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Friday, February 11, 2005

A tale of two geeks

I have two young friends who are postdocs in theoretical physics. One is an American kid named Joe. The other, named Sanjay (or Sergei or Song) is from a foreign country whose GDP per capita is a small fraction of ours. Both Joe and Sanjay are brilliant - Sanjay scored in the top 20 in all of India (or China or Russia) on the IIT entrance exam, represented his country on the Math Olympiad team and managed to get admitted to a top American graduate program. Ditto for Joe, except that he went to school in the US and his parents paid a lot of money for Stanford tuition when he was an undergrad.

Joe notices that in his field there are many Sanjays, Sergeis and Songs for every American-born kid, but he realizes that this is just a consequence of the large populations and good (elite) educational systems of their home countries. He also notices that these other guys are really determined to stay in the US, because their job prospects at home are pretty poor in comparison.

Joe is a bit confused, because most of his (American) friends from Stanford went right into finance, law or medical school after college. They, and even his little brother who is a year younger, are all well on their way to being established by their 30's. This bothers Joe a lot, because he was always a much stronger student than his little brother or any of his friends from school - in fact, he was one of the brightest students in his entire class at Stanford! Joe, though, is just trying to land another postdoc, and, in a few years, perhaps a faculty job. He knows that only about 1 in 4 graduates from his top tier PhD program manage to do so. [Actual statistics here.]

I, the tenured professor, am chairing a job search for a theoretical physicist. Our files contain applications from over a hundred Joes, Sanjays, Sergeis and Songs. Despite the fact that the talent in our postdoc pool is tremendous - one could staff numerous derivatives trading desks, chip design teams and software startups with these young people - the successful applicant will be offered a princely salary not very different from that of a police officer or public school teacher. Once hired, he or she will have to slave for another 6 years to gain tenure. (A ridiculously long time - meaning a total of over 10 years of focused post-PhD research before the tenure decision - far more than in other fields where there are no postdoc positions and PhDs can go directly into faculty jobs.)

Homework questions:

1) Do the presence of Sanjay, Sergei and Song affect Joe's compensation or quality of working conditions? Think about what a university has to pay to "buy" a good physicist from the pool. If Joe doesn't like the offer or working conditions, won't he be easily replaced? Is the job market for police officers and high school teachers similarly impacted?

2) Is it paradoxical that the presence of Sanjay and friends is good for both the US economy and US universities, but bad for Joe?

3) Did Joe make good career choices? Do not assume that his utility function is a delta function peaked on "I looove science!"

Additional reading.

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