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Some truthy things to say to nerds.

Recent Thoughts

Oct 12, 2015   [permalink]


How much is too little?

The amount of schooling you need, and in what subjects, is one of the most personal choices a human being can make. Only you can decide what path you want to follow in life, but if you're still reading this blog, I'm going to assume my opinion is useful to you, so here it comes:

PhDs are for losers.

Thumbs up!

PhDs are for losers

Well, not always, and not completely, but follow my reasoning here: in physics or chemistry, you're expected to know everything and to be a particular expert in something, so the PhD is a basic requirement for employment. If you're really really dedicated, you can get a bachelor's degree in four years and a PhD in three more, and be ready for the labor market by the time you're 25. Unfortunately, there are way more degrees given out every year than there are job opportunities, so an acceptable resume needs a couple-three years of indentured postdocitude. Once that's out of the way, when you're 28 and already starting to find a few gray hairs on your head, you can start looking for an actual market-salary job.

And here's the thing about that: while you've been loafing around in school, your competition has been learning the ins and outs of the grown-up world. Unfortunately, a lot of PhDs enter the workforce with a combined sense of superiority and entitlement that is not, for the most part, shared by employers, or by existing employees. I knew a PhD chemist once who freaked out—and I mean freaked out—when he realized he was reporting to someone with a GED. But this was chem-boy's first real job, and GED-man was not only five years older, but had also spent his entire adult life working in—and eventually managing—R&D laboratories. He knew how to order supplies, how to compose schedules in Microsoft Project, how to hire and fire technicians, and how to placate management when things went wrong. Chem-boy knew how to develop new chemical mixtures, but even here his years of training were no guarantee that his hunches were right or his first choices wise.

Sadly, his formal education was a complement to—not a replacement for—GED-man's brute-force, Edisonian model of trying anything and everything that might work. In fact, if employers were forced to choose between practice without theory and theory without practice, the PhDs would be out on the sidewalk so fast they'd emit Cerenkov radiation. So, like it or not, in this context the PhDs really are the help—not exactly interchangeable, but not the people you want in charge.

Now, a PhD with good people skills and 10+ years of practical experience is a different matter. If you have that, and if you also take to the business of business, you could well be on a fast track to senior management. Unfortunately, by the time that track opens up for you, you're already 40, and with age discrimination kicking in by the early 50s, you had better be damn sure your salary and pension are high enough to make up for those two lost decades.

If you're a bright but slow PhD student—and I've known a few of those—the picture is even bleaker. When your first real job doesn't start until your mid-to-late 30s, your only real chance of entering the power elite is to co-found a company and hope it's wildly successful. Failing that, there simply aren't enough years in your career to put enough money in the bank to give you the retirement you would have had with an earlier start. Honestly, you'd've been better off as a plumber.

It gets worse, too, because money isn't the only problem you'll face with a compressed adulthood. These days a "normal" person (if you'll forgive the hypothetical) graduates college at 22, maybe plays around for a year or two but quickly settles in and gets serious about building up a standard of living. This mythical normie gets married in his or her mid-to-late twenties, has a baby or two around age 30, and is done with the toddler years by 35. Peak earning years occur between 35 and 50, while the kids are growing up, and the offspring are finished with college before the parents hit retirement age. There may be a divorce and remarriage in their somewhere (a little less than half the time, yes), but that has surprisingly little effect on the overall arc: our median soul arrives at 55 or 60 with the work of parenthood well concluded.

For the late-blooming PhD, life is rather different. Against a backdrop of ticking biological clocks, a not-so-young couple emerges from the darkness of grad school, blinking and sneezing at the harsh glare of reality. They take an apartment, get married and have a kid before their employment situation has really settled down, and so the honeymoon years, the toddler years, the home-building years, and the career-building years all happen at the same time. The stress of an ordinary life is bad enough, but this is insane, and I've seen it drive people around the bend.

That's exactly why most of our science and technology doctorates are now going to immigrants: because it's exactly like picking fucking vegetables in the sun all day. It's a raw deal that totally sucks that no one in their right mind would take unless the situation in their home country were even worse.

Again, not always. Not everyone, and not completely. Some people don't want families. Some couples have strong outside support and/or cash cushions to fall back on. Some children are particularly easy to raise, and some large, multigenerational homes don't need to be "built", just integrated with. If you're lucky enough to be in one of these situations, you may be partly shielded from the penalties of a late start.

You may also get lucky; in the ever-shifting world of technology, the major you happened to pick 7 years ago may just happen to be the thing some cool company—or even an entire cool industry—happens to need. You might not even have to move!

There are also PhD-friendly employers—most notably universities (duh!) but also state and federal governments, and the contractors that serve them, that really do appreciate and try to recompense the great sacrifices a PhD has made. Beltway consulting companies like Booz Allen Hamilton, for whom the feds are the only customer, tend to be much more credential-driven than their commercial counterparts that make and sell actual things. Unfortunately, according to a friend of mine who works for one of these madhouses, nothing of actual value ever gets produced there, just endless reports about reports about reports. So you'll need a strong stomach and a willingness to put financial gain ahead of actual job satisfaction. But if that's your thing, then let Greater D.C. be your oyster!

Aerospace companies are in the middle of the range, with some areas dominated by academics and others by analysts and technicians. There are some commercial enterprises, though, where a PhD is a real asset and confers real status. Dow Chemical springs immediately to mind, along with 3M and Intel and yes, Google. If you manage a soft landing in one of these places, you have a comfortable couple of decades ahead of you before they boot you for someone younger. These jobs are hard to come by, though, and you may have to kill someone before a slot opens up.

Another good spot is the startup culture of Silicon Valley, which really does like to have PhDs around, not only as founders but also as early key hires. Venture capitalists have a reputation as cutting-edge thinkers charged with ushering in the future, but in reality they can be surprisingly lazy, paint-by-the-numbers herd creatures whose main goal is to command high salaries while not getting sued by their own investors. This means they need to minimize the appearance of risk in the bets they place, which in turn means that some dude with a Stanford doctorate, and local people able to vouch for him, is a lot more fundable than some yutz from Albuquerque with a perpetual motion machine. Even if the machine fucking works!

Which brings me to another point: a PhD from a brand-name school means a lot more than a PhD from Kansas State. If KSU is the only grad school that'll let you in, you need to think very seriously about your next move, or you may sink half a decade into a dog-shit milkshake only to find, hyah, there's no market for dog-shit milkshakes. Especially if your degree is in English or History, Philosophy or Communications, but you're too smart to fall for that scam, right? (Hi, Sean! Hi, Greg!)

Think of it as running a naval blockade; in an especially forgiving historical era, your odds of making it through with your cargo intact may be as high as 75%. Meaning, there's still a 1 in 4 chance of getting sunk, captured, run aground, or forced to dump your goods at sea. In an unforgiving period, your chances of success may drop to 10% or less, and if you're braving those kinds of odds anyway, there are betting tables outside the PhD zone that may let you roll the dice more than once. It's something to think about, and I hope you do think about it. No one should place that big a bet without first imagining all the various futures it can lead to, and which ones are more probable.

More anon.

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