Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A good point by Freddie deBoer: the median, not the star student

Freddie deBoer is a humanities graduate student and a commentator on politics from a left perspective. He's been writing on-and-off on the myth of a STEM shortage and has an interesting point in Medium, looking at Silicon Valley's latest push for MOAR WORKERS (emphasis mine):
I was talking about this issue with a friend of mine, a brilliant PhD student in Electrical and Computer Engineering. We were walking by the quad during one of the big tech job fairs here at Purdue University, where some of the most powerful and profitable companies in science and technology come to entice Purdue students to apply for jobs. Purdue is a good school generally, but its reputation largely comes from its top-flight engineering and computer science programs. Looking at all of these billion-dollar companies spending time, money, and energy on developing elaborate booths, all to attract applications for employment, it was hard not to believe in the notion of a STEM shortage. 
When I mentioned that point to my friend, he laughed and said, “These companies are all trying to get the same 50 students.” This, more than anything, may be the source of the persistent STEM shortage myth: the inarguable value of being a star in a STEM field. There’s little doubt that people at the top of the food chain in computer science or electrical engineering or biomedical engineering, etc., often enjoy fantastic material and economic gain.  
But this is a banal point: it’s good to be a star. It’s good to be a star engineer in the same way it’s good to be a star musician or a star psychologist or a star writer. What public policy and politics demand is that we pay attention not to stars but to the median person. And the median American is facing a world of stagnant wages, the arbitrary nature of the employment market, and the constant fear of our financial system’s boom and bust cycle. The problem is that by definition, very few people get to be stars. I don’t doubt that the median Purdue STEM graduate is doing well. But Purdue is a top-flight STEM school, and half of our graduates will be below the median, and many who start those majors fail out of them, and the country is filled with schools who graduate STEM students who can’t get jobs. Basing our perception of the employment market on the outcomes of those 50 star students is pure folly.
I think Freddie's friend is probably right -- all those companies aren't trying to get warm bodies, they're trying to get star students. I think we've seen this with (my old nemesis) and Dow CEO Andrew Liveris, who was commenting about paying new chemical engineers $120,000 a year. Let's leave aside the question of whether or not it was accurate; it's likely that Dow has the money to chase the new star graduate and pay them a top salary, whatever the number. I wonder if those CEOs and their minions see what they're paying their new people and say, salaries are going up! We must have a shortage!

This doesn't excuse the behavior of the STEM shortage folks, but I wonder if it explains the nature of the distorted claims that they routinely make. 

22 comments:

  1. Excellent point. A good analogy might be the Chinese Olympic training camps, where only the top trainees become Olympic athletes, and everyone else is let go in their teens without a solid grounding to progress to any other type of career.

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  2. "...and half of our graduates will be below the median...", which is why STEM recruiters should visit Lake Wobegon, where "all the children are above average" (G. Keillor)

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    1. The problem is "above average" doesn't cut it in STEM. Even LW is not good enough for recruiters; however, it may help somewhat to be attractive ("The men are good looking")

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  3. It doesn't even make sense for the top 50, let alone the median. If your employers treat everyone else as expendable (including people who were you, say, five years ago), why do you think they'll treat you any differently when they're done with you?

    IT employers seem like aging male movie stars who need a constant flow of nubile young actresses to satiate them, preferably ones who aren't old enough to know any better and who don't know or care what happens to them when the star gets tired of them. Why again ought we be obligated to provide them with fodder?

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  4. Yup. Ive always thought in academic science (where I work) is that there is this over-emphasis to hire "stars" for faculty, eg the MD/PhD who has both clinical and basic research responsibilities, and then offer them a ton of money (my "Star" PhD/MD boss makes 1/4 million/yr). In the end, however, this star is supported by a raft of relatively poorly paid grad students and post-docs who provide the star with the data so he can continue to shine. Without a doubt in academic science, there is no correlation between what you are paid and your value to the system. If you can manage to be a little smarter and a little more convincing you can get a work up to a disporportionate share of the money\; you just have to make the right moves at the right times. Hey, its the American way!

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  5. Freddie's point is right on the mark: if demand and salaries for average, non-superstar workers in a field aren't rising, then there is no shortage. This is pretty simple stuff. Of course many of the originators of the STEM shortage notion aren't really under any illusions about the validity of their claims.

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    1. I wonder if Freddie looks at the ACS salary survey. Salaries have been stagnant for years.

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    2. Probably not. This isn't really part of his regular beat.

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  6. I would say maybe it's better to be a new graduate than a star with post-doc experience (or double post-doc experience).

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    1. No, having very limited experience doesn't help with job prospects.

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    2. Problem is, a lot of people don't consider a pd to be experience. It's almost viewed as a gap.

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    3. When I was interviewing for jobs a few years ago, I was regularly asked why I took a postdoc.

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    4. I was often told and asked, with such a great CV for an academic position, why would you want a position in industry? The real answer was that no academic insitution would interview me, but I obviously didn't say that in the interview.

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  7. I wasn't no star…but got some jobs and would like to think I did rather well in them. There was, however, a true thing about me…I knew when I graduated the market was bad….still is and always will be….how can you create demand in a field that doesn't have much demand or limited prospects for it. In a business, you got to MAKE MONEY….you search for markets where money can be made, and the cheapest and best employees can be found. The more money to be made the more you can pay them, if you want to. There are, as someone said, bust and boom cycles in the market. Christ, everyone is just trying to survive and maintain some semblance of a living. I was underpaid for my first and second job and wonder if that will carry over my whole career. I doubt it cause there comes a breaking point. Oh, and I had a nice array of experience coming out of college. It helps…for a short while.

    When it comes to job interviews, you either have the required skills or don't and they like/dislike what they see. There are FOUR variations or iterations to that and some them get you hired and some don't.

    Another whole thing is you cannot have 4 thousand microsofts. Just a couple big companies and a some small ones. All fighting for the same piece of pie. And it's a limited amount of pie people. Trends in business develop and that gives way to responses people don't like. Happened to me twice. Once I became a little long in the tooth my career morphed into something else. That revised my moods, expectations and needs. Its for the masses a rite of passage for almost all of us. Wiser folks come out the winners. I wish we all could prosper along any means but too many ill effects are conceived on a daily basis.

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    1. I think you have a point. (I'm just at a loss to know what it is.)

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  8. Hey, what about us bottom quintile PhD's? We are still here!

    Yes, I am one of them. I fully admit it.

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    1. There's hope. I know someone who was in a Ph.D. program that might not even have been top 50. They were thrown out of their research group after 3 or 4 years for barely working (they even had the audacity to take a summer internship at a local company in their business department without consulting their advisor). Another group let her join and finish the Ph.D. in a year. She then got a nice position at a well-known publicly traded company. They paid for her MBA at a local university. After she got the MBA she left and joined another company where she got a very cushy job. And on top of the a pretty well-known university gave her an assistant adjunct professorship. In my oppinion, as I noted above, star status is not the determining factor, although I'd never tell someone not to strive to be the best.

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    2. Actually, I was almost an average grad student at a 20ish ranked university. But long before the end I decided I didn’t like doing science, and mostly finished on momentum and sheer stubbornness (I put in more hours than anyone in my group at the time). A decade or so later, I have fallen further behind my peers, mostly because I don’t give a hoot. Why spend a year of my life generating the data for one paper or patent, when I could use the same time to read a hundred of both, a hundred books, watch a hundred movies, and travel to a hundred places I have never been? Actually doing science is about the slowest and most irrelevant way of educating yourself that I could dream of. I’d learn more working at Walmart simply because I’d be free to think about anything I want, rather than the same two or three very narrow problems for years on end.

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  9. What is the thinking around "star" status and the PhD program status itself? I am a median graduate of a top-5 chemistry program. Plenty of my average peers struggled with recruiting, and from what I can tell we all ended up underpaid (one unfortunate peer ended up making less with PhD/post-doc than they made before grad school as a lab tech). Should strong but self-aware students shoot for star status at a lower-tier program rather than join the ranks at a top program where they might be overlooked even with that star institution on their CV?

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    1. I would advise a new student to go to the best graduate school possible. They have better resources (specifically funding and equipment) and better contacts. Plus, given that very few, if any, projects lead to guaranteed success, the stars in a class may change substantially between entrance into the graduate program and graduation.

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    2. Aim high. If research doesn't work out you can always join a patent agency, but do it quickly as it seems they tend to go with new graduates from what I've seen.

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    3. A large number of people considering grad school are fairly naive about what happens there and how it impacts their job prospects.
      Related: I have had a number of people who do the hiring tell me they don't worry as much with the school the student came from as they do the reputation of the advisor the student worked for.

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