Ph.D.: A Lapse of Economic Reason (Part II)

For Part I (the original post on this topic), visit here.

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A few days ago (4 February 2011), Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba was electronically handed an advertisement for a full-time job in his field, namely marine biology. The job title was Faculty Research Assistant, essentially an entry-level research position, at a major public State University in the US.

Some of the requirements:

* University degree (Bachelor of Science or Arts, major in Marine Ecology or related field)
* Sophisticated computing skills
* Skilled with power tools
* Tote 50-pound packs on inaccessible rocky shorelines amid drenching rain and crashing waves
* Ability to work independently
* Ability to work with others
* Ability to supervise others
* Ability to write reports and present the findings to international audiences
* Available for work any and all hours of the day and night
* Shows “a demonstrable commitment to promoting and enhancing diversity.” End quote. This does not refer to the marine organisms that are the subject of the work.
* A straight-line communications portal to God – of which the incumbent will both make constant use and deny its existence to those to whom she reports


* Salary: $28,000
* Benefits: None listed
* Tenure: Fixed-term 1 year. Continuation dependent on program funding and the whim of the supervisor.

At YFNA’s request, Quilly did some research on a class of jobs in the same general pay range.

Some of the requirements:

* No minimum degree/diploma – company will train at company’s expense
* Computer skills sufficient to browse the Internet
* Limited manual labor
* Ability to learn how to work with and supervise others
* Ability to learn how to report to higher management
* Certified 5-day, ca. 40-hour work week


* Salary: $28,000
* Benefits: Full medical and dental coverage; 401K retirement plan.
* Tenure: Open-ended, dependent on performance and the whim of the supervisor.

The job?

Assistant (trainee) manager at Mickey D’s.

And We the People have the damned gall to wonder why the young people of this so-called great nation don’t pursue careers in the sciences. Anyone smart enough actually to conduct science is smart enough to figure out that most science careers are economically irrational, and pursuit of them is profoundly stupid.

Programs designed to push people into the sciences should be terminated forthwith. If the slogan ‘a few good men’ is good enough for the Marines, it ought to be good enough for the sciences. Let those few be truly competent, and have true incentive, in the only term$ that matter in these Untied States, to be competent. Then, they just might be able to earn enough to make their efforts worthwhile, for themselves and for everyone else.


  1. You assume that a potential scientist derives the same value from working in science as he or she would from working at McDonald’s. If you love science more than you like managing a fast-food restaurant, then it isn’t economically irrational to choose science.

    • Dawg, I’ve ignored the ‘satisfaction’ quotient because I think it should be ignored, especially by a person in my position (an educator) charged by society (if not by his employer, who loses money if his employees listen too closely to society) to provide young people with the information they need to make career choices.

      In my view, the net earning potential (including all the educational and ‘opportunity’ costs) for any given career is a vital piece of information, one that only a diligent search will discover, and once discovered is hard to hear over all the selling.

      When I was younger and mentioned ‘research scientist’ as a career choice, it was made plain to me, early and often, that this choice was not a wise one from the financial perspective. I heard the evidence, and made the choice anyway.

      I suspect – no, I fear – that were those advisers active today and overheard giving out the advice I received, they would be sacked for hurting the bottom line of their business. Indeed, I was told point-blank, some years ago, that failing students were not to be given failing grades, were not to be dissuaded from what was, for them, an inappropriate pursuit of happiness, lest I cost the department staffing positions. I eventually left that (tenured) position rather than be responsible for unleashing the results of this policy onto the workforce.

      Besides. ‘But you love it here’ is a propaganda tactic worthy of Madison Avenue – or the Nazis (“anything said often enough becomes the truth” – Goebbels). When it’s not a torture tactic worthy of O’Brien’s Ministry of Love.

  2. You did the right thing, but still “a vital piece of information’ shouldn’t be confused with the whole picture.

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