Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Community college or software?

Via the Twitter inbox, an interesting #chemjobs-related question at Slate from the long-running "Dear Prudie" column:
Q. Job woes: I have a Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard and am currently working at a community college. I love my students and feel like I’m really making a difference in their lives. I’m in a smaller city and love the opportunities I have given the size (e.g., I’m not a millionaire and I’m still on the board of directors for the symphony). Sounds perfect, right?  
The problem is, my salary is very low compared to what I could be making in a more technical job. I could easily double my salary ($60K to $120K) if I moved to a bigger city and worked in something like software testing. I would love that kind of job and I would excel at it and I would make twice as much money! The cost of living would be higher but not that much higher. I could have more money to donate to causes that I’m passionate about. 
At the same time, I wouldn’t be making a real difference. Sure, I would be doing a job well, but I wouldn’t be contributing to society in the same way I feel I am now. To see a student, whose parents are migrant farm workers, going to graduate school in my subject because I was able to share my passion for science and education—that’s making a difference! But I’m tired of being poor (relatively speaking). I bring home $1,700 every two weeks. Not peanuts but not a lot either. Do I stay or do I go? How do I even begin to decide?
If you read Prudie's advice, it's pretty good and not too different from what I would suggest. She mentions the classic factlet that the "happiness/money" correlation begins to fall off at around $75,000. She suggests that our Ph.D. chemist consider working for a few years as a software tester to see if they like it and then if they don't, they can return to teaching. That seems pretty reasonable.

At the same time, I am really confused by this situation. First, how do you go from a Ph.D. at Harvard in chemistry to community college teaching? There's gotta be a story there. Second, how can you be unaware that community college teaching does not pay very well? Finally, if you're the kind of person who deeply loves community college teaching and the arts, how do you get attracted by the siren song of a career in software testing at $120,000? Something about this story does not add up, and I can't quite put my finger on it. Readers? 

12 comments:

  1. At the end of the day you do what makes you happy! It is not the body but the mind satisfaction. If I were you I would stick where you are and frankly there is more fulfillment in your life, right?

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  2. My graduate program was in the top 10 or so, on roughly the same level as Harvard, and I've got a decent number of friends teaching at community colleges. A stable job in your hometown, often in a low cost of living area, beats getting laid off and forced into an awful scientific job market, and often forced to move, every 5 years or so.

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    1. I agree with KT. I'm a tenure track prof and am coming up on tenure review. Extremely long story short, things haven't exactly materialized as I'd expected, and it appears unlikely that I'll get tenure. I spent long enough in industry to know that I don't want to go back, and I don't want to get caught in the adjunct/visiting professor circuit. My plans are to 1) look for a post at community college or lower tier lib arts schools, or 2) get a certificate to teach high school. For the record, my PhD is also from a school with a solid "brand name". Everyone has a different story, but life takes one in unexpected directions.

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  3. Could be a preference to move closer to home, accompanying partner, or any number of issues that got them there.

    I question the "grass is always greener" sentiment - he knows he could do this completely different thing, and knows he would be great at it? How? I'd strongly suggest doing some freelance work on the side in that field, to see if he likes it, if he's any good at it, and if there's a market for it. He seems to be doing something he loves, being well-compensated, and getting sincere personal satisfaction from it. I know many people who would take any one of the three.

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  4. The community college angle didn't seem weird - I know some people who have gone this route. However, a few things seemed odd to me (yes, I admit I love to read advice articles, incl. Dear Prudie).

    -it seemed way too normal for a Dear Prudie letter
    -it was odd that they seemed to be sort of surprised by the salary difference. These things are pretty well known in grad school and people generally make informed decisions.
    -they seemed sort of overconfident they could easily get the software testing job

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    1. Yeah, it sounds odd. You don't just walk into a software job paying $120K especially if you have neither experience nor education in that field.

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  5. I find a lot of people from prestigious universities end up teaching community college to follow a spouse's career--two body problem.

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  6. I don't know this person's background, but I imagine 60K at a comm college is near the upper end of the pay scale at such an institution. If he or she is worried about money, I seriously doubt they could grow upward in their current role without becoming a chair or some other 'distinguished position' if there are such thing(s) in comm colleges.

    This person clearly does not seem to love making a difference THAT much if they're truly tempted by doubling their salary, but hey, I'm just a pessimistic a-hole for which I solely thank graduate school in making me so.

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  7. Why do you even bother fighting into Harvard University, and ending up with $60 as a teacher in community college?

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  8. Well, one possibility if you've spent any time in Massachusetts, you will find that Harvard PhDs litter every single school, including all the community colleges. I doubt this is the likely explanation given the writer talks about cost of living differences between small town/big city.

    More likely, they moved somewhere back closer to home.

    "I don't know this person's background, but I imagine 60K at a comm college is near the upper end of the pay scale at such an institution."

    This probably is true except in some of the high cost of living states. California's community colleges you can hit 6 figures but the cost of living is ridiculous in most places of course. However, if you land a position in one of the lower cost areas, you're golden. I know one person who has done this.

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    1. I've heard of higher salaries as well, mostly CA but also Michigan. It wouldn't be my cup of tea but seems preferable to adjuncting.

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  9. I'm surprised they assume they will start at 120k. Is that common in software testing?

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