Best of the best?

The Wall Street Journal is really on a roll, reporting on a Jobs Rated study that names “mathematician” as the best job in the U.S.:

According to the study, mathematicians fared best in part because they typically work in favorable conditions — indoors and in places free of toxic fumes or noise — unlike those toward the bottom of the list like sewage-plant operator, painter and bricklayer. They also aren’t expected to do any heavy lifting, crawling or crouching — attributes associated with occupations such as firefighter, auto mechanic and plumber.

The study also considers pay, which was determined by measuring each job’s median income and growth potential. Mathematicians’ annual income was pegged at $94,160 […]

The complete ranking of 200 jobs is here, and here is the explanation of the point system on which the ranking was based.

The bottom line is, all point systems should be viewed with a healthy degree of skepticism.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not whining here. I like my job. But it’s not at all for the reasons just mentioned. Not because we spend a lot of time indoors – which, incidentally, can be quite unpleasant if you have a windowless office (I did as a graduate student). Not because we work in places free of noise, because, actually, we’re periodically exposed to rather a lot of construction-type noise at UBC. Not because we don’t do heavy lifting and crouching. Not because we don’t have to walk to work 6 miles through the snow in running shoes, uphill both ways, either.

Much of the data over at Jobs Rated strikes me as completely divorced from reality. Mathematicians, supposedly, work 45 hours per week – in my experience, 50-60 is more realistic. Low stress levels, just because we don’t operate heavy machinery? Who are you kidding?

An annual income of 94K sounds like at least an associate professor at a large research university. Before you get there, you’ll usually have to spend 4-6 years in graduate school (average income at UBC: 20K per year), 2-6 years in one or more postdoc or temporary positions (minimum salary at UBC is 40K; 50K is considered high), and another 4-7 years as tenure-track assistant professor (starting salaries at UBC are around 70K). You’ll also have to make several long-distance moves. That’s the best case scenario as far as the money is concerned. Many more people end up at smaller schools, with significantly lower salaries and higher teaching loads, or as perennial “seasonal” instructors with no job security.

Then there are questions that Jobs Rated did not ask at any particular point: how many of us have a choice of where we want to live if we want to stay in this profession? How many get separated from their spouses or partners for years because they can’t get jobs in the same city or state?

Why do we do this, then, instead of going into real estate or something? Because, first and foremost, we are attracted to mathematics. We enjoy learning mathematics and doing research work. We enjoy working with students – admittedly, not all the time, but nonetheless. We like being able to work mostly on our own schedule, even if the flip side is that we might end up working at home well past midnight. We’re competitive and we appreciate a good challenge, be it mathematical or professional. Curiously, Jobs Rated seems to view competitiveness as only a negative feature and a stress factor, but doesn’t understand that boredom can be stressful, too.

According to the Jobs Rated standards, the best job in the world would involve sitting in an office for several hours a day, not doing anything in particular, and getting paid well for it.

But that’s not what we do.

2 Comments

Filed under academia, mathematics: general

2 responses to “Best of the best?

  1. I’ve seen at least one person refer to the criteria used to construct this list as criteria for people who really don’t want to any sort of work, but who want to get paid anyway. (Of course, such a person would have no chance of success as a mathematician, but let’s ignore that.)

  2. Slump

    Most of the people who count as mathematicians in this survey are not at research universities, and the training period is much shorter. The ones they mentioned were actually in industry. I think if you work for the government or a federal contractor the salaries start at like 80K with PhD’s and 50K for BS’s. If you work for google or something it’s likely to be higher. Of course most professors are at non-research intensive places where the salaries are somewhat lower to start.

    But really the thing that gets me about these surveys is that how stimulating or interesting a job is is not factored in at all. Note that “actuary” and “accountant” get rated highly year after year. So as the first commenter says, putting this to an extreme, getting paid to do nothing all day is considered an ideal job.