy long hours, less freedom to play around, and less intellectual interest of medicine, and it’s hardly irrational to go for a science PhD.

    I was about to say something about the education degree, but then I realized you were joking.

  7. shows postdoc salaries from NIH ranging from $28,000 to $44,000 per year in 2002. shows an average postdoc starting salary of $29,661 in 2000. lists the average salary for a life sciences postdoc as $27,000.

    My friends who are science postdocs are mostly at the top schools and have the most desired fellowships, etc. They are earning just over $40,000 per year, i.e., just a little less than my starting salary at Hewlett-Packard in 1982 when I was 18 years old and fresh out of college.

  8. Hmmm, being a postdoc doesn’t sound so great. In my field, computer “science”, being a postdoc is purely optional and is used only by a small fraction of students to boost their resumes so they can apply for better academic positions. You can always go straight into industry for $100k+. Is it different for real science? I have heard that it’s very hard to get a job as a physicist.

  9. To teach in an American school you need a first degree in Education? Rather than a degree in the subject you aim to teach? There may be a problem there, in the future.

  10. I get the sense that researchers who are successful in a field that has the interest of industry can make a lot of money consulting. Otherwise, it makes sense that you’re lucky getting to make a decent enough living doing research into something that as far as anyone knows is of purely academic interest. I’d consider that to be a great privilege even if it is only 40k/year. Not to mention all the fresh coeds you can boink.

  11. Thanks for reminding me why I dropped out of my math ph.d. program to become a programmer. Yeah. Then to ditch that to become a trader. Well, on the bright side, all that math and cs didn’t totally go to waste.

  12. I think many professors also get additional research grants and the like. They have to bust their butts getting the proposals out in time but once you get a few under your belt, it snowballs. This might be why Universities offer small pay too – a portion of the grant cushions the Prof’s salary, a portion pays for grad student research and a portion goes towards the school. Thus it is in the school’s best interest to make sure the Prof is going to do all he/she can to go after those grants, endowments or whatever else is out there.

    On a side note, I have always heard that in biology, the women out number the men.

  13. Medical school is 4 years on top of a BA, with 2 years of residency over that. So factoring in 8 years of college at minimum of 20k a year, so we end up with 160k in student loans (probably a lot more), add two more years of that when you’re making diddly. 10 years of your life before you can start earning a dime, really. So I’m not sure medical school is the best bang for the buck. Also consider your OBGYNs are on call 24×7. In fact the only doctors I know who work 9 to 5 are radiologists. I’m glad I write software for a living, and I make more than your average math/science academic and I can barely spell theta =D

  14. Most scientists get paid what they deserve. Why should a post-doc get paid more than $35,000 for surfing the web, sleeping in until noon, washing test tubes, attending journal club, and publishing papers in journals that nobody, including other scientists, ever read?

  15. Let’s not forget that Ob/Gyn’s, among others, have a little something
    called malpractice insurance that crimps bottom line.

    My bottom line: working on behalf of General Al Haig in ’08!

  16. Nick: The Federal Trade Commission did a study some years ago of the return on investment from various forms of education, ranging from trade schools to colleges and post-grad schools of various kinds. Medical school was #1 in R.O.I. So enjoy your deskjob but don’t feel sorry for the medical doctors flying overhead in their $1 million personal airplanes on their way to their waterfront vacation houses.

    Wally: Malpractice insurance is a painful cost that has to be passed on to consumers but it is only a problem for doctors who wish to work part-time (most MDs could make an adequate living working only 2 days per week but the insurance company would still charge them the same premium as a doc working 5 days per week; hence the only part-time jobs that make sense are for the federal government hospitals or HMOs that pay the insurance premium). Any survey that you see of MD salaries will be after paying malpractice insurance and other expenses.

    Miriam: Some science professors at top schools earn a decent salary, though keep in mind that even if Professor Jane gets $10 million in grants she can only pay herself an amount fixed by the university (usually in the neighborhood of $80-120,000 per year). More important, however, is the fact that being a tenured professor at a top school is not an average fate for a person who chooses to pursue a career in science. shows that average ob-gyn in the U.S. at $238,000/year and the very lowest paid at $184,000/year. The energetic smart person who made it to a tenured professorship should probably be compared to the top-earning ob-gyns at $350,000/year or top-earning radiologists at $429,000/year (

    Obviously if you love what you’re doing even a $20,000/year salary is just fine but I’m not sure that people should get worked up over the fact that more men than women or vice versa are getting jobs that pay below a certain threshold.

  17. At age 35, with an MS in Computer Sci, is it too late to go back to school and get a medical degree?

  18. “At age 35, with an MS in Computer Sci, is it too late to go back to school and get a medical degree?”

    A couple of things to consider. First, can you afford to not work for a few years and invest well over six figures in tuition and other expenses? Do you have the stamina to put in 80-100 hour weeks during that time? Do you have no serious adversion to the risk of spending that kind of money and maybe not being able to complete the education for one reason or another? Consider your lost income during medical school and residency and add it to the cost of the education. Enter the time value of money. If that money was properly invested for the rest of your 30 years of working life, it could easily become over a couple of million bucks on its own. Will you really make so much more money over the next couple of decades that it will outweigh the downsides?

    If you answer yes to the above questions, then do it. Or do it anyway because you really want to do it and the money isn’t the issue.

    As for Academia, what’s your hurry:
    I had wanted an academic career in biology and, through a stroke of luck, had a mentor as an undergrad that could put me on a facinating career path. Although not a super high paying career path, it would have been a comfortable life and had some really cool perks. With everything in my favor at that point in my life, I suffered a major, life changing catastrophy. My apartment building was burned down by an arsonist. I lost my cats, all my stuff, all my research notes and almost me. So, instead of an academic career, I went into medical information systems. Twenty-some years later, I had a mid-life crisis… I never did what I really wanted to do with my life. I am now a consultant in the biopharmaceutical industry. I design software to help them determine if their drug candidates are safe and effective and I’ve mentored a lot of young kids entering the industry. Not a bad calling, except that I always wanted to be a research biologist, not a computer geek (OK, I actually like being a computer geek but…). While I’m not rich, I’ve made pretty good money over the years. Money that I would never have made in an academic career. With that (and a supportive wife), I realized that I could afford to fund my own research. Mid-live crisis over. I don’t have to chase grants, I have no pressure to publish and I can follow up on what *I* want to research. My research project is tedious and time consuming, but I can do it when I feel like doing it. I buy whatever I want to equip my lab because I’m the one holding the purse strings. I only have to cost justify my expenditures to me. As a result, my microscope is worth more than my car (but I still drive a pretty nice car). However, the absolute *BEST* part is that when I publish (when *I’m* ready to publish), I’ll answer an important question that’s still waiting for me after these last twenty-some years.

  19. Johnny: One of my aunts went to medical school in her early 40s, after her children were off to college. This was back in the 1970s and was sufficiently unusual that she got written up in Harvard’s alumni magazine. Most med schools had age limits at the time, not wanting to waste a medical education on an oldster who wouldn’t have time to apply it. She has been very happy with her career as a physician.

    So… if you think the material is interesting and the job would be satisfying, go for it! It is true that you will lose some income during the years of training (best to account for this with about a 4% inflation-adjusted rate of return unless you have some proven way of making better investments than the rest of the world) but most people who are in an intensive program of education don’t have time to spend/enjoy money. You see a lot more miserable $55,000/year cubicle-dwelling programmers than $15,000/year graduate students. For most people the joy of owning a brand-new BMW fades fast whereas the joy of learning new things and being surrounded by interesting friends does not fade.

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