Thursday, July 11, 2013

Careers in Math

For my Masters thesis (which I've completed, revised several times, defended, submitted, and which has now jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops necessary to be officially accepted) I interviewed several (14) professors from several (14) disciplines around campus. To recompense them for their cooperation in my research, I purchased $10 dollar gift cards for them which I paid for with a smallish research grant from the university. Unfortunately, because of some university policy regarding the distribution of gift cards, I have had to work through some administrative red tape along the way, including getting each professor to print and sign his/her name, tell me if he/she is a citizen of the USA, and give me their BYU ID number. It's kind of a pain to track down all these professors while they're off living their awesome professor lives during the summertime, but, whatever. Not a huge deal. Emma Stone gets it:

Anyway, being out and about campus getting professors' signatures a few days ago led me to a building that I don't often frequent: the Talmage Math and Computer Science Building. As I left the building, signature in hand, I saw this poster hanging up on a bulletin board:

I was especially drawn to the left-hand column talking about salaries based on major. Seeing that "salary differential" was asterisked, and remembering the advice concerning statistics often attributed to Mark Twain (though Twain attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli), I read the explanatory asterisk and was surprised at what I found:

"The percentages by which the average salaries of specific undergraduate majors exceed that of an English major." The math department measures its worth based off of how much more money they make than those who study English. This fascinates me. They didn't choose English just because it is the lowest of the bunch, providing a good jumping off point, because as we can see there are two majors lower on the scale. So the question becomes Why English? Why do these data revolve around the worth of an English major? To that point, I have a couple ideas.

The study of English, and the humanities in general, is often derided as a zero-sum game. In other words, any benefits gained by studying the humanities are offset by the fact that once you graduate you can't get a job. (i.e. What's the difference between a park bench and an English major? A park bench can support a family.) So in seeing that they were basing their worth off of how much more money they make than English majors, it seemed that this was just another in the long line of people making fun of English majors. Normally when people start going off about how dumb the humanities are I react rather like this:

There's just no talking to those people. See, no matter how much or how often people go to work defending the humanities (like here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here to name a few recent examples) people still mock and scorn and deride. And as I read this salary poster in the maths building, Captain Reynolds' exasperation was my initial reaction. But then I realized something.

This poster was nothing more than the classic little brother syndrome. The proverbial little brother (in this case the math major) does something worth noting, like getting paid more than the older brother (the English major), and he can't help but to shout and scream to the world, "Hey, Hey look at me. Hey look! I got a job and I got paid more than my older brother. HEY!" 

So really, rather than being demeaning or anything of that ilk, that poster in the math building was actually validating. What they were really saying by basing their salaries off of English majors was this: "We already know and accept and acknowledge the greatness and value of the English major; now let us show you how we are similarly awesome, though probably less so because the only thing we have to claim is a greater marketplace value, whereas English majors graduate with myriad skills that aren't constrained to a myopic definition of value (economic) and that actually help in dealing with this crazy thing we call life, while still making the graduates employable and valuable on the open market." Or, you know, something like that.


  1. I LOVE THIS POST! I have an English degree and I've never had a problem finding a "real" job in my field. I've written and edited for a magazine; I've written and edited for SEO marketing companies. I've written for a law firm. I've worked as a freelance writer and traveled the world. How many math majors can make money on a laptop in a cafe' in Barcelona?

    P.S. Congrats on your Masters!!!! And I miss you.

  2. Fun blog post Sammy. What you study really depends on what your interests are and what you want to do with yourself in your career. I have hired lots of people with liberal arts degrees who are amazing software engineers or other IT professionals. Conversely, I have hired and quickly fired people with technical degrees [math, cs, is, etc]. It is more about your aptitude than what your degree is in. With that said, a degree in a hard science does tend to open doors that pay more, some of the time. I am glad I have degrees in mechanical engineering and computer science. I make quite a bit more and have given my family many more opportunities than if I had followed my heart and became an archeologist. Just my thoughts.

  3. Psychology: -4.4%
    And that is why I took a TESOL minor.

  4. I admit that my childish and delighted first reaction to the whole thing was to do a fist pump and yell, "BA-YAM SUCKAS!" Lol... it's late afternoon, what can I say?

  5. Sometimes I cry on the inside, considering that society gives more money to people that can use a calculator than to those who can adequately communicate abstract ideas with other human beings...

    But I also work with high school students, one of whom asked me why London attacked Bosnia to start World War I or even better still, the one who finished their test answer comparing the Holocaust and Stalin with "lol", so obviously I'm biased.

  6. Delightful! I've always been quite proud that my father was an english major. I wonder where the musicians would end up compared to the english majors...