Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Rant from the Deep Archives

I came across an old notebook recently. It was a small leather bound notebook, which I used to carry around in my work bag, during an earlier bout with my persistent "I should be a writer" daydream. I bought it to record ideas and observations. I never did anything with what I wrote... until now.

I was amused to come across an account of a conversation I had with a particularly annoying coworker. He was sure that my opinions on the topic would change once I had kids. In fact, they have not.  Here is what I wrote in my notebook, dated September 19, 2005 (so I was married, only recently promoted into management, and had no kids yet):


I've been thinking a lot in the last few days about taking responsibility for our choices. A coworker's argument that scientists can't make a decent living started me thinking about this. I was startled when he made this argument- I think I make an excellent living. I don't think his argument is based on faulty numbers, because he referred derisively to a salary of $125k, which is more than I make. Rather, I think the problem comes from expectations that are perhaps unrealistic. The coworker has four children, ranging from teenager to toddler. He lives near the Connecticut coast- perhaps one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. He wants a house large enough for the kids to have rooms of their own and to have a backyard. He wants to live in a good school district. From his comments, I think he wants to do all of this on a single income. All of these are perfectly understandable and perhaps even admirable goals- but the combination is not realistic. He seemed to feel he had some sort of right to have all of these things, and of course, all of these things are hard to have on the "buck and a quarter" salary he correctly assumed mid-level scientist/managers make.

He argued that their was a problem attracting young people to be scientists and engineers because of this perceived mismatch. Perhaps, but I can't agree with his assumption that any professional career must be able to provide the extremely upper middle class lifestyle he wants. We all make choices and all decisions are tradeoffs. He has traded job satisfaction for all of those other things he wants, but it wasn't his only choice. No one forced him to have four children (and I couldn't help but wonder to myself what he says about poor families with four children). There is no requirement that he remain in coastal Connecticut. I know from personal experience and from that of many of my friends that a slightly worse school district will not destroy his kids' chance at happiness. And the list of options could go on and on.

We make choices. It would be nice if the tradeoffs were always easy, but that is not realistic. I am probably being unfair to my coworker, but I couldn't help but think- he needs to grow up. I hope that I will remember the fact that I will need to make similar choices when I have kids. In fact, I hope I can teach them about the need to accept that we can't always have everything we want, and that we need to analyze the tradeoffs, make our choices, and accept the results. The best way to teach this is by example.


As I said, I still agree with what I wrote back in 2005. I might be a little more sympathetic to my coworker now, though. I think that he ended up with four kids because the third pregnancy was twins, and those twins were toddlers at the time of the conversation. One toddler can drive me to the brink of insanity- or at least to whininess- so I imagine two could push a person even further. But I stand by my central point, that we make choices, choices have consequences, and living with those consequences is part of being a grown up.


  1. Anonymous3:55 AM

    Oh gee, yeah, it must be nice to think that a salary of 125K is what's keeping people out of science. Given mean household income in the country I tend to doubt that's it. In fact, if that were the advertised salary, I bet we'd have a lot fewer people trying to get into med school.

    I did calculate that we'd only need to make 120K combined to have a reasonably comfortable lifestyle in Mountain View, CA. Of course, we'd be renting. And there's no way we could have a 5 bedroom place.

  2. The milliner5:04 AM

    We're debating these things all of the time - have we made the right trade-offs...for us? We live in the city, in a condo, no back yard (but a 5 min walk from a big park). With my (hopefully) impending job change, we're questioning if there are changes we would like to make overall. Of course a lot of this will be linked to my new salary and if it will be the same, lower or higher. Before Ihad DS I'd be much more inclined to go for the higher salary. But now I'm looking at the bigger picture, all factors considered. Sure, I'm going to aim at both a higher salary, more time off and anything else I think I want or need (job satisfaction is a non-negotiable as in I must have it). But as you point out, I'm not delusional in thinking that a) this will be easy to find or that b) I have to work within what companies need right now, not just my own desires and c) it's not my right to conjure up my dream job and have it magically appear. I do think however that if I play my cards right, and dare to imagine the lifestyle I want, I can find a way to make it work, with trade-offs that are manageable.

  3. The milliner5:21 AM

    Oops! Too early. That should be: b) I DON'T have to work within... And c) It IS my right to conjure up my dream job and have it magically appear.

  4. I get depressed by attitudes like the co-worker you mention and the constant striving for an upper middle class lifestyle as though there isn't anything else and no other legitimate modes of being. I live in a pretty affluent town and we were at a neighborhood bbq, and when asked how long he'd been in the neighborhood, one of my neighbors actually blurted out "We're only renting," as though he was deeply ashamed of this fact. He brings it up often. We're renting, too, but it never occurred to me to be embarrassed about it, even though the primary reason we're renting is the simple fact that we can't afford to buy. I find it so depressing the thought of everyone's life dream to live in huge house with a huge lawn in a suburb with no community. I went to a park in the small town I grew up in, and it was a really sad park, with very old equipment and nobody playing there. And I realized that every single huge house had a huge yard and its own private play structure. So no one needed the park. Which is convenient, sure, but it means you never have any informal social occasions for yourself or your kids. It made me sad. Did any of you catch on Moxie the person who suggested Moxie look into co-housing in A2? I followed the link and it looked so great. I know there are downsides too and it could be overwhelming to have a bunch of people so deep in your life, but I often have fantasies of co-housing or similar with a friend of mine. We now live a 5 min walk from each other and I know it will really change the quality of my life to have her there. Anyway, I feel like all that wandered OT.

    I made a choice a couple of years ago that was bad for me personally, good professional, neutral financially, and that seemed like the best at the time (it involved whether or not to move to a different state for a more stressful, higher status job). The calculations can be enormously complex, when you have to juggle personal, professional, and financial, as well as all those for partner and kids.

  5. Anonymous7:36 AM

    "I went to a park in the small town I grew up in, and it was a really sad park, with very old equipment and nobody playing there. And I realized that every single huge house had a huge yard and its own private play structure. So no one needed the park. Which is convenient, sure, but it means you never have any informal social occasions for yourself or your kids."

    This is our HOA too.

  6. @nicoleandmaggie- yeah, I can still remember being flabbergasted at how dismissive he was of a six figure salary!

    I'd have to dig up salary surveys to get good figures, but I think it is pretty reasonable for a PhD scientist working in pharma/biotech to expect to be making six figures 5-10 years post-PhD. Exact timing dependent on their field. I think the thing that was frustrating my former coworker (maybe) is that moving to the next level (i.e., the $200k salary) isn't all that common. It is pretty easy to top out at about $150k and spend your entire career there. Which is no great tragedy, if you ask me, particularly if you're getting to do work you like.

    @the milliner, see, you're doing what I think grown ups should do. Look at your options, pick the trade offs you want to make, and living with them.

    @Erin, @nicoleandmaggie- that is interesting about the park. I guess we have a mix here in San Diego, because land is so expensive that no one has a big yard. So we have a house with a (to me) reasonably sized backyard, but we don't have a giant play structure in it- that would eat up our whole yard. We have a small Little Tikes plastic play structure (a hand me down) and a Little Tikes play house (another hand me down), both of which the kids love. But for REAL slides and swings and good climbing, we go to a park. Our neighborhood one is decent- good toys, good grassy area, an annoying lack of bathrooms. And for special treats, we go to one of the playgrounds on Mission Bay.

    We meet other parents with little kids at our park, but not so many school age kids. I've never really thought about why- I'll have to think on it!

  7. Wow, there is a pretty high chance that this whiny man is now out of a job and wishing he hadnt moaned so much about the $125k.

    I'm so much happier from moving to a cheaper neighbourhood and not being overstretched by our mortgage.

  8. Anonymous11:07 AM

    I would feel rich if I made 125k!

    I can relate a little to your co-worker. I went to school for about 8million years (more like 22), lived in low-income housing as a grad student, only managed to have a decent apartment as a post-doc because of my husband's income and once I got a 'real job' it was hard to find a house I could afford within 30 minutes of my place of employment.

    In this toilet-bowl of an economy, we knew my husband wouldn't be able to find a new job when we relocated to NY from Boston. We decided he'd do some free-lancing for the Boston company and stay home with our daughter. I'd be the primary bread-winner.

    I did feel lucky to find a job, but dejected at being unable to afford an apartment (that wasn't a lead-painted, dark and gloomy, baby death-trap) we could afford. Given the rents, we decided to take advantage of the toilet-bowl housing market and buy a house.

    We did manage to find a nice house in Westchester County (no thanks to the highest property taxes in the entire country) within 30min of my company. It's no McMansion, we don't have a master suit, we don't even have a garage- but we like it. We also know that having an enormous, luxurious house was not worth neither of us ever being home because we had to work so much to afford it!

    So, do I think I should be making more money- yup. But it's not the end of the world to prioritize what is most important (a short commute, stay at home dad, decent school district, etc.) and give up some things (master bath, garage, tawny address etc).

    And I have to admit- in the grand scheme of things, not having a garage (or having kids that share a bedroom) is a disgustingly 'First World' problem to have. Now where did I leave my tiny violin...

  9. I have a big enough house for the 3 kids and, let me tell you, cleaning is a bitch... And so are heating/AC bills. Plus it turns out kids like to sleep together anyway. I honestly often think we should sell and buy a smaller one, even though we can afford this one on my salary alone (and it's a beautiful house and we love it). One reason we'll likely not sell it that it has a huge open common area, very important not to become stir crazy during the endless winters here.

    Anyhoo -- $125 K is certainly not a low salary, but I must say it's a bit lower than I expected to hear. I suppose it varies significantly with industry.

  10. I just finished reading Affluenza and have really been looking critically at needs vs wants. I find that I oscillate wildly between thinking my children would be even cuter in mini boden clothes and wanting an extra room as a home office, and realizing that I have so much more than many, and honestly have everything I need. It's a hard one though.

  11. @mommacommaphd- he actually made more that $125k. He had changed to a different career track to make more money and was missing his science/engineering roots.

    And the sorts of trade offs you are describing are the sorts of things he wouldn't consider. At the time I wondered if his perspective was skewed because there were so many high finance types in the area, with their astronomical incomes.

    @GMP- this was ~6 years ago, so salary scales may be different now. And yes, it varies a bit based on the details. So pharma traditionally pays better than biotech, different disciplines have different salaries, etc.

  12. Anonymous4:49 AM

    I wonder if it's too late for me to go into high finance, and what the hours are on those jobs...

  13. @nicoleandmaggie, I think the hours are horrible and that a lot of those jobs disappeared during the recent financial crisis!

  14. Late to the party! I think "OWN YOUR CHOICES" would make a fantastic bumper sticker. Although I often tire of "personal responsibility" rhetoric when it comes from commentators on the political right, I can definitely see the general appeal of such rhetoric when applied to the beneficiaries of (presumably) white and male privilege such as your annoying ex-coworker.

    @a - I liked your comment: "I find that I oscillate wildly between thinking my children would be even cuter in mini boden clothes and wanting an extra room as a home office, and realizing that I have so much more than many, and honestly have everything I need. It's a hard one though." Amen!

  15. I thoroughly agree with your assessment that making trade-offs and owning our choices is the mature part of being grown-ups.

    That said, I can also agree with the sentiment that money (salary) is not a positive factor in attracting people to science careers. I went into science because it suits me and my way of thinking and approaching the world. My first job after undergrad payed diddly-squat (as in, couldn't afford to rent a small apartment within 30 minutes of my office). Career prospects with that company topped out at about $75k if I got my master's degree. The management tract, however, had higher potential (but then you're getting your MBA and not really doing science.) After some life-path-altering events, I ended up in the financial industry and as a starting admin I made more than I did as an experienced geologist. Very depressing. Very soul-sucking. And very nearly won me from science (now I'm preparing to teach young scientists... for a *really* piddly salary.)


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