Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
Academia's 1% (chroniclevitae.com)
177 points by eli_gottlieb on Mar 7, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 137 comments



There is a signalling/game mechanic that explains this sort of thing:

1) You have some rare ability that is distributed unevenly (Research skill, football skill) 2) There's certain brands that are imperfectly connected to the distribution of ability (Harvard, Man Utd) 3) You can hire a guy who looks to have the ability minus the brand, and he'll be cheap (Easier to lure, lower weekly salary). Once in a while, someone does this for a brand and the guy is "in". 4) Hire the wrong guy without the brand and your head is on the block. Gotta publish/win championships. 5) Hire the wrong guy with the brand, and you can point at many other coaches who did the same.

So what's going to happen? Anyone who is obviously good will get in no matter what, but the bar is extra high. And a fair number of obviously good people will also get the brand name. Everyone who is good but not great needs the brand.

Just looking at the numbers in the academia game, it looks very hard. Committees need to justify their choices, and they are choosing a very small subset of the applicants. Getting a dud on a team of say 7 researchers could be costly. You'll get some anyway (there's a HN article today about how hard it is to interview people) but you can at least pretend you did the conservative thing. Also, with a very small size the top spaces are reserved for special talents (Terence Tao article today as well). If you're on a shortlist with TT, you're not getting that job.


I'm not sure, but I'd bet that the best institutions actually don't care where their applicants come from. They can afford to just choose the best. It's the so-so places that have to signal their quality by 'hiring the best'. I've seen this in graduate school applications - students with poor marks often stand a better chance of admittance in a top program than a so-so one.


> I've seen this in graduate school applications - students with poor marks often stand a better chance of admittance in a top program than a so-so one.

Well, that's probably deceptive, as those guys are probably exceptional in other ways (publications as an undergrad, other research, etc) which takes away from their grades, or they only cared about certain classes which were important to their field.


As a current graduate school applicant with a couple of admits to top 10 programs I can confirm this.

My GPA looks "low" around a 3.3 cumulative (I have lots of C's in things I deemed unimportant) but I have a relatively high CS GPA (3.8-3.9), took many graduate classes during undergrad, worked at startups, consulted, did multiple years of research resulting in two publications with 2-3 more in the pipeline, worked on open source, gave talks at workshops and software engineering conferences, TAed, constructed two student led courses, etc.

It seems the most important thing is to demonstrate your ability to work as a researcher (your primary role as a CS graduate student) trumps all in graduate admissions, but that is just my 2 cents.


That's what I've heard, and it makes sense. Most specifically, to get into grad school X, you need to have one or more of the facility members in your school who are known by one or more in X recommend you with the message that you can do research.


I think the explanation model agrees. For instance if you're a top football club, you can tell who the cream of the crop are, and you'll get your share.

If you want to, you can take a chance on a player. If he's not good enough, he's still got your stamp of approval, so he can be sold at a higher price anyway.


True at the graduate level. But how many faculty at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc. did their PhD at a school outside of the top ~15 schools?


To summarize: "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM".


I applied for a PhD at an average school, passed the qualifying exam. But after a couple years found a full time programming job and didn't finish. Looking back family and friends were upset at me for not finishing, but I think it was a bullet I dodged. Having to look for research position at a company or getting stuck fighting for tenure position at some even less than average school in the middle of nowhere would not have worked out as well.

And funny enough, I looked at the list of faculty at the university I was at, to see where they came from. All from high end school Harvard, Purdue, Cornell etc, just like the article mentions.

The policy it seems is hire up, graduate down. Unless of course they are in the top university then they hire from peers.


I applied for a PhD at an average school, passed the qualifying exam. But after a couple years found a full time programming job and didn't finish. Looking back family and friends were upset at me for not finishing, but I think it was a bullet I dodged

This is me, right now, except in English: I'm a technical writing consultant (www.seliger.com if you're curious) and I feel terrible for my peers who are trying to make it in academia. The problem is bad enough that I wrote this: http://jakeseliger.com/2012/05/22/what-you-should-know-befor....

Intellectually I know that I should've finished the dissertation, for the letters, but I stopped caring.


> Having to look for research position at a company or getting stuck fighting for tenure position

That's something of a false dichotomy. I know lots of PhDs that aren't doing research or faculty jobs.


Maybe, I am in a position to interview a lot of candidates and all the ones with PhDs applying for general software engineer positions are pretty bad at software. Some fail the fizzbuzz test even. They have been working on their research project for 4 years and in that time forgot all most of the things they learned in undergraduate. Some of the ones that passed the interview were asking for much higher salaries, which we could not justify.


As someone who will be graduating in less than a year of PhD in comp sci., I would like to encourage you to not give up on all PhDs with such assumption. Like you, I am not impressed with the prospect of academia and research in general. But I honestly don't think a majority of CS phd students at decent (top 50) universities will fail fizzbuzz test as long as they have had undergraduate CS background. Some of us may fail to implement BFS/DFS/merge/quicksort during a 45 minute interview, but I think this is due to the interviewing process for tech jobs being somewhat broken (I saw my peers studying 3 or more months with interview prep books/sites and thought it's becoming ridiculous). A much better way to test a candidate would be to assign him/her a take-home assignment/project and let him/her work on it independently or along with your team, and judge his/her candidacy based on it (if your company can afford the extra time/resource for such process). I'm sure you'll notice those PhD folks from CS would not be as bad as you think they are.

In any case, I'd (for selfish reason) encourage you to be open-minded and give applicants with PhD background at least an equal chance. Personally, I never wanted a PhD, but I went for it because I needed to keep my immigrant status legal, and I couldn't pay for a master's degree out of pocket (if I enroll for a PhD program, I get a master's degree for free on the way). The downside of being a PhD student is that it is significantly more difficult for me to find my way back into software positions, which is something I wanted to do eventually; the HR usually throws away my resume with the assumption(s) that I am either only interested in research or am "overqualified" (or that I'd ask for more money), all of which are incorrect for a lot of PhD students, like me, stuck in academia for now. For all HR or recruiters reading this, I'd encourage you all to give PhD students a fair shot for the programming positions at your firms. You might find that these PhD students are more motivated or have more persistence/endurance (as most who survive the PhD experience usually have) or if you're lucky, are better prepared and thoughtful programmers.


Why is failing to implement BFS/DFS/quicksort in a 45 minute interview the fault of the interviewing process being broken?

The idea that someone has to study 3 months for an interview is ridiculous. I suppose for a PhD student I can understand as they probably need to refresh their memory, but if that's the case then you could argue they shouldn't be passing the interviews without refreshing their memory if we are talking about normal software development roles.


I did the same. Bailed out in the middle of my science Phd to programming. Most of my peers who finished their degrees are asking me how to jump into the field.


The author seems to view the hiring statistics she cites as evidence of "bias", but I didn't see any attempt to control for the actual quality of the applicants. I.e. You could read all of this as just more evidence that the "system" works: the good schools tend to be enriched for good graduate students, who then tend to get a lot of the tenure-track jobs.


I was thinking the same thing, and then I read:

"With institutional bias in hiring now proven by multiple social scientists..."

Is anyone familiar with these studies? This is a crucial piece of information for the article.


If it's the study I'm thinking of [1], they essentially tried to measure how much more actual merit hires would need to have to justify the inequality of hiring decisions:

> Despite the confounded nature of merit and social status within measurable prestige, the observed hierarchies are sufficiently steep that attributing their structure to differences in merit alone seems implausible.

It's not the strongest argument, but I'm having trouble coming up with a way to separate it out. You could try to measure the subsequent productivity of professors once hired, but it's likely that scientific publishing and citation also has a prestige bias, so the confounder is back.

[1] http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/1/e1400005


I concluded that in that line, the author was referring to the statistics she had previously discussed. But I have to admit that it's ambiguous.


When referring to social "scientists" the quotes should be obligatory


>You could read all of this as just more evidence that the "system" works: the good schools tend to be enriched for good graduate students, who then tend to get a lot of the tenure-track jobs.

Then, I think we have to continue reasoning, why do those grad-students grow up and find they can only acquire tenure-track jobs by jumping to lower-tier institutions, where their own academic "children" will be considered inferior?


Because grad schools produce more (graduating students) than they consume (hiring faculty).


Yes, that much is obvious. But you would think that if a department is staffed by, say, MIT graduates, that they can do MIT-quality research, thanks to their MIT training, without being in the geographical vicinity of downtown Cambridge. Despite this, academic status-signaling seems to assume that the geographical vicinity is of profound importance.


Those ex-MIT profs no longer have access to MIT-level resources and MIT-level grad students. The latter being more important than the former.


Not everyone mit graduate is MIT professor good.


That's possible, but when we know that many people who are MIT Professor Good could not get into MIT for undergrad[1], it still requires us to believe MIT's admissions and graduation criteria for PhD students are very loose compared to all their other observed standards.

[1] -- http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=2003


That's frankly ridiculous, or at least the CalTech example at the end. For undergraduate study, MIT and CalTech have a strong filtering function in that you must be able to do math and calculus based physics, and, oh yeah, one "humanities" course per term. A student brilliant only at math would likely fail horribly. And so a student who's brilliant at just CS might not make the cut for MIT, since MIT's EECS undergraduate program requires a minimum of both EE and CS (for better or worse, that's their view of what an undergraduate must have).

Change the domain to graduate programs and above and things are different.

While I'm at it, back some years ago last decade before MIT gained a lot of attention approximately 13,000 students applied a year for the undergraduate program. 3,000 were judged to "be able to do the work", and only from them was a class of 1,100 students constructed.


Because these universities produce more students than tenure-track positions?


They do that because their "better" colleagues from the top tier also get the jobs at the top tier. Note that "better" likely includes a healthy dose of luck.


Why can't everyone who joins the military attain the rank of colonel or higher eventually?


On the other hand, when you become an officer you'd have to be grossly ignorant not to know about the (US) military "up or out" policy. One complaint here that seems to be legit is that students are not told how poor their job prospects are in raw numbers. Now, some of that is no doubt to avoid discouragement, you don't know if X student will later shine, or burn out, but....


I got my degree in the early 90s. At that time, it was already common knowledge among grad students that we couldn't all be hired into academic jobs. How could we not have known? My dad, who got his PhD in the 50s told me it was well known even then.


That's an issue for academia in general. One gets the sense that during the boom times, the universities stopped caring about the job prospects of their graduates since they figured the degree would give them an advantage one way or another.


This was the best article, not just regarding academia, but describing the issue of privilege and its destructive effect on the "american dream" - that I think I have seen since the 2009 crash.

We have a controversy about wealth inequality and it seems that would be a natural result of a cycle of power simply being passed down generation by generation.

I think the opposite of that, a meritocracy, is what we want - but maybe what we have is inevitable in a money and status obsessed culture. I don't know if the culture is a cause or result of the systems we have that tilt the scales so far in favor of the elite over the non-elite, but one or the other would have to be addressed in some way.


I think there are two distinct issues here. The first is that it seems like university students select schools and classes based on the academic background of their professors (having a professor from Harvard seems to be more prestigious than having one from most state schools). For many students (especially before they ever take a class), they don't know enough about most of the professors to evaluate them (so the educational background of their professors is the de facto proxy for quality). As long as that continues to be the case, and students (and prospective students) back those decisions with dollars (choosing to attend classes/universities based on their faculty), schools are going to continue to value (and possibly over value) that. That's straightforward market economics.

The second issue is more complex. The author argues that higher education isn't a meritocracy (that privileged students have a much easier change of getting in and staying in to a prestigious school). That's likely true to some degree, but the author over-simplifies things (there are certainly people attending those universities who are there based solely on merit).

It's clear that the job market for professors values educational background, because that's what students are voting for with their wallets. As long as that continues to be the case, those who have more money, and whose families value education, will continue to have an advantage. I don't know that we ever escape that.


I disagree with you on both counts:

1. Perhaps your university background is different, but I haven't ever had the impression that a particular professor's class is preferred to another due to the first professor's educational pedigree, in undergraduate classes. Such classes often conform to general topics and there is insufficient variability for two professors to directly compete for students.

Undergraduate students bring in the most money but, as I mention above, aren't really involved in selecting one instructor over another; indeed, undergraduates are often taught by graduate students. If the cash-generating undergraduates are cut off from professors, it stands to reason that undergraduates' opinions aren't important in hiring professors.

Graduate courses are, of course, different. First, graduate students often cost money (they often receive a stipend). But getting into graduate school isn't as meritocratic as it may seem, which both relates to the OP's point and to my second disagreement.

2. I don't believe that the OP ever says that graduate schools don't admit students based on merit. Instead, she gives an example of how a strong candidate might prefer a less-prestigious university to a more prestigious one (cost of living).


Undergraduate universities are chosen by parents at least as much as students. Parents may well see an Ivy-league stuffed faculty as attractive.


I turned down a couple of better name universities for a lesser known university (for graduate school) because my advisor there was top of his field. At that point, the university doesn't really matter. You look at the quality of work of your advisor and how well funded he/she is.


Who gets do define merit? Too many Jewish students were getting into Harvard in the early part of the 20th century, so the application process was changed.


and exactly the same thing now happens with Asians.


People will wax poetically about meritocracy and fairness. Then they will get children of their own and think to themselves that giving them all the advantages that they can get is their newest and most moral goal.


Meritocracy is a nonsensical construct and rarely amounts to anything more than further nourishing the already nourished. Often to the exclusion of nourishing those that actually need it. It's a perverse, self-deluding form of domination.


Guilty as charged.

But realistically, I know of no society where parents don't favor the interests of their own children, resulting in a trend towards increasing disparity.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is to remember that perfect meritocracy is utopian, and can't be reconciled with fairness, so long as individuals can choose to whom they share their advantages -- indeed when we can't even all agree on what those advantages are. So we look for second best, for instance, endorsing social and economic measures that counteract that disparity.


> But realistically, I know of no society where parents don't favor the interests of their own children,

"But realistically, everyone else is doing it..."

Yes. I didn't have any particular society in mind. Just our own nature.


From casual observation, it would seem a lot of black communities are not afflicted with this moral dillemma.

What's more the latest US Census post points quite clearly to a powerful assortat I've mating effect.


I am a mathematics professor at an R1 university who has been directly involved in faculty searches for four years in a row.

This article is quite mistaken, at least from the perspective of an academic mathematician. (Maybe it is more accurate in the humanities.)

(1) This year, two of the three candidates whom we interviewed got their Ph.D.'s at non-top-20 universities. We made offers to both of them. One of them turned us down, in favor of a better offer from another R1 university.

The third got his Ph.D. at a top-20, but not top-10 university.

The last person we hired, in a previous year's search, also got his Ph.D. at a non-top-20 university.

(2) My own university is not in the top 50. Most of our own Ph.D. graduates, if I limit to the strongest and hardworking ones, have been successful in getting either academic jobs at good universities, or very appealing non-academic jobs.

(3) In mathematics at least, the top universities offer a much better graduate education than non-top universities. For one, the absolute leading researchers are at the top universities, and there is a big gap between these people and merely very good researchers. (I say that, counting myself in the latter category.)

But still more important than that is the quality of the peer group. In grad school (at least in math) you learn much more from your peers than from your professors, and Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc. attract the most talented, ambitious, and hard-working students. That is why these places are so good.

(4) "Why don’t prospective graduate students simply limit their applications to favored elite institutions? The answer is often financial, and, again, speaks to privilege and discrimination endemic to academic culture. The most prestigious universities – the Ivy League, University of Chicago, Stanford University, the University of California system – tend to lie in the most expensive parts of the country."

Well, for one, these places all pay higher stipends. I don't know of any grad students in math at any of these places who have had difficulties paying their living expenses, except for those who were simultaneously trying to raise families.

Ambitious students who can get into elite universities, usually should. And exceptions are typically in the case of elite research groups in otherwise non-elite universities.

I am not saying that there is no privilege and discrimination in mathematics departments (the gender ratio is notoriously bad), but I find the author's criticisms off-base.


I know many biomedical faculty members in Stanfod pay their postdocs below NIH suggested levels, just because they can.

I would caution people of survivor's bias. Only saints promote people with strong different options and who act on their options. Academia is full of strong egos.


Really, that is surprising, because it is disallowed. Stanford, like all UC's where I am at, have salary minimums. Stanford's minimum is higher than the NIH levels [1]. It would be hard to pay someone under the table, so I don't see how this is really occurring.

[1] http://postdocs.stanford.edu/handbook/salary.html


Hmmm. Unless Stanford and the NIH turn a blind eye to it---this is trivial to audit---this could not be happening without the faculty getting kickbacks.


It's not happening as far as I know (I'm faculty at UCLA and employ several postdocs).


I heard from my postdoc friends at Stanford a couple of years ago about the pay levels. It could have changed now but I doubt it. Do postdocs at Stanford still pay tuitions? My experience is that UCSF > UC Berkeley > Stanford as far as postdocs' compensation is concerned.


Stanford has always been pretty good with postdoc pay, and postdocs never paid tuition. Pretty much all of these schools and mine (UCLA) are on similar levels. At all UC's postdocs are unionized as well given additional protections (like 1yr contracts, limits on training time, etc).


The tuition part is wrong. Stanford postdocs do pay tuition, but it isn't out of pocket. They are legally unmatriculated graduate students, so they pay some kind of tuition/registration fee for the year/quarter (I can't remember which).

It isn't something that they are necessarily responsible for, and it is a small amount. But it is paid in their name.


That's a peculiarity of stanford; but it's like $200/year. At UCLA we have something similar called an infrastructure fee which is about the same amount a year. Importantly, this is not something they are responsible for paying ever.


I think that the point is so that it looks like you are really a student for tax purposes. It is a small amount that isn't ever directly billed to you - but it does count as a taxable benefit.


according to glassdoor, it's exactly the opposite. Stanford > Cal > UCSF.

And things seem to have changed. I was a postdoc 2 years ago and salaries seem to be higher (although glassdoor typically reports exit salaries).


Is there any field with a greater supply/demand imbalance than biology/biomedical?

There seemed to be a big imbalance in the late 1970s and through the 1980s (sic), and I gather it's only gotten worse as the big and successful push for cheaper science labor began in the '80s.


>For one, the absolute leading researchers are at the top universities, and there is a big gap between these people and merely very good researchers.

I have noticed the opposite effect. Typically the best researchers are the worst instructors, prepare the least for their courses and couldn't care less about their teaching quality. Those that are both solid instructors and researchers are exceptionally rare.

While leading researchers may have a better grasp of their specialized field this is often not applicable in graduate courses. The exception being when those professors develop an entire course around their research and (often) force many of their research students into that course.


I don't get the thing about cost of living. New Haven is not expensive, neither is NJ commutable to Princeton, nor Philadelphia. Chicago's cost of living is right at the national average. Durham's is probably below. Etc.


I am a mathematics graduate student at an AMS Group 1 public university in Chicago. The university's estimated cost of living is $16,046, but our wage minimums were significantly below this number (about $1k less) until two years ago, which was the result of over a year of contract negotiations during which we had to bring in an arbiter from the federal government because the university was not bargaining with our union in good faith. They also threatened to raise our health-care premiums and increase fees arbitrarily. The university also bans individual departments from paying their graduate students much more to compensate.

In short, our university appears to be doing everything they can to extract money from their graduate students. It is ridiculous and nearsighted.


Yeah, I thought that was a strange statement in an otherwise solid article. I lived in the Boston area for 2 years on a grad school stipend. It covered my basic needs, and I was even able to put away some money.

Yes, if you're single, you'll probably need roommates, but it is definitely doable.


Indeed. In addition, living frugally is not rocket science. I left graduate school around $2k ahead of coming in, and mine was in an area with higher costs of living than most of the ones mentioned. I shared my run-down apartment with three other people, ate cheap, and generally had a fantastic time.

If you want to insist on a private apartment, grad school isn't the place for you.


Princeton is an expensive city that's where it's optimal to live if you attend Princeton.


Does anyone else find it ironic that academia is, in some sense, more anti-intellectual than general manager Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics baseball team? I'm sure on Hacker News most of your know about MoneyBall:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moneyball

Consider this paragraph, and ask yourself why the nation's major universities can not raise themselves to the same level of statistical rigor:

"The central premise of Moneyball is that the collected wisdom of baseball insiders (including players, managers, coaches, scouts, and the front office) over the past century is subjective and often flawed. Statistics such as stolen bases, runs batted in, and batting average, typically used to gauge players, are relics of a 19th-century view of the game and the statistics available at that time. The book argues that the Oakland A's' front office took advantage of more analytical gauges of player performance to field a team that could better compete against richer competitors in Major League Baseball (MLB)."

It is in some sense ironic, and in some other sense sickening, that our nation's universities continue to hang on 19th-century views of status and credentials, when other professions, even sports, have moved onto more objective, measurable metrics.


Research isn't a competitive game with clear wins and losses. Moneyball and finding the under valued players works best in environments where you can actually prove/demonstrate they wre clearly undervalued. It's very difficult to show someone who's undervalued is clearly undervalued short of them solving a major open problem. When there is far less direct competition everything is more subjective and the prestige factor of top tier applicants shines.


Just 18 elite universities produce half of all computer science professors, 16 schools produce half of all business professors, and eight schools account for half of all history professors... What that means is something every Ph.D. from a less-prestigious institution knows all too well: No amount of publishing, teaching excellence, or grants can compensate for an affiliation that is less than favorable in the eyes of a search committee.

This is just wrong. It is possible that publishing and grants are correlated with institution rank (and teaching excellence is usually a relative measure so hard to compare across schools anyway).

It seems decades of anti-discrimination indoctrination have resulted in a situation where no argument is to sloppy, and no evidence is to flimsy, when you are arguing that discrimination exists somewhere.


The actual paper is pretty interesting, even aside from the more political implications[0]. For faculty placement, their measure of network prestige outpredicts other network measures and other ranking systems like USNews (but still only performs modestly well).

They also released the data in the supplementals. This is a magnificent hand-curated dataset, especially because it's complete, for each discipline, and it's relatively large. Network measures suffer from sampling issues, so a complete dataset like this is awesome.

[0]http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/1/e1400005.


The same rule holds true for jobs in the private sector: work for a high profile company (Google, Apple, Facebook, ...) and you will find doors open everywhere. Getting there in the first place is the real challenge.


One difference is that the private sector gives second chances and academia doesn't.


Or, to put it another way, there are far more paths to success in the private sector than in academia. People change careers, move upwards, downwards, sideways, etc.

Academia is much less forgiving.


In STEM, I have the very strong impression that there are many paths that will take you off the academic track, and essentially none that will get you back on it. E.g. you have to keep up with the current literature to some degree.


There are rare instances of people coming back to academia after being very successful in industry. It's hard to say whether the rate is low because there's a bias against it from the hiring committees, or if people are actually generally happy in industry and uninterested in going back, or likely some combination of both.


"after being very successful in industry"

I've heard of one example of that in the MIT AI Lab in the '60-70s, although it helped that "very successful" can equal "can pay for his research budget" ^_^. And of course there weren't many real CS graduates to turn into faculty members in the bad old days.


Back in the glory days of the 1960's you'd often see a scientist who'd made big money for a company get an endowed chair somewhere.


I went to a startup after my phd for a few years, came back and am now a prof. I can't say I was very successful in industry. It happens, it's fairly rare, but it is definately becoming more common


Exactly, and I can't imagine how it's possible to keep up with current literature when you are out of the academic conference circuit, and no longer have access to a university library that pays for access to journals.


I'll wager the majority of Google hires are from the same few CS programmes, Stanford, MIT, CMU, etc.


This is one of the reasons you want to avoid getting a "subprime" Ph.D.


Only if you care about going into academia. It's possible to want to get a PhD just to grow in your field.

I acquired my PhD a few years ago, and while I admit that it's hard to compare that to the experience I could have had in industry, I feel like I grew quite a lot and that it helps me in my current position in many many ways, only one of which is pure CS ability.


[Disclaimer: I'm part of that 1% she is talking about, since I'm tenured faculty in Mathematics at University of Washington, with "Harvard" on my resume due to my first job being there. http://wstein.org]

The author says: "The most prestigious universities – the Ivy League, University of Chicago, Stanford University, the University of California system – tend to lie in the most expensive parts of the country. Even with full funding, it is nearly impossible to live in such costly cities without incurring debt, given that stipends tend to be $25,000 or less."

Such entitlement. I got into UC Berkeley (1995-2000) where I received $13K/year to live on from them (for TA'ing), and I made it work by having a roommate, being frugal, and getting some student loans (the minimum I needed), which I paid off within 2 years of graduation. It sucked, but I had to just be lean and deal with it, and reminded myself that I was a student.

Also, there is a naive and incorrect (in math at least) assumption in this article that the only difference between a graduate student from a top-10 university and a top-100 university is the name of the university where they graduated. There may be some truth to this for undergraduates, but for graduate students---who spend between 4 and 10 years busting their ass full-time on their research area---the situation is completely different.

The author thus seems to discount the possibility that the very best students who go to graduate school at Harvard/Berkeley/etc. are often be the best job candidates. Harvard/Berkeley/etc. gets the best potential grad students in the first place -- I was on the grad admissions committee in math at Harvard for years, and we would make offers to the top (or so) American students, and pretty much get most of them. These were extremely strong enthusiastic students who had invested often a decade of their lives into mathematics already; the education these students then got at grad school was by top researchers. In research, learning from the masters is often critical to becoming one, since the habits, tricks, ideas, intuitions, etc. are very hard to convey in writing.

Also, not everybody gets into graduate school at Harvard/Berkeley/etc. via "inherited wealth". At least I didn't -- I was an undergraduate at Northern Arizona University, and got into Berkeley entirely by being crazy in love with doing mathematics and also relatively good at it. The undergrad institution definitely matters in grad school admissions. However, being sufficiently good regularly gets around being from a non-top-10 university.

The article reminds me of this quote -- http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Paul_Halmos: "André Weil suggested that there is a logarithmic law at work: first-rate people attract other first-rate people, but second-rate people tend to hire third-raters, and third-rate people hire fifth-raters."


You may not realize this but because you worked hard for your position you believe you are entitled to it and the system that promoted you is near perfect. The reality is not so. I have been to UC Berkeley, where the average faculty is far more interested in gaming the system than making real contribution to science. They orbit around "famous" people, co-author papers with "big wigs," be co-PI with well connected people, because this way is easier than doing real science. There are top people at the top universities, and there are top people at the lower-tier schools, at a lower rate but with a far greater base population. Scientific breakthroughts historically do not favor top rate institutions.

Let's face it. The "top" students that Harvard and Stanford accept are past experts at gaming the system. They are total believer in and are totally committed to climbing the existing social-economic hiearchy. They worship the authorities, are perfectly content in following established lines of research, and pad themselves in the back when they re-search past results to apply to an arcane area, which in all probability ten people are ever going to find interesting and never useful. They are the perfect sheeps pretending to be lions.

Talk about entitlement.


>Scientific breakthroughts historically do not favor top rate institutions.

What proof of this do you have? Quick looks over Nobel Prizes, Fields Medals, or even lists of top scientific breakthroughs demonstrate that top rate universities do produce far more scientific breakthroughs than other universities.


How frequently do those people move to those universities after they've made the scientific breakthrough for which they receive the award?


For Nobel Prizes, it's abundantly clear that people from and/or working at top schools win them vastly more than small schools by people that were at the school when the work was done. [1] Harvard has around 150. Many of the top schools have around 100. Ohio State, despite being much bigger [2,3], has 4, and is much more in line with most state (right below top tier) schools.

If you want to challenge that the top schools have much more productive researchers (and those making significant breakthroughs) on average, feel free to present evidence. Any metric I can find for which I can get enough information implies otherwise.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Nobel_laureates_by_univ...

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard_University

[3] http://www.osu.edu/osutoday/stuinfo.php


I don't necessarily disagree with anything you've said, but there's a tone here and in Hacker News in general that bothers me - a fierce meritocracy that doesn't seem to have a scrap of empathy for anyone who doesn't fit into the top 1%.

So if the rest of us lazy slobs in the 99% are unworthy to get into the best grad schools or Y Combinator, I'm to assume we should just find ourselves a quiet spot in the midwest in which to shoot ourselves in the face and get of your way? But then who will be around to pay the tuitions at your overpriced institutions, or buy your latest social media software?


Agreed.

Empathy is free; it don't cost a thing for people to show compassion for those who struggle, but it sure seems like a rare and precious jewel among the tech nerd crowd.


Fascinating article over at The Edge where Kahne man interviews hariri. TLDR; the answer to your simpering question is "yes"


The fact that your first alternative to succeeding is giving up entirely, I don't see how you could make it to the midwest with enough money to buy the gun you'll kill yourself with.

Resources; time, energy, attention; are limited. If you allocate resources to less-than-best people, you get less-than-best results, most of the time.

If these people are the kind of weak, selfish pricks who think that the world owes them a world-class experience just for existing, they'll give up half-way through the most difficult thing they've ever done(if they ever start), and your investment in them will be lost forever, without outcomes.

That kind of investment crashes your economy, and in the long run gets your species killed.


This is funny because, it wasn't that long ago in history, that the characteristics that made a person successful were how all about how well they could hunt. How many of the new geek kings of the startup scene, would be kings in that world? You might be successful in your niche, but never forget the sheer good luck that had you born near (spatially and temporally) a local maxima.


A friend of mine once had a conjecture that back in the day, the people who moved to the cities were the ones who couldn't hack it being self-sufficient on a farm.


That might be true to some extent but I think it ignores all of the other much more powerful motivations. Wealth is easier to accumulate in a city because there is far more specialization.

I can't be a first-rate baker and a blacksmith and a shipwright and a miner and a fisher and a farmer and and and ... the specialists in the city do one thing excellently: they bring down the cost while also bringing up quality, raising quality-of-life for people in the city. If I'm an average farmer and average blacksmith, perhaps I'll produce $10 worth of goods in an hour, $5 worth of crops and $5 worth of tools. As an exceptional farmer, I can produce $20 worth of crops, trade $10 of them for tools, and end up with $10 each of crops and tools. It's as simple as that - trading between people with different specialties / needs leaves both people better off, and you can't do that subsistence farming.

Public infrastructure in cities has also always been much better, such as roads, communication systems, police, fire fighting, etc. Trade was much easier because there were more people to trade with, a larger market for your goods. On a small subsistence farm, any excess that you cannot save or reinvest is wasted; in a city, it can be sold or traded to accumulate wealth.

There are certainly people who are attracted to the city because they can't hack it (beggars, etc.), but they are in the minority. In the modern era, something like 3% of the population are farmers, and they are so exceptionally effective (supported by agricultural scientists, robotics engineers who build automated farming machinery, etc.) that the rest of us have plenty of food, freeing us up to specialize in other things (like robotics).

I believe this cycle of technological enrichment fundamentally requires specialization. This is not to say that anyone is wrong for wanting a simpler or more communal form of living, but I doubt the motivations are anything economic. The reason that so many people end up working in cities, in factories (sweatshops) today is simple: they can accumulate more wealth specializing in even a mundane repetitive task (quickly, cheaply, and with quality) than they could by subsistence farming.


Two other points that might be worth further exploration:

* There was an article on Hacker News recently about the historical cost of clothing, how it used to cost thousands of modern-equivalent dollars for a shirt. Thus why people wore clothing until it was rags. The cost of clothing and all such goods came down dramatically due to peoples' specialization as spinners, weavers, sewers, tailors, etc. Now clothing is cheap and plentiful.

[Update: found it: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8940950 ]

* There was another HN thread discussing the fall of the Roman empire and the "dark ages". A commentator who seemed to be a historian reinforced the idea that yes, there really was a dark ages. The fall of the empire shut down trade, which led to a marked decline in the pottery available in Britain. Previously they had been able to import plentiful, high quality pottery from elsewhere. With the fall of the empire and the collapse of trade, they began to make it themselves, and were terrible at it. Even the kings of the era had worse pottery than the common person centuries earlier. (This is more about trade than about cities, but the effectiveness of trade increases with density.)

[Update: not the HN comment I was looking for, but similar information about pottery: http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/1391 ]

The power of specialization and trade


Our species would get killed if we had any empathy for anyone who doesn't fit into the top 1%? Your comment certainly conforms to the attitude projectileboy was lamenting...


It's funny because I'm pretty sure this is exactly the kind of thing projectileboy was talking about.


Because, as we all know, politics plays no part in faculty hiring, and who you know, who your advisor was, who your drinking buddies were, have no bearing on those decisions, and it is all dependent solely on the objective merits of your work and expertise.


Good work is the key to good fortune

Winners take that praise

Losers seldom take that blame

---

This can be used to point at both victim-of-circumstance "losers" and it-was-all-me "winners", depending on your viewpoint.


The outcomes of human-social-status processes have never been epistemological evidence of anything except how humans allocate social status.


That is a fascinating sentence. So fancy and yet it conveys such a simple point. I have no doubt that you would fit right into an elitist, self-important, overly status-conscious academic environment where prestige is more important than actually achieving something on an intellectual or practical level.

That's still just the social and environmental part, of course. You'd still have to have some chops. But if you're anywhere as close to as smart as you think you are, that won't be a problem at all.


You're right; I got too caught-up in academia-speak.


So, if you don't mind a question: What do your grad students do about the fact that for whatever reason, they are largely not headed for the tenure track? How do you advise them about their careers?

The only story that I know about that: A professor of trombone at the nearby state university started telling his students that he was happy to teach them, but that there were no jobs for trombonists. He lost his job, but he felt that he shouldn't build his success on the false hopes and eventual failure of his students.

In my own experience, as a grad student at a second tier university, when I fully realized that tenure track was not in my stars, I shifted my own focus to preparing as well as I could for an industry career. My advisor accepted my decision, but admitted that he had no advice for me. That was 20+ years ago. I was fortunate to have two industrial scientists as role models: My parents. Continuing with my PhD might have been a mistake, but I'm living with it OK.

One thing he did, to his credit, was to start bringing in all of his former students who were in industry, to give talks. That was his own idea, but a few other profs began to follow suit.

Another question: If your students are headed into job markets where publications don't matter, how do you maintain your own publication record?


> What do your grad students do about the fact that for whatever reason, they are largely not headed for the tenure track? How do you advise them about their careers?

It depends a lot on the student. I've had 3 Ph.D. students graduate already (and 1 grad student/post doc), and they all now have good jobs in industry (e.g., 2 as software engineers at Google). I also have several students right now. My students often do a lot of work on SageMath (http://sagemath.org), so at least get relevant experience that makes them employable outside pure math academia. I also encourage them to get involved with or start other open source projects (example: http://cython.org), which might have basically nothing to do with their thesis, but which makes them more employable. In short: 100% of my students leave grad school with tons of experience doing open source software development, in addition to whatever else they do. I do have a student right now who has turned out to be very good at number theory research, and wants an academic job -- it will be interesting to see if he gets one...

> My advisor accepted my decision, but admitted that he had no advice for me. [...] One thing he did, to his credit, was to start bringing in all of his former students who were in industry, to give talks.

I go out of my way to try to understand something about the world outside academia, so at least I don't have 0 advice for my students. It's great that your adviser did something that he could to help.

> Another question: If your students are headed into job markets where publications don't matter, how do you maintain your own publication record?

Surprisingly, most conventions involving publication in pure mathematics are somewhat different than in much of the rest of the academic sciences. For example, pure mathematicians always list authors in alphabetical order. Pure mathematics is also unlike most of the sciences, because professors write their own papers. There are exceptions of course, but usually you can only be a co-author on a paper if you actually write part of it (!). Grad students do not write papers for their advisor (modulo rare exceptions). Last week I had one of my grad students get a paper accepted in a very good journal on things I met with him every week about, and I'm not a co-author. With this paper (http://wstein.org/papers/bs-heegner/) the student went to work at Google right after graduating and stopped doing math, so I had to do the work of writing up for publication and submitting the paper, just to ensure it got published. Frankly that's just fine; if that paper would have been 100% written up and submitted by the student, I definitely wouldn't have been a co-author.


That's interesting. Thanks.

My degree was in physics, but I followed a similar theme of studying my chosen field while developing a strong sideline with reasonable market demand.

I live near a major university, and know a lot of academics. What I've noticed is that the demise of academic careers has made it harder for professors to maintain their research programs and to publish. Once a student kinda figures out the lay of the land, they focus on finishing their dissertations ASAP, and their advisor is left with a lot of loose ends to tie up on their own if they want to publish the work. This can be prohibitive if there is lab work to be done.


I will add some of my own anecdotal evidence to your anecdotal evidence. I have yet to meet a single person in life that has admitted they they had it easier or an advantage. I've always believed that was because for the most part everyone works hard, some just get larger rewards for that hard work.

I can tell you growing up from a small high school without any prestige there was very much a hard cap on how many students from our school a Harvard(or other top institutions) would except. To the point where top students would bargain with each other about which schools to apply to so they didn't steal someone else's acceptance offer on a 3rd choice etc.

Secondly, the tech world has been a glaring example of while one can use Harvard's selections as a signal to find talent, there are many, many, many exceptions to that rule. And your comments are quite sad to read in light of that new information.


I don't think that my not going to an ivy league school hurt me.

I'm a college drop-out who barely graduated high school, went to community college and then a couple of years at an agricultural college before striking out into industry. I'm doing just fine.

I think the really hard work took place after I was employed.

I'm not impressed with whether someone went to Harvard or Stanford. I just look at resumes and what people have done. Schools are not a great signal.


Per US News and World Report, Harvard and UCB are #2 in math, a hair below MIT and Princeton (http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-gradu...). Harvard certainly has a very strong reputation in math, including the hardest/most famous first year undergraduate course: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Math_55 (i.e. one that might be attractive to TA for).

Disclaimer: my first job was being a sysadmin and programmer for an applied math group at MIT.


First-rate people hire people that went to the same group of first-rate schools they did. Also, why wouldn't second-rate people hire second-raters? According to that quote, no one hires second-raters. It really doesn't make much sense.


If you're the best you can tell when someone's the best. If you're pretty good you might be able to tell if someone is pretty good, and definitely cannot tell if they're the best. If you're not that good you'll take anybody. Seems pretty straight forward.


Except people who aren't the best aren't idiotic rubes who can't spot talent. I'm terrible at basketball but I can see that Lebron James is good.


I would guess this is because the first rate schools produce more PhDs than there are jobs at first rate schools.


To bolster your point, I averaged about $25k/year at UCLA math in the 2010's, and I had a car by the time I graduated (granted I tutored to Beverly Hills high school students on the side).

I would even say there's a substantial difference between a typical grad student from a top-10-and-not-top-5 university and a typical grad student from Harvard; this is not at all meant to disparage the former schools, but basically every student I met from Harvard REALLY knew their stuff.

By the way, to those saying the system is not a meritocracy, I got into UCLA coming from an undergraduate institution that's not even top-100 because I was bright and I worked my tail off. Would it have been easier if my parents were buddies with the president of Harvard? Sure, but life's not fair.


This may be true in some fields, but not others...

My partner is in academia outside of STEM, and I've seen some of the 'winners' that come out of Stanford and Harvard whose only contribution is that they had a lot more funding available for their fieldwork. They didn't tend to be any more intelligent, and certainly were on average less hard working.

They did have wealthier parents on average, however.


Off topic, I love the idea of SageMathCloud, check out http://www.jasymchat.com

A different take on Computer Algebra.


Excuse me, but I think you're letting defensiveness get in the way of clear mathematics ;-).

>Such entitlement. I got into UC Berkeley (1995-2000) where I received $13K/year to live on from them (for TA'ing), and I made it work by having a roommate, being frugal, and getting some student loans (the minimum I needed), which I paid off within 2 years of graduation. It sucked, but I had to just be lean and deal with it, and reminded myself that I was a student.

By the CPI Inflation Calculator, that's roughly equivalent to $20k in today's money[1]. The average rent for a 1-bedroom place in Berkeley today is ~$3000/month[2], and a quick glance at Craigslist[3] shows the average rent for a room in a shared apartment to be around ~$1000/month. This does in fact mean a graduate student on the equivalent of your stipend today is spending 60% of their gross income on rent, or finding some mysterious way to live not only far away from work, but in fact in a mysterious, magical part of the Bay Area that has low rents.

Actually, to my knowledge, what actually happens is that elite schools in high cost-of-living locations just give larger stipends these days. I've heard from MIT grad-students that they certainly get higher stipends than I've seen elsewhere, as a result of which, indeed, they just have to live with roommates.

But God help them if their institution doesn't pay a higher stipend!

>Also, there is a naive and incorrect (in math at least) assumption in this article that the only difference between a graduate student from a top-10 university and a top-100 university is the name of the university where they graduated.

That assumption does not seem to have been made. The correct view is that there is a continuous slope from the top handful of departments to the top 20/30/50 (where you draw the line depends on what field you're in) to the top 100, to everyone else.

But unless the data supports calling it less of a continuous slope downwards from the top than a discrete, discontinuous jump where researchers outside the top 20 institutions are nigh-incapable of doing good research, I would certainly say the datum that the top 20 universities' PhD graduates get 50% of all new tenure-track jobs, including those in much lower-tier institutions, supports a view that there exists a prestige problem or an extreme glut of PhDs[4], or both. Personally, I lean towards the issue mostly actually being the latter: there is simply a glut of PhDs, and so otherwise irrelevant factors like prestige get seized-upon as providing the very tiniest edge once the competition has already gotten tough enough that almost nobody actually has an advantage on merit alone anymore.

(I've seen people from mere top-25 institutions chairing first-tier conferences, which seems to me to militate against the idea that the "top-10" occupying a qualitatively separate tier.)

> In research, learning from the masters is often critical to becoming one, since the habits, tricks, ideas, intuitions, etc. are very hard to convey in writing.

Excuse me, but in my experience, and that of most other graduate students, we don't learn from the masters, because advisors' minds are largely impenetrable!

(In fact, if I may gossip publicly, I think it's not too much to say that my current advisor in particular has implied that he prefers to spend far more time worrying about the finery of how he presents our work in papers than the rigor or methodology with which we did it!

Whereas I've developed into something of a methods geek, but also realized that nobody actually cares about your methods in the "real world" of top-tier conferences anyway ;-).)

>The article reminds me of this quote -- http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Paul_Halmos: "André Weil suggested that there is a logarithmic law at work: first-rate people attract other first-rate people, but second-rate people tend to hire third-raters, and third-rate people hire fifth-raters."

I think we ought to reevaluate whether this law really applies in difficult labor markets. To me, it looks like when there's a glut of candidates and a shortage of positions, we routinely see good people shunted down to lower-tier institutions at every level, even as prestige becomes a form of "privilege" (in the sociological sense), even as actual differences of merit shrink.

Personal confession: I attended a top-20 institution for undergrad, and am finishing my research MSc at a top-tier institution. When I have self-studied and made software contributions to prepare myself, I would like to apply to a couple of MIT's PhD programs. But I also think the job market for academics is fucking terrible, and that my situation does reflect a form of inherited privilege. For one thing, my stepfather is a tenured professor of EE at a second-tier institution, and had friends in the department I attended for undergrad (whose classes I avoided because I like PL and they did networking :-p, but still) -- I literally grew up with an academic pedigree!

[1] -- http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=13000&year1=199... [2] -- https://www.rentjungle.com/average-rent-in-berkeley-rent-tre... [3] -- http://sfbay.craigslist.org/search/roo?query=berkeley [4] -- http://infoproc.blogspot.co.il/2008/05/dont-become-scientist...


MIT graduate stipend is currently around 2800 / month, at least for physics. Also, grad students don't pay payroll taxes and it's relatively easy to make extra money by signing up to grade things or to help at conferences.


Intelligence and talent isn't a cultural thing and it's not tied to social status either.

The 99% of us knows perfectly well that getting in and getting access to the network is the ral value and so those who get in tend to be mostly from those who could afford the right path for their kids.


The 1% does declare that the plebs complain too much about their self-inflicted lot.


There's a lot to take issue with in this article. Graduate institutional affiliation is huge because more and more research is being done by undergraduates, so top institutions can more easily pick out the best talent early. It is still true in academia that research>institution, but the latter is becoming more and more correlated with the former. Top PhD graduates come from top schools, with few exceptions (and those exceptions still get jobs). With undergraduate this correlation is weak.

Yes financial privilege is huge for getting that far, but everyone applying for an academic PhD program has spent decent time in academia and has chosen that instead of money. I've never seen or heard of someone turning down an elite academic PhD program because of a low stipend (students do use stipends to choose between similar schools). Any academic adviser would tell you you'd be crazy to do so.

Edit: This might only be true for math. In undergrad I was constantly surprised to find students from elite vs sub-elite institutions differed hugely in privilege and less in ability. In my PhD program, there was a huge difference in ability between our school (arguably #3 in the area) and nearby Harvard/MIT. While this is all anecdotal, elite academia is a small community and I've seen a large chunk of math. Ability here in math is easy to measure (if they can solve my problems and I can't understand theirs). Mathematicians keep mental rankings of other mathematicians. When you apply for graduate school and later jobs, lots of other mathematicians have a really good idea how you compare.


About being correlated, I guess it is simply not true, just check statistical models. What happens is that increasingly what is considered good research are what top schools are researching... Like String theory in Physics...


I found this the most interesting:

http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/advances/1/1/e1400005...

The top institutions producing CS professors:

MIT

Berkeley

Stanford

Caltech

Harvard

Cornell

CMU

Princeton

Yale

Washington

You have to click through a bunch of links to find the actual study:

http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/1/e1400005.figures-...


It is really hard to find excellent PhD students. The supply is very limited. The top schools snap them up, and there they are at graduation time.


> "..a quarter of all universities account for 71 to 86 percent of all tenure-track faculty.."

I find it funny when people are continually "surprised" by the appearance of the Pareto Principle.

It is everywhere (everywhere!), and that is why you should never stop fighting to become the top 10% of anything you do (that you care about).


More generally, if you distribute anything across a population in any manner other than everyone getting exactly the same amount, then it is mathematically necessary that the top N% have more than N% of the thing for any N < 100.

Most articles I've seen on any kind of inequity in distribution don't seem to take this into account, and so don't try to establish what the baseline fair distribution should be, making most of their subsequent analysis worthless.


> the first two years of the “recovery,” the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent,

Stocks had dropped in half the previous couple years. A more reasonable metric would be a 10 year statistic.


The problem with finding a job when you have a PhD that isn't from one of the top schools is an individual one.

The problem of the lack of diversity in the educations of the leaders of academia is a systemic failure that can undermine society.


An interesting article. It certainly seems unfair to have such selection bias. It may be beneficial to have a standardized country-wide test which could quantify and compare the quality of PhD grads arising from universities. If an effective test could be devised, it seems that companies and universities would pay attention to it. As it stands now, no such testing exists, making universities rely on qualitative evaluations, such as reputation, prestige, and price. I think it is true in general that without quantitative ways of evaluating something, looking at price seems to be the best alternative.


Important subject. Related:

Professors and PHDs on food stamps:

http://www.salon.com/2014/09/21/professors_on_food_stamps_th...

http://www.npr.org/2012/05/15/152751116/why-so-many-ph-d-s-a...

The PHD bust:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/02/the-phd-...

http://www.economist.com/node/17723223

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/us-pus...

The PHD glut:

http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/10/04/glut-postdoc-res...

http://www.nature.com/news/how-not-to-deal-with-the-phd-glut...

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-the-us-produc...

The plight of part-time professors:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/02/the-tall...

Parents, politicians, and teachers have been beating the 'ever more education' and 'more STEM grads' drums for a while. The past 5-7 years have shown that these things were not, and are not, the panacea they were promised to be. We can always pick the individual situations apart and say 'they made the following 50 mistakes, and that is why they are un- or under-employed', but if we look at the trends, we can see it's bigger than that. We have overlapping crises of credentialism; jobs that aren't there - even for many people with STEM degrees; underpaid and overworked adjuncts that require food stamps to live; people who go to school until they are in their mid-30s, sometimes later, and walk out with a pile of degrees and no marketable skills outside of academia, and cannot get jobs IN academia; skyrocketing tuitions; and an enormous bubble of debt (now over 1T.) How many brilliant people will never come anywhere close to fulfilling their potential because of all this? Not a good situation.


Here's how to understand academia.

When you're 22, almost everything you've done has been measured in relative terms to your peers (in part, because almost no one at that age has real accomplishments by adult standards, except in athletics; so it's a favorable curve). You think that the world is more competitive than it actually is, because you've been rewarded (or punished) based on individual performance. Of course, people who are academically strong tend to be socially weak when younger. Academia appeals because you're not around the "jocks" with superior social skills. Let's be honest: most people who go into academia do so because they're afraid that if they go into the big, bad business world, they'll be out-shouldered by "asshole jocks".

Here's the trap. The real world is a lot more cooperative than competitive. If you're a social "4", you do better being the weakling in a crowd of 7's (business)-- you'll rise up to that level, from exposure, in a couple of years-- than the relative leader in an ivory tower full of 2's. Why? Because social skills aren't about competition; you want to be around skilled people who have your back. Those "jocks" don't out-shoulder you, because adulthood isn't middle school: they teach you how to get what you want. If anything, the worst bullies in adulthood are the ex-nerds who have something to prove.

Then there are the tribal effects. Why do bankers and traders earn 3x what programmers do, and why do we as programmers earn 3x what academics do, at each level? Because the worst place you want to be in a market is side-by-side with someone who's similarly competent in the rendered service but has no organizational or social skill, nor sense of self-worth; he'll sell himself very short, and drag you down with him by lowering your market value as well.

Academia's appeal is that it's some sort of safe haven for the socially awkward beings that smart people usually are in their early 20s (and usually grow out of by age 25-30). However, because it's full of socially inept people who are terrible at making a case for their own value, the resource pool declines over time, and we're now at the point where the academic job market is kaputt. There are a few star professors who manage to work their way out of the hell that is academia for the bottom 99+ percent, but the irony is that to do that requires a great deal of social ability anyway.

Academia's promise is that you don't need to be socially skilled and you'll keep being rewarded for being smart. First, that's a stupid promise in the first place. Those skills aren't hard to learn (unless you have a hard neurological deficit, but that covers maybe 1% of the population) and you just need to grow up. Second, in the cutthroat environment you get amid dwindling resources and social investment in academia, it turns out that you need those skills to survive, making a joke of that promise.


>Then there are the tribal effects. Why do bankers and traders earn 3x what programmers do, and why do we as programmers earn 3x what academics do, at each level? Because the worst place you want to be in a market is side-by-side with someone who's similarly competent in the rendered service but has no organizational or social skill, nor sense of self-worth; he'll sell himself very short, and drag you down with him by lowering your market value as well.

I am failing to understand how the question and answer are related here.

Are you saying that bankers make more than programmers, and programmers make more than academics because of the difference in overall or uniformity of social skills?


I am.

Bankers back each other and know how to fight for themselves and the group. Programmers generally don't. You'll see a engineer rat another engineer out to management when there's nearly nothing to gain. This has been shown in companies with peer performance reviews: the bankers and traders give each other top ratings, while the programmers tend to beat each other up. It's not that bankers are better people and won't stab each other in the back; it's that they understand that information is power and won't do so for free, or for meaningless stakes like transient managerial favoritism.

A typical, politically-inept programmer will say, "the low performers are Alice, Bob, and Charlie", just because he's asked. You don't have to offer him anything. He ends up losing in the deal for two reasons. First, if people find out that he's a snitch who tried to endear himself to management by selling others out, then everyone will hate him. That's just human nature. Second, low performers can be good for your job security because (a) you don't have to outrun the bear if layoffs or stack-ranking come-- you just have to outrun the other guy; and (b) they can anchor compensation favorably. The fact that a mediocre investment banker gets $500,000 per year means that a good one makes millions. That's how you play a large, rich organization that isn't going to die because of a few passive low-performers. You want to move against the active low performers (i.e. those who create problems for other people) and the politically dangerous, but it's generally good to protect people who are benignly below-average because their making average wages puts a case forward for you (as an average or better performer) to make above-average wages.

A banker won't give that kind of information (who's performing, who's a little weak) up unless there's something to be won from it. If you're acting politically optimally (and not afraid of being a bit of a sociopath) you know that there are times when it's best to protect low performers and times to sell them out. In peace time, it's usually the former.

As for academics, they make the software engineers look politically savvy. They've performed so poorly, as a tribe, at convincing the rest of society that they have any worth, that their whole industry has fallen to shit. If I were to choose a specific mistake, I think the biggest fuckup on the academics' part is making it so goddamn obvious that they consider research to be their "real work" and teaching to be that onerous grunt work that they got stuck with. That works for the research rainmakers who bring in millions in grants, but devaluing teachers has led to the adjunct market.

The older generations of professors expressed distaste for the teaching job, as if it were commodity grunt work, and the universities have responded in kind by treating the teaching as commodity grunt work, i.e. the "You said it" retort-- and, at the same time, realizing that they could then do without all these medieval history researchers who were mediocre teachers.

If academics had any political or social skill whatsoever, they would have never developed that culture that devalues teaching and especially undergraduate teaching, because even if they considered the research to be their real work, the rest of society considered the teaching to be their real work, and by devaluing it they basically challenged the rest of society to unemploy them en masse. See, undergraduate teaching is valuable in its own right (intangibly) but it's also a marketing effort; if you convince the next generation of leaders that literature is important, then maybe they won't unemploy people who study it full-time. But if you decide that teaching the hoi polloi undergraduates is beneath you, then you risk getting fucked (deservingly) 20 years later when those undergraduates become state senators or college donors and decide that what you've been studying is unimportant.

That said, the calamity of the tenure system is that the older generation (who created this obnoxious culture) was unscathed and it was the younger generation who saw their job prospects turn to vapor. I hate academic tenure for that reason: it seems almost designed to make the rising generation pay for the entrenched generation's sins.


>A typical, politically-inept programmer will say, "the low performers are Alice, Bob, and Charlie", just because he's asked. You don't have to offer him anything. He ends up losing in the deal for two reasons. First, if people find out that he's a snitch who tried to endear himself to management by selling others out, then everyone will hate him. That's just human nature. Second, low performers can be good for your job security because (a) you don't have to outrun the bear if layoffs or stack-ranking come-- you just have to outrun the other guy; and (b) they can anchor compensation favorably. The fact that a mediocre investment banker gets $500,000 per year means that a good one makes millions. That's how you play a large, rich organization that isn't going to die because of a few passive low-performers. You want to move against the active low performers (i.e. those who create problems for other people) and the politically dangerous, but it's generally good to protect people who are benignly below-average because their making average wages puts a case forward for you (as an average or better performer) to make above-average wages.

I don't think that most people will argue with this. but... I don't think it makes as much of a difference as you think it does to industry wages as a whole.

The average person at McDonalds is better at playing politics than your average person in my industry, but we're still on the good side of a 10x wage differential.

Clearly, there are factors that don't have to do with political skill at work here, and those factors have effects that can completely swamp the effects of political skill.


"Clearly, there are factors that don't have to do with political skill at work here, and those factors have effects that can completely swamp the effects of political skill."

Too much supply can certainly swamp the effects of political skills. So does the fact that the best McDonalds workers are only 1.2-1.5x as good as the average worker. So does the fact that McDonalds are rarely limited by number of staff; it scales well.

In the software world though we have a very different landscape. There is strong demand. The good are 5x better than the average, who are 5x better than the worst. And scaling a software team is incredibly inefficient due to communication overheads such that even if the average programmer was 5x cheaper the outputs of a team of 30 average programmers can be less than the output of 5 3x programmers.


As someone who's spent some of their career in each one of these groups, I have to agree 100% with your analysis.

An interesting intersection is the Finance/Management/Business faculty. A new Assistant Professor in Finance can make significantly more in salary than a full Professor in Mathematics.

Here is some interesting data to back up my point and this is average salary. The amounts can be much higher at top institutions.

https://www.higheredjobs.com/Salary/salaryDisplay.cfm?Survey...


That's a very good point, the multitude of students who were screwed by this attitude indeed won't be viewing that part of their college experience favorably.

What would you say "society" views as the job of "MIT professors?"

If you said both, you'd be right as to what actually happens. With rare exceptions that prove the rule like SF author Joe Haldeman, all classes are taught by tenured or tenure track professors, and while you pretty much have to be #1 or #2 in your research subfield to get tenure, you also have to be an adequate teacher.


Why do you always get downvoted to hell? I thoroughly enjoy your posts.

HN, what is wrong with being provocative? This place has too much buttoned-down, fear of the downvote (FOD, kinda like FUD but for geeks). Ironically, the HN crowd would make perfect academics. Such reason, much facts!

note: i'm an academic deciding on whether to take or bail on a tenure-track academic job.


In mid-2013, I was put on "rankban" which meant that my comments fell to the bottom (actually, the middle-bottom). I went from seeing 30-50 upvotes on a typical comment to being lucky to get 2 or 3.

I spoke to dang about this, last fall, and he was very reasonable and took me off rankban. I think he's trying to do a good job with Hacker News. I have no problem with him, and I realize that moderating a board like this is a hard and often thankless job.

Then, I pointed out a rather obvious pay-for-play story, taking advantage of the Sony hack, about Evan Spiegel in December 2014. (A journalist was, almost certainly because I know how these things work, paid off to say good things about him based on emails that were lacked in the hack. He was trying to protect his reputation, although it's unclear from what.) Since then, I would repeatedly get exactly 5 downvotes to pretty much every comment, all around the same time. Sometimes it would be obvious; it would be a 36-hour-old comment that went from +3 to -2, even though that story had fallen off the front page a day ago. I don't know if this was one person using multiple accounts or different people (Snapchat employees?) I think it's likely that they have some connection to Evan Spiegel himself but I can't prove it.

That said, the Spiegeloids seem to have laid back, because I'm not seeing every single comment get hit with 4-5 downvotes at the same time anymore. (Either that, or they downvote me at different times, making it less obvious.) Maybe they're gone. I can't be sure.

I have still noticed that Hacker News has much more of a willingness to downvote over disagreement. Back in 2010, it had to be a pretty low-quality comment to get downvoted. These days, I see a lot more good comments (and I'm not talking about my own, because I'm a weird special case) that end up light-gray. It's an irksome cultural change and it may be part of why Hacker News doesn't really seem to be growing any more (although it may be that Hacker News doesn't want to grow).


I don't know about provocative. Everyone knows what O'Church's opinions are at this point. Can the same tune really be provocative?


Just because you're tired of it doesn't mean his niche isn't provocatively positioned.




Applications are open for YC Winter 2019

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: