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July 22, 2003

Science is for losers

Ok, I can't hold back on the cognitive elite post.

In America, science/eng is for losers. Period. Of course, I speak from the biotech/biology point of view, and this is the group to which most of my following comments will apply. However, I believe that my comments largely apply to chemists, engineers and computer people also.

Let's start with the premise. Twenty years ago, the NSF came out with the famous report that the US was going to run out of scientists. This lie was repeated, even more forcefully in 1989, when the NSF predicted a "shortfall" of 675,000 sci/eng students. The government promptly went into social engineering mode, and grand campaigns (and graduate funding programs) were instituted to ensure the USA wouldn't run out. Guess what? The faculty retirements never happened, people went into sci/eng and for the past 15 years, we've been running around with a huge glut of sci/eng (along with hordes of imported sci/engs)

Now, actually, this is probably good from a societal view, as these surplus sci/eng did go on to help start the biotech/IT boom of recent years as Razib points out (ex-IBMers--"Go start your own companies!"). However, from an individual standpoint, all this overproduction has done is to devalue your skills and increase the risk involved with sci/eng as a career path.

Let's look at a typical career path for a biotech type scientist:
4 years undergrad. Age 21. Salary: $25-30K if job obtained as tech.

5-9 years grad school. Age 26-30+. Salary as a grad student: $20-25K
Likelihood of finding a job after PhD obtained: about 10-20%, depending on subfield. Salary: about $50-$70K. Alternative when job isn't found, or job desired is in academia or higher up in industry is a post-doc:

Post-doc: 2-5 years. Age: 28-35. Salary as post-doc: 25-40K (note, this is for a PhD, and a person who is likely around 30 years old. This should be insulting). Likelihood of finding academic position: about 1%. (typical faculty positions advertised receive several hundred applications). Chance of second post-doc because job in industry is also not available: about 40%.

So, at the age of 30ish, and after obtaining an advanced degree as part of 10+ years of post-graduate education and training, you can hope for about a 59% chance of finding a "real job." This real job pays about $70K in industry (up to 90K for chemists), a bit less for starting professors.

The rest circle around in post-docs or finally leave science in disgust.

Now, plenty of people might say, "what are you complaining about, those salaries are fine?" Perhaps. But the economics should be made clear to aspiring young scientists--expect to work 60-70 hours/week until you're 35 before you can even hope to have a real job, with benefits, that pays more than a journeyman plumber (but not a fully bonded plumber and let's not forget the average GM worker earning $68K/yr). These people who can make it in science are typically smart enough to be MDs (salary $100-200+K/yr by age 30 at the latest), lawyers (salary $100K-$400K by age 30), or banker/MBA types ($100K-$1M by 28).

That's the reality. Science is for losers. If you're going to go through all that education/training and work 60-70 hrs/wk, at least you should be compensated like MDs, lawyers or investment bankers. If you don't care about the money, fine, but don't ever start on the "nobility of science" crap that Gould liked to prattle on about. You're making an economic decision--"I love science so much that I'm going to give up all this potential income, etc." If you want to, fine. But go into science knowing that, and knowing that the situation will NOT get better (i.e. what's going to happen when big Pharma starts outsourcing all their medicinal chemistry R&D to Bangalore and Hyderabad?).

Posted by david at 05:00 PM

Precisely why I gave up my career in computational neuroscience to make money doing "simple programming."

Posted by: PhlegmAsiv at July 22, 2003 05:14 PM

Yep. A lot of scientists of various stripes have gotten sucked into various types of IT jobs. Simple supply and demand. I know a couple of metallurgists and a pure math guy who now work as programmers.
Still, having an engineering degree beats having a liberal arts degree in the job market.

Posted by: bbartlog at July 22, 2003 05:44 PM

You are vastly misinformed with respect to the salaries for JDs and MBAs.

5% of JDs get jobs at big law firms (BIGLAW as it's called elsewhere on the net) where the starting salary is six figures. Those jobs are only available if you attend one of the Top 14 law schools (or if you graduate in the top 10% of the class at a lesser law school AND get lucky).

The starting salary at the DA's office is around $35K, and it maybe maxes out in the $70s. The salary you'd get as a lawyer is not worth the seven years of education.

The same goes for MBAs. If you want to make big bucks as an investment banker, unless you get your MBA from Harvard, Wharton, Columbia, or Stanford, you're out of luck.

Children of middle class parents are misled into thinking that an education is the "ticket" to a comfortable upper middle class lifestyle, and unfortunately there are no longer any kind of tickets in the U.S.

With 70% of people having some kind of college, it should be obvious that the college credential has become pretty meaningless unless it's from an elite school, and the same applies to graduate degrees.

Posted by: Gordon Gekko at July 22, 2003 05:55 PM

Gordon, I think the point here is that anyone who earns a Ph.D. in one of the hard sciences deserves to be called "elite" whether they get the degree from an Ivy (or comparable) or not. Looking at it that way they do not earn as much as their "elite" peers.

I think that a science undergrad degree is a great way to make it to a professional school. it's a signal that you have a brain.

Posted by: Diana at July 22, 2003 06:30 PM


70k is good money, even if its not the road to riches. I know its trite, but money truly will not make you happy.

I was never happy until I started doing something I loved. That is what's important. I wouldn't spend 8 years in school in the expectation I was going to be rich but rather hoping I would be able to do something I really enjoy.

And on the hours, I have never had a job where I didn't work at least 55, somtimes 70 hours per week. That's just life in my experience.

I do agree that our society rewards people seemingly strangely at times though.

Posted by: Katy at July 22, 2003 06:39 PM

I've always said, anyone who goes into science to make money is too dumb to go into science.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at July 22, 2003 07:12 PM

I have a friend who recently began as a public defender in a major metropolitan area for 50k, not a top 14.

Posted by: Inventor at July 22, 2003 08:34 PM


My point was that education is easy to get, and the mere fact that you put in 10 years means nothing.

Welcome to twenty-first century America.

Unless your PhD is from an Ivy, it's not worth the paper it's printed on.

Don't feel so bad about it, I have a lot of worthless pieced of paper myself.

Posted by: Gordon Gekko at July 22, 2003 08:37 PM

Most of the literature I've read about law school seems to indicate that FAR more than "5%" of the graduates end up at corporate law firms. In fact, the premise (of one I read recently) was that TOO MANY graduates of law school end up at these cutthroat corporate firms and end up having really shitty professional lives, compared to MBA, MD and dental school grads. If I can find the URL again I'll post it.

Posted by: Sex Pistol at July 22, 2003 09:40 PM

I think you are picking high end MD/lawyer/investment banker numbers and low end science numbers and certain science do much better then others. You are also fogetting about the debt doctors and many lawyers end up with.

Posted by: -b at July 22, 2003 10:11 PM

You guys are kidding, right? Try being a history, English, or Anthropology PhD.

And for the libertarians out there -- this is the market at work. I don't like it either, but I'm an elitist liberal.

Posted by: zizka at July 22, 2003 10:43 PM

You're right about lawyers. I'm thinking about going to law school and am reading a lot of books about it right now, and the average salary for lawyers (not just people just out of law school!) is only $40,000. So there are a *LOT* of poorly paid lawyers out there bringing down the average, compared to the few that max six figures right out of law school.

If you think money can't buy you happiness, then you just don't know how to spend it effectively!

Posted by: Jacqueline at July 22, 2003 11:46 PM

Ovid said money can by love, happiness, and the esteem of man.

Posted by: Gordon Gekko at July 23, 2003 03:35 AM

Gordon, getting a Ph.D. in neurobiology isn't easy to get. What's your point?

Posted by: Diana at July 23, 2003 07:31 AM

Yeah, I'm comparing what I see--that is other graduates of elite schools.

Sorry, but I'm being elitist--I'm comparing a PhD from Berkeley/Stanford/UCSF/MIT/Harvard to a JD/MD/MBA from the same/similar schools.

For me, a PhD from Southwest Missouri State is not worth the paper it's printed on.

In other words, many schools should NOT have a PhD program--as you state for third-tier law schools--it just brings down the average.

As for MBAs/investment banker types, you get into the biz by working as an analyst after (elite) undergrad (50K or so/year), 2 years, then Biz school or another job. After biz school (if you go that route--and is usually paid for at least in part), you come back and make 120K/year. It goes up from there, according to your ability to source deals.

If you can't get into a good school, or study under the right profs, your time is probably better spent acquiring a useful skill like plumbing, contracting work, car repair, etc. and remember, your typical millionaire next door does the latter (and is a millionaire by 50ish).

But then again, I live in the Bay Area and the salaries and costs are whack.

Posted by: David at July 23, 2003 10:39 AM

The hottest science right now is not Bioscience or biotech/biochem - it's Actuarial Science. A fully qualified professional actuary whose completed their parts exams and is a member of the CIA (Canadian Institute of Actuaries) makes six figures - and that's just starting salary.

It was also rated as the #1 job/profession by the Jobs Rated Almanac for the past several years.

Posted by: Sen at July 23, 2003 11:07 AM

Diana wrote: "getting a Ph.D. in neurobiology isn't easy to get"

Working at McDonalds isn't easy either, but where does that get you?

I have plenty of experience both working and attending school, and anyone who thinks school is harder than working doesn't have enough experience in the work world.

It's wrong that universities don't warn students coming in how bad their job prospects are. I have no personal experience with PhD programs, but my general understanding is that they have little value in corporate America, they are degrees only for people who want to be professors, and the supply of PhDs greatly exceeds the demand for professors.

What's wrong with our system is that the universities don't level with students coming in how bad their job prospects are going to be. And we encourage too many people to obtain all sorts of degrees. We have the attitude that the more education the better, and it's not necessarily true.

The only degrees that come close to being a ticket to high pay are the ones from elite universities, and this applies to all level of degrees. And in fact, a mere undergraduate degree from an Ivy doesn't get you anywhere either.

There are a lot of disillusioned people who thought that society would reward them for their degrees, and they discovered otherwise. The fault is with the universities for not fully disclosing the employment situation to prospective students.

Posted by: Gordon Gekko at July 23, 2003 11:13 AM

Since the MD route was mentioned. Four years of undergraduate, four years of medical school. The undergraduate has to be rigirous or you will have to take your chances going abroad for your medical diploma. If you can pass all the required exams, you go into residency/fellowships for 3-7 years starting around $35 and moving upwards in small increments. The average MD earns around $200,000 after residency. Primary care physicians tend to do around $120-150,000 and make up about 50% of the workforce. Some high-end surgeons make $500,000 but that would be the exceptional case. It isn't a good way to get rich but some people prefer it to taking up space in a corporate office. Maybe in the end the years of low-pay and schooling and then the long working hours and stresses don't make it worthwhile. However the same seems to hold for most professional careers.

Posted by: Robert at July 23, 2003 12:08 PM

Diana wrote: "getting a Ph.D. in neurobiology isn't easy to get"

Working at McDonalds isn't easy either, but where does that get you

The point that David was making was about payoff for comparable intellectual input, not hardness of effort.

What is your point?

Posted by: Diana at July 23, 2003 12:18 PM

The itals were supposed to end after the "get you", but something went wrong.

Posted by: Diana at July 23, 2003 12:19 PM

MD is the best ticket to the upper middle class that's available. I sure wish I had done that.

Many 22 year olds look at the additional eight years or so and think that it's horribly far off. But it's before you know it you're thirty and making the big bucks. It's certainly a better deal than going to law school (except for top law schools like Harvard/Yale/Stanford/Columbia).

Make sure you go to the best medical school you can get into in order to avoid getting stuck in the lower paying primary care category.

Posted by: Gordon Gekko at July 23, 2003 12:23 PM

Milton Friedman's Captialism and Freedom has a chapter on "Occupational Licensure" discussing the salaries of doctors and lawyers. He argues that the salaries of these professions are raised above the market level by the action of the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association. His argument focuses on the licensing and accredidation required by law for professionals in these fields and the schools that train them. If these regulations effectively restrict supply, then they drive up salaries.

This is a contrast to the case of engineering and science professions, where government action attempts to increase supply of trained professionals through research grants to graduate schools and programs like the H1B visa. Although I don't have hard numbers to back these arguments up, I suspect that a big deal of the salary gap flows from the contrast in government behavior toward the two classes of professions rather than such sharp intrinsic differences in economic value. Engineering professional organizations are not as effective as the AMA and ABA at influencing government action.

Posted by: cks at July 23, 2003 01:40 PM


Not true for lawyers. If the demand for lawyers exceed the supply, and the supply were constrained by the required three years of law school plus the bar exam, then yes, we'd see high salaries for lawyers.

But as things stand now, many people who have passed the bar exam wind up not working as lawyers because the jobs aren't there for them.

The typical lawyer makes less money than the typical UPS driver.

So we conclude the that lawyer licensing requirements have little impact on how much money lawyers make.

Posted by: Gordon Gekko at July 23, 2003 02:22 PM

There are a couple of better and more feasible options missing from this post.

The best route to money isnt through education. Education actually constricts the mind like nothing on earth (by this I mean higher education - High Schooling and a make do undergraduate degree are fine).

This, chaps, is the smartest career path:


Or try this example:


Infinitely more sensible than working like a slave for some Investment Bank.

Posted by: Peter Phillips at July 23, 2003 06:36 PM

"Education actually constricts the mind like nothing else on earth" is what I meant.

Posted by: Peter Phillips at July 23, 2003 06:46 PM

David-I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss degrees from non-elitist schools-at least as far as JDs go-I'm quite sure none of the richest lawyers in the country have an elitist degree, e.g. Joe Jamail-University of Texas-has pocketed over well over $5 billion in his career ($3 billion from the Pennzoil verdict alone). Dickie Scruggs-Ole Miss-cleared $844 million publicly in tobacco litigation (plus $? millions more in referal fees). All the elitist guys are on the other side billing by the hour.

Posted by: martin at July 23, 2003 09:11 PM


The guys who make millions as tort lawyers are extreme outliers. The overwhelming majority of lawyers who get into the tort arena never break out of doing slip and fall cases and car accidents. Most million dollar a year lawyers are the partners at the big firms like Cravath.

Also the guys who make millions in tort law are real scum... they're just sucking money out of the system and giving nothing back in return. Could you really look at yourself in the mirror? Our legal system is completely messed up when it allows the lawyer to make millions of dollars in a tort case.

At least Bill Gates (the worlds richest man and a non-college graduate) has given us Windows and Office and other useful software.

Posted by: Gordon Gekko at July 24, 2003 05:59 AM

I won't get into this now Gordon-but Jamail's $3 billion fee was earned in a breach of contract case by Pennzoil vs. Texaco.

Posted by: martin at July 24, 2003 06:57 AM

Also-the guy at Cravath is not making a mill by providing Mother Theresa type social benefits-and he and his buddies' high salaries are passed on in the system just as much as any high priced tort lawyers.

Posted by: martin at July 24, 2003 07:25 AM

The guys at Cravath are working for big corporations. If the board of directors and the shareholders are OK with that, then it's not harming anyone else.

Posted by: Gordon Gekko at July 24, 2003 09:37 AM

Right-but from where do the Board and the shareholders recoup the legal fees?
And I'm quite sure Cravath is often billing said corporation's insurers-so same question?

Posted by: martin at July 24, 2003 10:53 AM

the tort system performs a useful economic function in setting up pro-safety incentives, no economy can function *without* a tort system. if there is a bug in the system then fix the bug, but don't blame lawyers for taking advantage of arbitrage opportunities like anyone else in their position would

Posted by: Jason Soon at July 24, 2003 12:42 PM

BLS occupational earnings data: ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/special.requests/lf/aat39.txt

Posted by: Proborders at July 24, 2003 12:59 PM