Women in Science

by Philip Greenspun in February 2006; updated July 2015

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Larry Summers was fired from his job as president of Harvard University partly for saying the following:
"There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document [percentage of women among tenured professors of science] and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the-I'll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are-the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described."
This fired up an international debate about whether or not there were enough women with the towering intellects required to make it as top scientists and mathematicians, the sorts who would be likely to receive tenure at elite universities.

Summers was deservedly castigated, but not for the right reasons. 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, 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:
  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 (if lucky) young children at home, 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.

Why then, does anyone think that science is a sufficiently good career that people should debate who is privileged enough to work at it? Sample bias.

Suppose that you go to the airport trying to figure out how crowded the airplanes are. You stand by the baggage claim and ask people "How full was your flight?" You write up your conclusions: Most flights are nearly full. The sample bias here comes from the fact that full flights contain more people than empty flights. At an airport, you are much more likely to encounter someone who just stepped off a packed flight than someone who was on a plane that was only one-third full.

College undergraduates do the same thing in choosing careers. One of my students, we'll call him Bill, in an introductory computer science class said that he wanted to be a biologist when he grew up. What biologists had Bill met? They were all professors at MIT and about half of them had won the Nobel Prize. This is hardly an average sample of people who went to Biology graduate school! Fortunately, Bill was a tall good-looking fellow. He managed to score himself a lovely girlfriend during the semester, we'll call her Theresa. Theresa was a biology postdoc, with a PhD from an elite institution and a plum job at MIT. Bill got to see how Theresa was treated in the lab, count her working hours, see the pay stubs she received as a young woman in her 30s with a PhD, wave goodbye as she got fired after her experiment did not work out, and write email to Theresa at her new postdoc at Stanford. By the end of the semester, Bill said, "I think I want to be an architect."

[Four years later, I attended the MIT graduation ceremony and was pleasantly surprised to hear Bill's name called out for the degree of Master's in Architecture.]

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."

There are some old people who think a career in science makes sense, including the people who attended the conference where Larry Summers was hoist by his own petard. Basically these functionaries in university bureaucracies are saying "If young women were really smart, they'd be just like me." Indeed, that might have been true in the 1970s when these folks chose their undergraduate major. What has escaped their notice, however, are the enormous returns to high IQ and ability that have arisen in many occupations since the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

In medieval times, having a high IQ didn't change your life. If you were born noble, the peasants had to get out of your way whether your IQ was 75 or 150. If you were a peasant with an IQ of 150, you might have very interesting reflections as you dug for roots or harvested grain, but it wouldn't turn you into a nobleman or woman. In the middle class society that America was in the 1950s through 1970s, the best paying jobs were lavish, but not spectacular compared to being an assembly line worker or college professor. Today, you can't spit in the street without hitting a millionaire and oftentimes it is simple wages that got him or her to that point. Salaries for professionals, Wall Street money shufflers, artists, athletes, executive recruiters, et al., are all up, but the data are not readily available. By contrast, compensation for executives at public companies is reported every year. Forbes magazine reports that in 2005, the CEOs of the Fortune 500 helped themselves to a 54 percent pay raise, resulting in an average per-executive salary of $10 million for the year.

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 versus the professions and business

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

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.

Even a public schoolteacher actually does better than a scientist. Consider the person of unusual ability who takes that bachelor's in science and decides to become a schoolteacher instead of going to graduate school. At age 22, the schoolteacher is earning a living wage and can begin making plans to get married and have children. By age 30, when the scientist is forced to start moving around to those $35,000 per year postdocs, the schoolteacher is earning $50,000 per year. By age 44, when the scientist is desperately trying to switch careers, the schoolteacher is making more than $90,000 per year for working nine months (only the better school systems pay $90,000 per year, but remember that we posited a person with a high IQ and motivation sufficient to get through graduate school in science). Being a public employee and a member of a union, the schoolteacher cannot be fired but may at this point in his or her life begin thinking about a comfortable early retirement and some sort of second career.

A good career is one that pays well, in which you have a broad choice of full-time and part-time jobs, in which there is some sort of barrier to entry so that you won't have to compete with a lot of other applicants, in which there are good jobs in every part of the country and internationally, and in which you can enjoy job security in middle age and not be driven out by young people willing to work 100 hours per week.

How closely does academic science match these criteria? I took a 17-year-old Argentine girl on a tour of the M.I.T. campus. She had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, so maybe this was a good time to show her the possibilities in female nerddom. While walking around, we ran into a woman who recently completed a Ph.D. in Aero/Astro, probably the most rigorous engineering department at MIT. What did the woman engineer say to the 17-year-old? "I'm not sure if I'll be able to get any job at all. There are only about 10 universities that hire people in my area and the last one to have a job opening had more than 800 applicants."

And that's engineering, which, thanks to its reputation for dullness and the demand from industrial employers, has a lot less competition for jobs than in science.

What about personal experience? The women that I know who have the IQ, education, and drive to make it as professors at top schools are, by and large, working as professionals and making 2.5-5X what a university professor makes and they do not subject themselves to the risk of being fired. With their extra income, they invest in child care resources and help around the house so that they are able to have kids while continuing to ascend in their careers. The women I know who are university professors, by and large, are unmarried and childless. By the time they get tenure, they are on the verge of infertility.

Science versus collecting child support

Speaking of fertility... A $400/hour divorce litigator said "Knowing what I know now, I could have made a lot more money going to a bar and working for one night than I have made by going to college, law school, and working for 20 years. It turns out that I was sitting on something worth a lot more than a law degree." What's the cash value of fertility compared to working in science?

The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the 2012 median pay of "Biochemists and Biophysicists" as $81,480 per year (source) and the "entry-level education" required as a "Doctoral or professional degree". After taxes, that's $56,666 for a single Massachusetts resident according to the ADP Paycheck Calculator.

As explained in the Massachusetts chapter of Real World Divorce, child support can be collected until a child turns 23, and, as in all other states, is tax-free. How profitable is child support? By formula (2013-2017 guidelines), $40,000 per year can be obtained from a defendant earning $250,000 per year. However, the actual costs of a child can be collected on top of that $40,000, such as health insurance, day care or nanny, and a child's cash expenses. Subtracting the USDA-estimated $8000 per year incidental costs of a child, such as housing and food, each child yields only a $32,000 per year profit. Thus a woman would need to have two children in Massachusetts with $250,000-per-year defendants in order to exceed the after-tax personal spending power of a mid-career PhD biochemist. However, the present value of the child support plaintiff's earnings are larger because the income stream can start at age 18 or younger and does not require any investment in college or graduate school.

[Note that if a wealthier defendant can be found, ownership of a child can yield substantially more than $40,000 per year in tax-free dividends. Child support awards of $100,000 per year are not uncommon in a variety of jurisdictions nationwide.]

A divorce litigator put it a little more simply: "There is no reason for a woman to go to medical school. If she wants to have the spending power of a doctor she can just have sex with three doctors." (see the Wisconsin chapter for how the arithmetic works out) In some states, though not Wisconsin, a plaintiff's own earnings or earning potential can reduce the potential profits from child support. "A degree in poetry is a lot better than a degree in medicine when you're a child support plaintiff," observed one litigator, and added "for a woman with a functioning reproductive system, the decision to attend college and work is seldom an economically rational one in the United States."

More on this way of earning a living:

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 or child support profiteer, 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.

Once in the U.S., of course, you don't have to remain a drone in the lab. A friend of mine was a physics professor, let's call him "Professor Jones", at MIT looking for a new graduate student. A student from China, let's call him "Yuan", approached him and said "I want to work in your lab. I will do anything you tell me to do and work harder than any of your other graduate students. However, I'm not interested in physics and I won't finish my Ph.D., so you can't count on me being here more than three years." Professor Jones was curious. What was Yuan doing in the physics department? "Back in China," Yuan replied, "we heard that it was a good way to get a job on Wall Street."

Yuan spent his first year in the lab learning how to be an American. He questioned the American-born students at MIT intently, asking them where they shopped for clothing, how often they took a shower, what books they read. Yuan spent his second year in the lab learning how to present himself to an employer. He signed up at the placement office for several interviews per week, simply for practice. Like Bill Murray methodically determining what particular women wanted to hear in the movie Groundhog Day, Yuan wrote down what worked and did not work until he had figured out exactly what to say. Yuan spent his third year actually trying to get a job. Reading the Wall Street Journal one day, he learned about a new boutique investment bank that had spun out of a larger firm. Yuan had heard that one should always Fedex one's resume rather than mail it, to make it seem more important. Being a graduate student, he chose the Fedex economy afternoon delivery service. His resume arrived at the office of the new boutique firm on a Friday afternoon, when the founding partner had already left for his beach house in the Hamptons. The secretary, assuming that it must be important, re-Fedexed the package to the partner for Saturday morning delivery. Thus did Yuan's resume arrive as one of the only business documents that this guy had available to read while out at the beach house. Yuan ended up being hired just about the time that his advisor, Professor Jones, was denied tenure ("fired") by MIT and had to shut down his lab.

[When a population of workers is primarily made up of immigrants, you're going to get a lot more men than women. Every migration of people for work starts with young men.]

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.

How did so many smart people make such bad mistakes in planning a career for themselves? Part of the answer may be that young people fail to appreciate the risk that they will become more like old people when they are old. The young person sees the old tenured academic, ignored by his younger colleagues in a culture that values hot new ideas, sign up to be on committees. The youngster never asks "This oldster has tenure. He draws the same salary regardless of whether he sits through those interminable boring committee meetings. Why would he agree to do it? Why wouldn't he rather be playing squash, riding a horse, flying an aircraft, walking his dog, etc.?" The distressing possibility that the oldster agreed to be on the committee so that he would have a venue in which people would listen to him does not occur to the youngster.

In the personal domain, young people are very different from old people. If you interview old people and ask "What are the greatest sources of satisfaction and happiness in your life?" almost always the answer "my children" comes back. At the age when people are choosing careers, the idea of having children is often unappealing and certainly few have the idea that one should choose a "kid-friendly" career. Old people, on average, also have higher income requirements than young people. A youngster is happy to backpack around the globe, stay in youth hostels for $20 per night, and sleep in a tent. Most oldsters become devoted to their creature comforts and get cranky in anything less than $200 per night private hotel room. Young people don't mind one $400 per month room in a dingy 4BR apartment shared with three or four other young people; most oldsters need their own apartment or house (edging up towards $1 million in America's nicer neighborhoods).

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:
  1. young men strive to achieve high status among their peer group
  2. 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.

It is the guys with the poorest social skills who are least likely to talk to adults and find out what the salary and working conditions are like in different occupations. It is mostly guys with rather poor social skills whom one meets in the university science halls.

What about women? Don't they want to impress their peers? Yes, but they are more discriminating about choosing those peers. I've taught a fair number of women students in electrical engineering and computer science classes over the years. I can give you a list of the ones who had the best heads on their shoulders and were the most thoughtful about planning out the rest of their lives. Their names are on files in my "medical school recommendations" directory.

In Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, it is Werther, not Lotte, who decides to kill himself, anticipating the modern statistic that men are about five times more likely to commit suicide than women.


"Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one's living at it." -- Albert Einstein
Most people go to work primarily in order to earn a paycheck. Workers prefer a higher salary to a lower salary. Jobs in science pay far less than jobs in the professions and business held by women of similar ability. A lot of men are irrational, romantic, stubborn, and unwilling to admit that they've made a big mistake. With Occam's Razor, we should not need to bring in the FBI to solve the mystery of why there are more men than women who have chosen to stick with the choice that they made at age 18 to become a professor of science or mathematics.

Appendix A: What about becoming a scientist in industry?

The conference where Larry Summers got into trouble was concerned with the percentage of women among tenured professors. Considered strictly as a career (paycheck, working hours, job security), aren't there better opportunities in industry? And might these be good enough to make pursuing a PhD in science or mathematics an intelligent decision?

It depends on which branch of science and whether a person wants a job where work is done primarily in isolation. In some of the hardest hard sciences, e.g., Physics, there aren't too many jobs outside of universities. Those jobs that are available tend to be at government research labs in obscure corners of the U.S. where a spouse would probably object to living. For people with PhDs in Biology, there are a lot of jobs at pharmaceutical companies paying more than $100,000 per year. Considered on purely economic grounds, these jobs don't justify the time and foregone income invested in a PhD. There are 22-year-olds earning $150,000 per year selling home mortgages.

What about the working conditions? Surely it is more interesting to be a scientist at a drug company than to be selling home mortgages? It depends on the worker's personality. Are you introverted? Want a job where you seldom have to meet anyone new? Want to sit at the same desk or bench year after year and work mostly by yourself? Get most of your satisfaction from solving puzzles? Have we got the job for you: industrial scientist! If you are extremely introverted, you might prefer to work as a computer programmer.

Most workers, however, get a lot of satisfaction from meeting new people, working with others collaboratively, being thanked by customers, teaching, having a direct positive impact on other people. Jobs such as medical doctor, lawyer, schoolteacher, airplane mechanic, and plumber all provide greater amounts of these satisfactions than most jobs in science. In fact, the only science job that regularly offers any of these satisfactions is professor, which we've already discussed from the point of view of salary and job security.

A friend of the author says that most medical doctors choose the wrong specialty: "They pick based on what part of the body they think is the most interesting. They should really pick based on whether or not they want to have the responsibility of running an office, having employees, and marketing themselves or whether they want a shift job and can walk away at the end of the shift." She finds some of her colleagues less than optimally happy because they chose to be plastic surgeons and don't enjoy being the boss and not being able to take eight weeks of vacation per year. On the other hand, she finds some emergency medicine doctors who, while they enjoy the freedom and flexibility to work as much or as little as they choose in any given year, would prefer to have the responsibility and prestige of running their own practice.

A person who says "I love Chemistry and therefore I will become a chemist" is potentially making the same mistake as these medical doctors who end up in the wrong specialty. There are many aspects to a job other than what exactly you occupy your mind with. Here's a partial list:

Different people will assign different values to these aspects of work. Extroverts and introverts might assign opposite values to the "met a lot of new people" aspect, for example. Probably the easiest way to evaluate what kind of job the average person most enjoys is to look at the kinds of job for which the average person is willing to volunteer. Very few volunteer jobs have the characteristics of an industrial science job. The job of university professor, especially the teaching aspect, is closer to what people are observed to do as volunteers (which may explain why university employers are able to recruit highly trained staff for such low salaries).

Appendix B: Interesting Comments from Readers

I posted a link to this article, in draft form, to my Weblog. Here are the most interesting comments.

From Geoff B: Perhaps men have a greater buffer of time to recover from career mistakes. I actually know a couple of guys who got PhD's, then went to MBA or JD degrees. While they may have enjoyed their PhD programs (heh), from an earning standpoint they probably wasted a good 5-7 years. But they can just pretend that those 5-7 years never existed. A 40 year old man can get married to a 31-year-old woman, and just pretend he's 31. Happens all the time. It's harder for women to pull this off. So maybe math and science PhD's are just another incarnation of the recklessness of youth - something men have historically been able to indulge in, without the consequences women would experience.

From me (responding to someone who asked how I would change the incentives so that more women would be attracted to science): What's my idea for changing the incentives? I don't have any. I'm not one of the people who complains that there aren't enough women working as professors, janitors, or whatever. For whatever reason we've decided that science in America should be done by low-paid immigrants. They seem to be doing a good job. They are cheap. They are mostly guys, like other immigrant populations. If smart American women choose to go to medical, business, and law school instead of doing science, and have fabulous careers, I certainly am not going to discourage them. Imagine if one of those kind souls that Summers was speaking to had taken Condoleezza Rice aside and told her not to waste time with political science because physics was so much more challenging. Just think how far she might have gone...

Appendix C: What would the world look like if anyone actually cared about this?

When employers are seriously about hiring more people with certain qualifications, they pay them more. Harvard University, where this entire debate occurred, earned $4.5 billion in investment income in 2006. The basic operation of the university, research and teaching, was cashflow-neutral and therefore Harvard could spend this $4.5 billion in any way that it chooses. Typically universities spend their tax-free investment winnings on lavish real estate development, e.g., $200 million buildings by signature architects that Saddam Hussein or a Saudi royal would have been proud to include among his palaces, and thus we may infer that lavish new buildings are a real priority for them.

With control of the budget at a university, one could change the sex ratio in science and math very quickly. Here's how it might look:

What would this cost? The Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences employs 700 professors, only a small portion of whom are in science or math. Suppose that our goal is to switch 200 faculty positions from being held by men to being held by women. That would cost approximately $50 million per year in incremental salary by the preceding schedule. Adding in the costs for a (well-paid) mostly-female population of math and science students, it would be difficult to get to a cost of $100 million per year, or only about 1/45th of investment income.

If a woman scientist is worth more to the university and to society than a male scientist, she should be paid more. The fact that she isn't indicates that this issue is lower priority than any of the things that the universities does spend money on, e.g., those palatial new buildings.

Appendix D: Data on University Pay

How much exactly do universities pay PhDs in science? Let's consider the University of California at Berkeley. This is one of America's leading research institutions, located in a city full of delightful cultural and leisure opportunities, and blessed with excellent weather. For the fall of 2007, the university pays Instructors $45,900 per year. Assistant Professors earn between $53,000 and $69,000 per year. Associate Professors can earn up to $83,700 per year. A full professor can earn between $77,800 and $142,000 per year. The AAUP ranks U.C. Berkeley as the highest paying public university in the United States.

A family-sized (four-bedroom) house in Berkeley sold for an average of $965,000 in the middle of 2007, just slightly more than double the price of a house that the top-paid full professor could afford, according to some online calculation tools.

Data on additional schools: http://chronicle.com/stats/aaup/ and www.aaup.org.

Appendix E: About the Author

Some folks read this and assume that the author is a bitter or disappointed scientist. I plead guilty to having majored in mathematics as a college undergraduate (I started college at age 14 and graduated at 18--how would you like to be held accountable for decisions that you made as a teenager?), but otherwise I have spent my life as a humble electrical and software engineer, not as a scientist (my PhD is in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; I started the program, without intending to finish, because I was curious to learn how my stereo system worked and because I was earning enough every month as a Lisp Machine programmer to pay my annual living expenses; I finished the program because I am a stubborn testosterone-poisoned guy). I do love science and enjoy talking to and learning from scientists. Starting in 2001, I've been doing a lot of flying in airplanes and helicopters, including several cross-continent trips in light aircraft, and this has sparked an interest in meteorology and geology. Taking advantage of my location in Cambridge, I have sat in on some classes at MIT in Atmospheric Physics, Biology, and Geology. I also teach a software engineering lab course at MIT every three or four semesters (textbook). But for me, the university has mostly been a source of entertainment; I have never looked to it as a source of income. In my guide to early retirement, I suggest that university towns are great places to live for a person of adequate means.

The Last Word

"A man of science may earn great distinction, but not bread," Thomas Henry Huxley, mid-19th Century, quoted on page 278 of Terrible Lizard: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science (Cadbury; 2002).
Text copyright 2006-2014 Philip Greenspun. Photo is copyright 2005.

Reader's Comments

Phil, you said 'Larry Summers was fired from his job as president of Harvard University partly for saying the following:'

Larry was also involved in at least one serious scandal, involving paying $25 million of Harvard's money to prevent prosecution of one of his proteges, and lied to faculty about it.

-- Barry D, August 15, 2015

*The 'hazards' of the academic career track

You say that a prof can be fired (denied tenure) at age 44 and then have to seek another job as a second-rate has-been, and you therefore recommend that he should have instead chosen a career in business rather than academia. But come now, people in business careers are fired all the time. And many people in business careers never get promoted to top management ranks. Another recommendation you proffer is that he should have become a physician, for which he would then now be a highly-paid specialist. However, I think it should be noted that nobody is guaranteed the medical specialty that they want. Indeed, every Match Day of every year, many medical students find that they were not matched into the specialty that they wanted, and therefore have to scramble into getting whatever they can (which usually means relatively low-paid internal medicine or family medicine). Regarding your other suggestion of the law, it should be said that most lawyers either can never garner associate jobs at a major law firm at all. For those that do, the vast majority will not make partner, and indeed, most of them won't even survive more than a few years in the brutal up-or-out system of a typical 'BIGLAW' firm. Most of them will also never be offered a faculty position at any decent law school. {Granted, they might obtain a faculty position at a low-ranked law school, but they pay far less than $200k). K-12 teaching is a high-stress experience due to its rigid schedules (you *must* show up on time every day for your classes: no flex-time is ever possible) and the fact that part of your job effectively involves being a babysitter for an entire class of kids. That is why the teaching profession suffers from a high rate of attrition during the first few years. Furthermore, let's be brutally honest, career advancement in a schoolteaching career doesn't seem to be a strong function of one's IQ or work ethic, but seems to have more to do with one's political skills. {And besides, what percentage of schoolteachers actually start their careers at age 22 anyway? Seems to me that most of them start their careers only after obtaining their MEd degree or other graduate teaching certification.}

The upshot is that you're comparing academics who weren't good enough to obtain tenure to somebody who actually was good enough to obtain a competitive medical residency, make partner at a major law firm, have a highly successful career in business, or can handle the constant stress of teaching K-12. That's a deeply unfair comparison. The truth is, if you're not good enough to get academic tenure, odds are, you probably weren't good enough to make partner at a major law firm either, get the medical specialty residency that you wanted, or have had a successful business career, and it's far from clear whether you would have been good enough to survive the first few years of K-12 teaching.

*General lack of a control group

Consider your quote: "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." However true that might be, it is also devoid of context unless you compare it to the plight of *regular* people. To quote Thoreau: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation". Notice how Thoreau didn't say that the mass of *scientists* lead lives of quiet desperation, but rather that *all* men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Let's be perfectly honest: Most jobs are unpleasant. Most jobs have their problems. It's not clear a science career is any worse than most other careers.

[Edited for length by moderator]

-- Sam Ky, October 18, 2015

I think it should also be said that while Larry Summers lost the Harvard Presidency partially over his controversial 'women in science' comments (coupled with the Andrei Schleifer conflict of interest scandal and the Cornel West conflagration), he did not - indeed could not - lose his tenured professorship at Harvard just for those comments. University tenure confers the most powerful free speech protections of arguably any job in the country (the civil service perhaps being the only equivalent, which is why many members of the Westboro Baptist Church hold day jobs with the Kansas state government and therefore cannot be fired for their beliefs, however repugnant.} Contrast that with at-will employment in the private sector where you can be fired at anytime for anything you might say that the boss deems objectionable - and where the definition of 'objectionable' is whatever the boss wants it to be. If your support for the Boston Red Sox is objectionable to the boss because he is a NY Yankees fan, he can fire you.

And that's why I must continue to fundamentally disagree with the central argument put forth here that "Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States". What seems to be entirely neglected in this analysis is the value of achieving tenure, which essentially guarantees you a job for life as long as you continue to meet the bare minimum requirements: you continue to show up to the classes you're assigned to teach, you show up to the departmental administrative meetings, you don't sexually harass anybody, etc. And that bare minimum required is usually very bare indeed: departmental meetings at most occur a few times a month (often times far less than that), teaching is generally no more than 12-15 hours a week during a given term, and that's only during the terms that you teach. You get summers off. Perhaps the greatest advantage of all is that you can complete those minimum requirements *incompetently* and not be fired. For example, as long as you show up to teach your classes, you can teach them abysmally, putting absolutely no effort whatsoever into it, and still never be fired. Work quality no longer matters once you have tenure.

Now, to be fair, many (probably most) tenured professors continue to work diligently on their teaching and (especially) their research once they've achieved tenure. But that's their choice. They are under no obligation whatsoever to do so. If they choose to take what is effectively a permanent vacation with a lifetime annuity, nobody can stop them, and indeed, many tenured profs do exactly that. Again, contrast that with other careers where you can be fired if the quality of your work declines, which means that the maintenance of your career requires eternal vigilance. {Furthermore you might still be fired even if your work quality is high, and sometimes even *because* your work quality is high, as the boss may fear that you're so competent that you might replace him, so the safest thing for him to do to maintain his job is to fire you - a principle in organizational behavior known as 'negative selection'.} In contrast, tenure means never having to worry about the quality of your work.

Hence, far from being a poor career choice for women (or for men for that matter), science might actually be one of the *best* career choices for women, assuming that one obtains tenure. Like I said, as long as you show up to your required classes and meetings, you have perfect freedom to set your own schedule. You don't really have a boss with whom you have to check in every day. {You might have to meet with the department head or Dean every semester, but they're not really your 'boss' because they can't fire you.}

Granted, all of that is assuming that you actually obtain tenure. But much of the above analysis continues to apply even during the pre-tenure junior prof years. Rather than a lifetime job guarantee, you instead have 2-5 year employment contracts that guarantee your job for that time period (again, assuming that you follow the terms of the contract: you show up to your assigned classes and meetings, etc.} Most companies won't even give you a 2-5 *minute* guarantee: you can literally be fired the very same moment that you joined. Granted, if your work quality isn't high, then you will be denied tenure. But hey, at least you had job security for those pre-tenure years. You also enjoyed tremendous job flexibility for those years: if you're not teaching or having meetings on certain days and therefore decide that you would rather work from home, nobody can tell you otherwise.

Furthermore, if you determine early in the tenure-track process that you're unlikely to obtain tenure - most reputable schools will give you fair warning if you're clearly not going to make it, and may even advise you not to bother submitting a tenure packet - you still have the remainder of your contract with which to use as effectively an extended paid job search and career transition. Even if you do submit your tenure packet and are denied, almost any reputable school will then grant you a 'gap year' with which you can find another job while still being paid and have an office. How many private sector employers, upon terminating you, will still commit to paying you and allow you to use your office for another year afterwards? {Furthermore - assuming that you didn't outright disregard warnings that you won't pass review and therefore shouldn't bother submitting your packet, the fact that you made it to the tenure review process indicates that you are close to receiving tenure, so even if you don't make it, you almost certainly can obtain another faculty position at another university - or perhaps even at the same university in a non-tenure-track role.}

Besides, look at it this way. The overwhelming majority of newly hired associates in law firms, investment banks, consulting firms and the like will not make partner - indeed most won't last for more than a few years. The vast majority of newly minted US Army Second Lieutenants will not make it to even 1-star General, let alone 4-star General. All of them must pursue alternative careers with the 'stigma' that they 'failed' in their prior career. {Nor am I sure that it would really be a 'failure', but it seems to me that spending a few years as an Ibanking or consulting associate is prime training for a business career, and similarly, being a junior prof is prime training for a science career.} Many aspiring physicians will fail to match with residencies in the specialty that they most want, especially for highly paid specialties. Indeed, some won't even bother applying to their most desired specialty at all because they're doubtful of their chances of getting it and so they apply a minimax strategy by applying to one of their less desired choices to ensure that they match with *something* rather than risk having no match at all and thereby needing to scramble. Compared to those outcomes, it's not clear to me that failing tenure review is really all that much worse. At least the professor in question enjoyed a few years pursuing an intellectual topic that truly interested him while being paid to do it. Most people never get that opportunity.

-- Sam Ky, October 18, 2015

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