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Some questions from high school students about college and future careers

For a high school summer program I’m connected to, students have questions about careers. They’re mostly interested in technical careers (engineering, science, public health) and also some careers relating to arts, communication, and government service.

Here are some of the questions the students are asking:

What advice would you now give your younger self?

What subjects outside of my major would help me in doing this career?

How did you choose the school(s) you went to (for each degree)?

If hiring interns, what characteristics are important / do you look for in outstanding applicants?

How did your college experience help you with your job?

What did you realize something about yourself or your passions that you didn’t know you had coming into college?

What classes were most important in your major?

What textbooks have you kept (even though the internet exists)?

What are your go-to references / resources?

How do you “keep” your professors and helpful people? How do I get a mentor in your field (now)?

What are some trending majors / careers now and in the next ten years?

What’s enjoyable about the job and what is not?

Why does the good outweigh the bad?

What’s a typical day in this career?

What’s the stress level and the balance between personal and work life?

What have we not thought to ask you?

If any of you would like to answer some of these questions with respect to your own job and career, feel free to do so in the comments, and I will forward the responses on to the students.

40 Comments

  1. Hi, I’m Bob. I’ve had a 30+ year career so far, the first 8 years of which were as a professor, the next 15 years were in industry, and the last 10 years back in academia as a research scientist (like a professor, but no teaching). The last 10 years have been working with Andrew on statistics problem. Before that, I worked on computer science problems in natural language processing, linguistics theory, and speech recognition.

    None of these jobs were anything like I was expecting them to be other than the research scientist job (which I chose precisely because I did know the lay of the land 20+ years into my career). The only advice I can offer is to figure out what you like to do and then figure out how to do it. All of the people I know who seem happiest have followed this approach to careers rather than figuring out what’s trending, how to optimize their hiring chances, etc.

    There’s no one-size-fits-all answer and no single path to happiness. I like to be constantly learning new things, I like to build things, and I like math and computation and writing. I also really like teaching, but it’s hard to find joy in that both because it’s hard to do well, it’s not rewarded in academia, and disinterested or weasely students can be a real drag. So I’ve tailored my career to support those interests. Also, I like long uninterrupted blocks to work on projects requiring a lot of concentration; other people like the energy of constant interruptions, but I find it stressful in that it interrupts my concentration as well as taking time. In contrast, lots of people like structure and definite goals, whereas I usually prefer working with much more open-ended goals (which I then have to break down into definite goals or nothing would get done). In all of my jobs, I’ve only spent 2 years of 30+ being closely supervised. And that’s when I was a programmer in industry writing speech recognition code. It’s why I was never tempted to move to a place like Google, despite the buckets of money that are raining down.

    The main advice I’d give my younger self at this point is to pay more attention to continuous math. I was a math major focused on what I thought would be useful math for theoretical computer science: logic, set theory, combinatorics, and algebra. Now that I’m in stats, it’s differential equations out to the horizon. I think I needed an application like stats to drive my interest in continuous math—it all just seemed like stuff I’d never need!

    The clases I got the most out of were research-oriented seminars. Going to the Honors College at Michigan State let me waive 100% of my general education requirements and take upper-level and graduate classes like Philosophy of Mind and Linguistics for humanities and Psycholinguistics and Microecon for social science. Those classes all involved serious projects and presentations and were run much more like grad school than undergraduate. That’s where I learned to start thinking for myself, working through ideas, and presenting them coherently.

    In hiring interns, I have the luxury of concentrating on people who are already shown they can work on our project through GitHub pull requests. Actually contributing to a project is the best way to get hired. That goes for postdocs as well as interns. Same for finding a mentor. Actually get engaged in what they’re doing and approach them on that basis. We’re bombarded with gazillions of generic applications from students with good grades.

    • AV says:

      What comes to mind: how you describe the Honors College at Michigan State, I would describe my highschool – Dimitrie Cantemir in the 90s.

    • Andre says:

      > All of the people I know who seem happiest have followed this approach to careers rather than figuring out what’s trending, how to optimize their hiring chances, etc.

      This is the whole “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”. If you’re both lucky, and good at at what you do, sure. But this advice usually only comes from your generations. It’s a different world than you were applying for jobs 30 years ago. Most of these people won’t get into phd programs, grad school.

      You’re doing people a disservice by telling people they can do anything they want. You have to pick something that’s there’s demand for, be better than everyone else and be personable.

      > optimize their hiring chances

      There are thousands of applicants, minimum for every job. If you can’t do the job or produce what they need _prior_ to getting the job, and you’re not liked by these people, they won’t hire you.

      Most jobs I’ve applied for, they’ve not been 1 hour. Theirs usually 3-5 interviews that are either 1 hour or up to 4. I’m asked to do mathematics on white boards in front of PhDs on stuff I’ve never done before, people trying to get under my skin to see how I behave under pressure. They like to mess with you. These interviews last for 4-5 hours, at times.

      If you do something, be able to do it at the drop of a hat, on their code base, their data, whatever, at the drop of a hat.

      The whole “do what you want and you’ll never work a day in your life,” and choose something you like, is nonsense. Horrible advice for high school students in 2020.

      Choose 1-3 things that you can see rising demand for, and be better than anyone else in your high school.

      Get everything codified, so theirs no doubt as to your skills.

      Doing things like learning languages has helped me get jobs a lot more than just “doing continuous math,” because it makes me a good communicator for those who’s native language isn’t English. Have intellectual interests that are similar to those who you’d like to work with.

      You’re going up against 10,000 other applicants with PhDs. Your CV better be eye-popping, it better be codified, and you’d better be able to back it up, improvised in 10 minutes or less.

      Applied math is cool, it’s more broad than something like statistics. Some of the applied stats papers I’ve looked at recently are just convex optimization models anyway. Don’t specialize in one kind of math too quickly. No one needs an integral solved. Be able to write out valid probabilistic, optimization models, whatever, quickly, and know how to implement it with state of the art software immediately. Know when something is bullshit or impractical. I saw a paper recently that used permutation based model selection. This is a combinatorial joke.

      Don’t associate professionally with people who suck, or bullshit.

      It’s harder to get a job when you don’t already have one.

      It’s a different world than in 1995. This is something the older generation fails to realize.

      Being “happy” is very, very naive. Pick something that makes money and their’s demand for in the future.

      • Tom says:

        Speaking as someone who has just flexed a few hours to go to an art gallery, I think this comment undervalues happiness by a large degree. I’d strongly endorse Bob’s comments and believe they’ll stand the test of current times.

    • Anonymous says:

      “Actually contributing to a project is the best way to get hired. “

      Yes, do a crapload of unpaid work to help yourself get hired. This is the key discrimination tool for the modern tech elite – people that don’t live on the parental dole can’t spend their time doing unpaid work. Makes the $5/hour drivers net working for Uber look like high paying work.

      • Andrew says:

        Anon:

        I don’t know the personal circumstances of everyone who’s contributed to Stan before getting hired, but I’d be surprised if most of them were “living on the parental dole.” I think the usual story is that they are currently students or working at a paid job somewhere, and they find the time to put in some work on Stan on the side, or as part of their studies or work. For example, if you’re currently taking a class in Bayesian statistics and you’re using Stan anyway, and you run into problems with Stan, you can work on fixing those problems. Similarly if you’re using Stan for a project in your paid work. I’m not saying it’s easy, but people do all sorts of things on the side—such as write blog comments! No parental dole is required.

        This is not to diminish larger questions about economic and social inequality. It’s gotta be easier to spend time on a side project if you’re getting financial help. So I accept your general point, even if I think you might be slightly overstating it in this particular example.

    • Daniel H. says:

      “Also, I like long uninterrupted blocks to work on projects requiring a lot of concentration; other people like the energy of constant interruptions, but I find it stressful in that it interrupts my concentration as well as taking time.”

      To add to the topic of personal work preferences: I’ve long found that I am miserable in certain tasks (in my case, very structured and repetitive work). I perform best when paired with someone more structured than I am. So my general advice to myself when I was younger would have been:
      Find out what you do not like / where you’re not effective and develop good coping mechanisms

      A good starting point could be one of those big five personality trait tests (fivethirtyeight has a good one) + spending some time trying to understand what the results mean for you.

  2. Christian Hennig says:

    “What advice would you now give your younger self?” I should have said “no” a bit more to nice people who wanted me to do something that I didn’t really enjoy. (However I’d still say “yes” sometimes… finding a good balance is always important.)

    “How did you choose the school(s) you went to (for each degree)?” I was lazy. I chose the university in my home town. Then I went to the (more or less) only university in Germany that had a Statistics faculty at the time; I also had some friends there. The former thing wasn’t career oriented at all, but I didn’t regret it. I tend to think it’s my own motivation, work, and understanding that counts, and that should work in any school. But maybe that’s wrong and I was just lucky that the first random place was good enough for me (I learned a very mathematical approach to stats, but the professors were seriously good at it). The second university gave me some of the more applied side that was missing. I did that when I knew that statistics is my thing.

    “What subjects outside of my major would help me in doing this career?” This is not how I’m thinking. I did what was fun for me, and that was (among a few other things) philosophy. Now that’s no good for any career, or is it? These days it’s some kind of special asset that I have (I’m occasionally invited to philosophy conferences and have a few publications there), so I’m fine with that. I always think that I did well to make my major choices based on what I’m most passionate about and most motivated to do, and not because that “helped my career” – except that sometimes it did, “by accident”.

    “If hiring interns, what characteristics are important / do you look for in outstanding applicants?” I’d look for passion, insight, and the ability to think independently. I’m most impressed if somebody in an interview or in contact before or after says something that I find really interesting. I’m not looking for streamlined career types who behave as if they learned some interview guidebook by heart. (Unfortunately it’s hard to assess these things because people can later be quite different from how they come across in an interview, in positive and negative directions. But that’s the same with all kinds of information one can take from their CV.)

    “What’s enjoyable about the job and what is not?” I enjoy the actual teaching, the research, the work with PhD and project students and other collaborations (my collaborations are not routine and not forced on me; I work with people with whom I like to work). Some aspects of teaching are not so enjoyable – exam setting, marking, dealing with students who are not interested in the topic, want to begotiate for marks etc. I’m not passionate for university administration, but it is, let’s say, possible to develop some kind of motivation for some things there (it’s all too easy to forget that there are good reasons to care for these things). I hate begging for money (grant applications), but I get away with hardly ever doing it (as I wrote, I’m very fun oriented). The biggest problem is that there is always so much more to do (even enjoyable stuff) than there’s time for. Sometimes this can take the fun out of things, to some extent, but then I mostly have myself to blame for not saying “no” enough.

    “What are some trending majors / careers now and in the next ten years?” I don’t want to respond to this one, but I can say I’m happy that I mostly ignored this. There’s more competition in “trendy” careers and more hot air. If you’re passionate and good at something else, there will be a place for you. (Although I should repeat, balance is important – my thinking was never dominated by “what’s good for my career” but occasionally I thought that I should adapt a bit to what’s required, and that usually wasn’t wrong.)

    • Daniel H. says:

      +1
      My experience with choosing a university (lazy choice, both university and field of study) and following topics of interest has been very much the same.
      I did graduate in mechanical engineering and have found the field to offer enough job opportunities and variation to offer a good mix. So my advide would be: Choose something that looks OK and avoid obvious warning signals (like: fields you despise, areas that are known for virtually no job prospects). In such a setting, feel free to follow your personal interests in a healthy manner (for me, the mix is that roughly 20% of my work is “needs to be done, but I have to force myself to do it” and 20% is “more my interest than my employers” with the rest somewhere in between).
      In many cases, topics I did follow out of personal interest turned out to be extremely helpful for my employer, e.g. learning statistics (through the Gelman/Hill book!) or listening to the Paul Meehl philosophy of science lecture recordings (I did that in my free time though, but this proved extremely useful for several topics in my engineering work).

  3. mm says:

    I was honestly not expecting to respond to this many!

    I’m a data analyst in e-commerce with an eye to move into data science — only 2 years industry experience, so take this all with a grain of salt. About 70% of my position is programming (R/Python/SQL/Bash) with the other 30% business-related (teaching people how to interpret model outputs etc).

    > What advice would you now give your younger self?

    I paid for almost all of my own education. Sit down and calculate how much each class costs you (that is, cost of college / hours of classes). It makes it a lot harder to skip anything.

    Also: professors spend forty-five seconds reading your emails, no matter how long they are. If it’s not someone you speak to regularly, just say hi, introduce yourself (or remind them who you are — “I’m a student in your CS101 class”), say why you’re emailing, and end with “Thank you”. Don’t spend three hours writing it, and unless you’re asking very specific questions (or giving very specific answers) don’t write more than eight sentences. Polite, direct, professional, short.

    > What subjects outside of my major would help me in doing this career?

    Whatever will get you actually doing the job — in my case, doing research as an undergrad turned me on to programming (& data analysis) as something I enjoyed. There’s nothing worse than finding out you hate your field after spending the time and money to get a fancy degree in it, and you just can’t know until you spend a few months doing it. This is really common with lawyers, I find.

    > How did your college experience help you with your job?

    My degree is not at all related to what I do for work. What was important was having work experience doing the thing, and having done enough things in college that I could reasonably speak to any interview questions. Get involved, stay busy, try to get into leadership positions while in undergrad (particularly paid ones — part-time jobs and leading things for student affairs is a good bet). Check out Ask a Manager’s fantastic blog for ideas on what hiring managers are looking for, and figure out how you might get that.

    > What classes were most important in your major?

    Stats and history, neither precisely related to my degree. Stats because it eventually lead to my job, history because it made me a lot more interesting person. Try things outside your immediate degree plan — sure, you want to come out of undergrad prepped for a career, but you also want to come out a better person for it too.

    > What are your go-to references / resources?
    Stack Overflow, Ask a Manager. I curate my Twitter very carefully to not just be politics and jokes — find people in your field who have actually done impressive things and then follow who they follow. It’s the absolute best way to get what people are thinking about.

    > How do you “keep” your professors and helpful people? How do I get a mentor in your field (now)?

    Be a helpful person. Make it obvious that you are worth investing in by showing up on time and doing good work. Introduce yourself to everyone you interact with. Add people on Facebook (not professors, usually — at least pre-grad) and LinkedIn (start a LinkedIn early). If you’re interested in working with someone, tell them directly — not “do you have any positions” but “I’d love to work with you if you’re ever looking for someone to do X”. If you’ve shown up on time and done good work, they will remember you when they need someone.

    In general, I find that adult life requires me to be about 15% more direct (but still polite!) with people and my intentions than I really want to be, which probably means about 50% more direct than I wanted to be when I was 18. You gain absolutely nothing from not telling people exactly what you’re looking for, and you lose absolutely nothing from being told no.

    > What’s enjoyable about the job and what is not?

    Personally, I’d wish this job had a better support system for my professional development — I’m the only technical person I work with, so I don’t get much in the way of feedback on my code or my design choices. I’d try to find a job where it’s obvious you’ll be learning the things you want to learn.

    That said, I absolutely love programming and I love data analysis, so the mechanics of the job are fantastic for me. The atmosphere and coworkers (such as they are in the pandemic) were also a huge draw.

    > What’s the stress level and the balance between personal and work life?

    For my company I work 40-45 hours a week and then log out and don’t think about it again until the next day. It’s fantastic. If you’re working in finance or Amazon, tell your friends and family you’ll see them when you quit in two years. It’s extremely variable, and while the pay varies with it, you have to decide what you value when choosing a job.

  4. Tom Passin says:

    I want to make a general remark rather than respond to the specific questions. It’s an approach to my job(s)that has served me well over the years. Most people will probably end up doing something different that they expected. That’s all right, it’s natural these days, and it is probably a good thing over all. If you have developed skills to learn well and to thing effectively – and mostly to write well, too – you can make many kinds of jobs work out very well.

    But it’s common to find yourself in a job or project that you don’t like so much. I have found that in most jobs, there is always more to do than you can actually do. That means you have some leeway to work more on the parts you like best. Over time, you can find that you are mostly working on the parts you like the most. If you can use them to learn new things, that’s especially good and will help you even more to steer your work in an enjoyable way. In time, you can migrate most of your work to subjects that you enjoy.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “Most people will probably end up doing something different that they expected.”

      My Dad was a good example of that. He had a master’s degree in metallurgical engineering, and worked in that capacity for an aluminum company for many years. The company eventually moved out of town (business taxes in the states were lower than in Michigan), but for various reasons (including that my mom was working on a graduate degree), my folks didn’t want to move out of town. So he got a job teaching part-time at a technical college, and took night school courses in industrial education. He bought and refurbished (himself) an apartment building, which got him better return on investment than a standard financial investment. When my mother finished her degree, she had a good job offer in another state, so they moved there — and my dad almost instantly got a good job teaching in an engineering college. He took on the volunteer job of chairing the arrangements coommittee for the area’s Engineering Week celebrations, and continued that after he retired. (Oh, in his spare time, he built some add-ons to the house they bought, then later designed and built, mostly by himself, a new house.)

  5. Martha (Smith) says:

    Too many questions to answer, so I’ll focus on just this one:

    “How did you choose the school(s) you went to (for each degree)?”

    When I was looking over undergraduate colleges, my high school calculus teacher told me I should go to one that offered a graduate degree in math, because I would be taking graduate math courses before I finished my undergraduate degree. So I pretty much gave up on small colleges, and was pretty well decided to go to Wayne State University (which was local, so I would likely live at home). When she found out about that, she went looking for me, handed me an application for the University of Michigan, and said, “Fill it out it’s due by ___. It’s got a better math department than Wayne State.”

    When looking over graduate schools, I had some idea of which ones had the best reputations in math. When I looked at the Princeton catalog, it said explicitly, “Applications are normally limited to adult males,” so I decided not to apply there. The Yale catalogue didn’t say that, and did mention something about a new dorm for women graduate students — but a woman in the class ahead of mine at Michigan hadn’t been accepted there, so I decided not to apply there, and only applied to the programs where she had been accepted — Chicago and Cornell. They both accepted me, and Chicago was my first choice, so I went there.

    • Phil says:

      Martha, that story makes me sad and angry on your behalf. Clearly it worked out OK for you, but that is just such an unfair and absurd position for you or anyone else to be in.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        That’s just the way it was back then. The chair of the math department at Michigan (when I was an undergraduate there) said he would never hire a woman faculty member. (There were also strong nepotism rules then — a professor’s wife couldn’t be hired as a librarian).
        I remember once a (male) student at Texas saying that he took my class because he hadn’t ever had a woman math professor and wanted to see what one was like. And people often ended seminars and meetings with, “Thank you gentlemen!”. And people who became a l little “woke” (as they say nowadays) decided that there should be a women on every committee — so I once got put on a hiring committee for a tenured position, when I didn’t have tenure yet myself. Awkward! Things really have changed a lot since then.

  6. Phil says:

    I’m going to focus on these:
    What’s enjoyable about the job and what is not?
    Why does the good outweigh the bad?
    What’s a typical day in this career?
    What’s the stress level and the balance between personal and work life?

    My name is Phil Price. I have a PhD in theoretical atomic physics but did not pursue that discipline in my career. Instead I became a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (often confused with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is a very different place). Within LBNL I changed research focus every five to ten years. First I worked on the spatial and statistical distribution of indoor radon (a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is probably responsible for thousands of deaths annually in the U.S.); then on airflow and pollutant transport, including methods for using computed tomography to map pollutant distributions (or tracer gas distributions); then the analysis of electricity data from buildings or groups of buildings in order to answer questions related to energy efficiency and to look for ways for the electric grid to hande non-schedulable (“non-dispatchable”) energy sources such as wind and solar. Wedged in there somewhere I did a bit of work on the physical properties of mixtures of combustion gases, and on quantifying the effect of fresh air (or its lack) on worker performance, and on quantifying the effectiveness of kitchen exhaust hoods, and some other stuff. I am not a statistician by trade but over the years I picked up enough data analysis and stats knowledge that I was often the best person available to do data analysis, and I also know where my gaps are and thus when to seek help from someone more knowledgeable. I worked at LBNL for about 23 years, from age 27 to age 50. Andrew was a frequent collaborator for the first seven or eight years of my career there, and one of my favorite papers from that whole stretch was a decision analysis paper we worked on together: https://projecteuclid.org/download/pdf_1/euclid.ss/1009212411

    Then I left, largely because of funding issues — or, perhaps a more informative way to put it, because the intersection of (work I could get funded) and (work I thought was worth doing) became the null set. This had happened to me before, around 2005 when I was working on airflow and pollutant transport and found myself working on very applied questions related to concerns about chemical or biological weapons releases by terrorists. I was perfectly willing to work on these issues, but we needed more of a basic scientific grounding for lots of them. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es802506p is a publication from this period which is pretty much all about those knowledge gaps and their implications. I didn’t want to keep doing work I didn’t think was important or even interesting really. I took six months off, during which I did some informational interviews, did a little bit of consulting (for a biologist looking at wolves stealing cougar kills in Yellowstone National Park), worked as an intern on a creek restoration project, did some travel. I ended up staying at LBNL but deciding to say No to any project that didn’t interest me, which is what led me (after working in a couple of other areas) to work on electricity data and related subjects. https://vimeo.com/61303720 is a video of a talk I gave about some of this stuff.

    Anyway, when I ran into funding problems in about 2013, that persisted into 2014 and ultimately 2015, it was clearly time to move on. Partly this represented lack of vision on my part — not coming up with a project I wanted to do and that the Department of Energy (or someone else) was willing to fund, but partly I ran into issues with internal gatekeepers: I was not allowed to submit my own proposals in response to some funding opportunities that might have worked out.

    I could have found a way to hang on at LBNL if I had really wanted to, but I checked with a few companies whose interests had overlapped with my research over the previous few years and asked if they would consider hiring me as either an employee or a consultant if I were available. I got several Yeses, so I decided it was worth at least giving consulting a try. So now I’m a freelance consultant. This has worked out great. Someone I knew slightly from LBNL — we had worked on a project together a few years earlier — had been a consultant for several years and approached me to see if I would like to work with him on a project that was too big for him to handle himself. That project involved automatic optimization of commercial-scale photovoltaic systems: how big should the system be, how should it be oriented spatially (you’d think you would just want to maximize power generation, but due to time-varying energy prices it can be better to generate more power when power is expensive, even if this generates less average power in the long run), that sort of thing. We have continued to work on one or two projects per year. I have also worked on several projects on my own, mostly related to energy one way or another but I have done a few other things, including a forensic accounting project that was mathematically well within my capabilities but was very different from any other subject I’ve worked on, so it was sort of interesting for that alone.

    Things I liked about LBNL were the relative ease with which I could change what I was working on — I tend to get bored after several years working on the same thing — and the fact that I could work on my own schedule and largely pick the direction of my own research…as long as I had funding in some general area. I also had several colleagues I really liked.

    But there were episodic funding problems, sometimes for the whole institution but more often for just some research areas, based on changing political or scientific interests from the main funders (the Department of Energy, but also the Environmental Protection Agency, DARPA, and others). Other of my colleagues were able to settle in with stable funding for a decade or more at a time, but I, and many others, had to sort of scramble to keep up with whatever was the flavor of the year. As I told a friend a couple of years I left to become a consultant, “I don’t understand why we need National Labs if this is how the research is going to go; they might as well just hire consultants.” And, for the second time in my career there, in 2013-2015 I felt that what I was able to get funded was not stuff I thought was especially valuable or interesting. My last project was to work on a portion of a software tool that did some extremely basic statistical analysis of commercial building energy data and checked for some common problems (such as the building not shutting down enough at night or on weekends, or the energy consumption having an unusually high dependence on outdoor temperature, which can indicate a malfunctioning heating or cooling system). As with my previous period of dissatisfaction, it’s not that I wasn’t happy with the subject matter — indeed I think it’s valuable stuff to work on and there are loads of interesting questions — but with the feeling that we needed to be doing basic scientific research to try to extend our capabilities, not just implementing the very simplistic stuff we had in hand. Some of the Requests for Proposals (to which one responds by applying for money) asked for a 12- or 18-month timeline for delivering a ‘product’ that would change the energy market in some way. What can you promise to do in 12 months, that you can pretty much guarantee will be successful? A small change in an existing product, that’s what. So we were doing a lot of that. It’s not what I wanted to do.

    So I became a consultant, where I am also working on short timelines and do not have the ability to pick my own projects. But I only need to work about half time, even a bit less, to earn an amount of money I’m satisfied with. And thus far I have mostly worked on interesting projects, and the hours are totally flexible except when I am really up against a deadline. I work on a few contracts per year, mostly with colleagues I really like. I work from a home office, using Slack daily and Zoom weekly or so (or, previously, Google Hangouts) to coordinate with my colleagues on the contracts. I think I’ve been very lucky with both colleagues and clients. That said, some of the work I do each year is of the not-interesting-but-pays-the-bills variety, and I would like to shift that to interesting-and-pays-the-bills if I can. (I do have some work that is in that category, too, fortunately). Work-life balance is excellent.

    Putting it all together: I was generally happy at a big government research lab, but some two- or three-years stretches were better than others in terms of whether I considered the work interesting or worthwhile. I am very happy as a consultant but I’m not sure that would have been true if I had tried to do my whole career this way.

    One thing that is predictable but a bit sad: I had intended to continue to publish occasionally, either in the refereed literature or in some other way that would make some of my research available to others — because even as a consultant, some of what I work on is research — but I am just not doing it. This is purely my fault, I have plenty of time but I am just not doing it. At LBNL, for some of my projects a paper was a ‘deliverable’, i.e. was required, so I would get them done. (On the other hand, later in my career there I was doing work where scientific papers were explicitly _not_ considered valuable or fundable, which really seemed like a slap in the face).

    I hope something in the above is helpful to someone!

  7. Some great points here! But whenever considering advice from individuals about their own path, consider survivorship bias! For instance, professor is an amazing job, and most professors you talk to will be very happy about their careers. But talk to someone who involuntarily left academia. These include some of the most bitter, disillusioned individuals I have ever met. Such people are much harder to find, though, even though are many more of them than you might think! (Turns out people don’t tout their personal failures nearly as much as their successes.)

    https://xkcd.com/1827/

    http://www.princeton.edu/~joha/Johannes_Haushofer_CV_of_Failures.pdf

    • David J. Littleboy says:

      ” consider survivorship bias!”

      Aha! That’s the word I was looking for. The note about about how hard things are nowadays seems rather at odds with how well everyone here is doing.

      “But talk to someone who involuntarily left academia. These include some of the most bitter, disillusioned individuals I have ever met.”

      Not me. I got into a PhD program in AI, and realized (a) I wasn’t coming up with something to say for myself and (b) I’d be spending my life screaming at idiots (read “Rebooting AI” to see why (it’s actually become way worse than I ever believed possible)).

      But, yes. To get into and stay in a PhD program, you have to persuade your advisor, department, thesis committee that you really truly believe that the only morally acceptable role in life is to be a tenured professor. It’s hard to keep up the facade of having drunk the Cool Aid without accidentally drinking some…

    • Kyle C says:

      +1. I’m a lawyer (now an administrative judge). I like this job (after hating some past ones) but I don’t encourage young people to go to law school, and I no longer speak on panels about “how I became a judge” because there is so much luck involved, and because, had I tried and failed, I’d be miserable. Other than that I’m friendly enough.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “But talk to someone who involuntarily left academia. These include some of the most bitter, disillusioned individuals I have ever met.”

      I assume that “involuntarily left academia” means something like they were kicked out or didn’t make the grade.

      But when I was in graduate school, there was another reason many male students left academia: either they were drafted, or they quit graduate school to get a defense job that would give them a deferment. This group is probably hard to track. I suspect that a substantial number of those who were drafted didn’t survive. I would not be surprised if many of those in the second category found their work interesting and continued in applied work in industry.

      • David J. Littleboy says:

        “I suspect that a substantial number of those who were drafted didn’t survive.”

        Well, the US sent 2,594,000 military personnel to Vietnam, of whom 58,220 perished. That’s a 2.2% fatality rate. I’d guess that the fatality rate of people with at least an undergraduate degree was lower (they’d be more effective at avoiding combat). I wonder what the fatality rate of the Vietnamese people was? Estimates of fatalities range from 1.15 to 3.20 million; I’ll use 2.1 million. Similarly, the population of Vietnam was about 42.7 million in 1970, so that’s a 4.9% fatality ratio.

        So it was better to be a drafted grad student than to be a Vietnamese peasant.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          “I’d guess that the fatality rate of people with at least an undergraduate degree was lower (they’d be more effective at avoiding combat)”

          Good point. In fact, when I have considered my father’s luck in not being drafted in WWII (he turned 38 the day before his number came up in the draft lottery, about six months before I was born), I have thought that if he had been drafted, he probably would not have been used as “cannon fodder” (as my mother’s uncle was in WW1), but would probably have been assigned (because of his experience as an engineer designing and supervising manufacture of airplane parts) to non-combat jobs such as intelligence or airplane repair.

          “So it was better to be a drafted grad student than to be a Vietnamese peasant.” Another good point.

          • David J. Littleboy says:

            My father volunteered for WWII right after high school. He reports that it took him two days to realize he had made the worst mistake of his life. On the other hand, he leveraged the GI bill to go to college and buy a house: despite growing up in a poor working-class immigrant family, he purchased a house on Beacon Hill at the age of 30.

            (Grandmother Littleboy: “Why do you have to go to college to learn to drive a train?” (Father reports not knowing whether or not she was joking). Father: “Juggling’s the best thing you learned at MIT.” And I don’t know if he was joking or not.)

  8. RW says:

    I work in finance and did a brief stint in financial regulation (government).

    What advice would you now give your younger self?
    –> Take any classes that give practical skills (experience building spreadsheets, coding, frequent writing papers, etc). The most impactful classes for me were ones where I had to engage in tasks such as writing frequently (a paper was due every other class) or creating many spreadsheets related to my future career (finance),

    What subjects outside of my major would help me in doing this career?
    –> Python and experimental statistics

    How did you choose the school(s) you went to (for each degree)?
    –> One with most scholarship

    If hiring interns, what characteristics are important / do you look for in outstanding applicants?
    –> Good soft skills and an eagerness to learn. Good grades.

    How did your college experience help you with your job?
    –> Took classes that simulated jobs I would later hold (manage a portfolio for the school, build out financial models to value companies, etc)

    What did you realize something about yourself or your passions that you didn’t know you had coming into college?
    –> Learned I liked analysis

    What classes were most important in your major?
    –> Financial Theory Classes (Finance 101), Intermediate Accounting, and Company Valuation classes

    What textbooks have you kept (even though the internet exists)?
    –> None

    What are your go-to references / resources?
    –> Depends on the topic. I’ve worked in a variety of fields since college (all finance), so each are different. Whenever I enter a field, I just find reliable and high quality sources of information and follow those religiously to learn the industry. I’m currently commenting on a stats blog because I’ve transitioned to more data science in the financial field and need to get much sharper in stats.

    How do you “keep” your professors and helpful people? How do I get a mentor in your field (now)?
    –> People tend to want to help people who are pleasant and enjoyable to be around. I maintain a fairly large network of former coworkers, professors, mentors, etc relative to others my age. A simple phone call asking about their daughter goes a long way. I also keep a mailing list where I send interesting information I find to those people. It is an infrequent email, so it isn’t bothersome but keeps me in people’s mind. A former coworker of mine sends out a yearly update on his life to a bunch of people via traditional mail along with a Christmas card. I’ve started to steal that approach.

    What are some trending majors / careers now and in the next ten years?
    –> Practical application of stats / analysis to business. There seems to be a lack of people with deep contextual knowledge of an industry combined with decent analytical skills

    What’s enjoyable about the job and what is not?
    –> I enjoy building models, writing code, setting risk limits, and all that stuff. I do not enjoy having to ensure compliance with the variety of state and federal laws that impact my current form of finance. You could spend a career learning that stuff and no one wants to accidentally break the law. Related to my central duties, convincing people to change their behaviors due to analysis is always a challenge. People only want to agree with data that supports their priors. My typical approach is trying to answer all objections ahead of time and a bit of shock and awe (include some analysis or graphs that are too sophisticated for the audience but serve to signal you’ve done a lot of work). I’ve found if you combine that with largely good analysis the audience can understand, it softens them up a little.

    Why does the good outweigh the bad?
    –> Because I get paid very well to do what I like. Not much to complain about

    What’s a typical day in this career?
    –> Since i work for a small and fast growing start up, there is no typical days. I have a more general role, given I work for a small organization. If I was at a larger company, my job would be split into 5 or 6 different roles.

    What’s the stress level and the balance between personal and work life?
    –> Prior jobs have been more or less stressful. Working for an investment bank was the most stressful. I’ve typically gone the less traveled route to maintain balance. So instead of trying to get jobs at McKinsey or Goldman Sachs, I simply look for smaller organizations filled with smart people where I can have direct impact on operations. I enjoy the flexibility and the more broad experience of these roles. And there is very little culture of “signaling” you are working by staying at the office long hours unnecessarily.

    What have we not thought to ask you?
    –> As you embark on your career, what you know is only part of it. Who you know is also a large part and equally compounds with time. The more you help network and provide value to peers, the more opportunities will come to you later in life. As I’ve gotten older, many of my former colleagues are starting companies or becoming consultants. If you were consistent and good at your job, these friends will want to get you involved in their endeavors. On a related note, I believe getting careers that maximize your exposure to people early in your career is great way to super charge this experience. For example, the ideal job out of college would be something like a traveling consultant in whatever field where you meet lots of professionals. After a few years of this sort of job combined with soft skills and maintaining those connections, you will have a very valuable network of people at all stages of their career. The network effects of this sort of job is way stronger than a job where you work with the same 5 people every day. The tradeoffs is that these jobs are either very competitive or hard to find and spending hundreds of nights in hotels is not easy for everyone.

  9. anon e mouse says:

    For various reasons I don’t use my real name or give too much identifying info but I can still answer some/most of this. I had one ~5 year career after my bachelor’s with a government subcontractor doing regulatory economics. Then I went back to school and got a PhD in a social science, worked in private industry in BI/analytics for a couple years, and presently work as an applied demographer at a planning agency.

    What advice would you now give your younger self?
    If you have a career goal, make sure you understand what classes and/or degree will give you the skills to actually do it. As an undergrad I majored in something that sounded like it would allow me to do what I wanted to do, but it really didn’t, and I never asked the right questions so I never knew until I was out applying for jobs. Also, take methods classes, as many as you can stand. I didn’t do this in undergrad and had a hard time moving on from a job I didn’t like, and I did do it in grad school and have had a pretty easy time getting interviews and offers since.

    What subjects outside of my major would help me in doing this career?
    The practical answer is math, stats, programming (“data science”). The less-practical answer is “stuff that will make you a well-rounded human being who other people like talking to” because that’s also a valuable thing. Many solutions to problems in one domain have applications to problems in other domains. But also people like having coworkers who they can relate to as people.

    How did you choose the school(s) you went to (for each degree)?
    Undergrad – my parents clipped my wings and weren’t going to pay for anything more than a few hours away, which was a huge limitation, but they were paying as long as I got a deal somewhere that looked like in-state tuition at our flagship public, so I respected their wishes. I went to the flagship of a neighboring state because I thought I could reinvent myself if I got away from people I knew in high school. It was the wrong reason and reinventing yourself is harder than you think when you’re 18, but the school still worked out okay.
    Grad – my field, like many, covers a huge range of topics so you have to go somewhere where there’s an advisor accepting students who is studying something in the ballpark of what interests you. Given that limitation I applied to five schools, and got into all five. Two schools were much better than the other three and I took the offer from the one of those two where the cost of living was low enough that the stipend would mostly cover my expenses. In hindsight, I arguably should have taken the other one and ate some expenses with loans, but if I am being objective, there was really no way of knowing that then.

    How did your college experience help you with your job?
    In undergrad it honestly mostly didn’t, except that my degree had the right title for the type of work I ended up doing. For me, undergrad was long enough ago (early 2000s) that the “everyone must do X internships” trend was just getting started, so I only did one and it was not very useful at all. Don’t do an internship just to do one, try to make sure they’re going to give you interesting things to do and/or that it might lead to a job. In grad school it was my graduate minor and RAships more so than my actual dissertation research that put me on my current path.

    What textbooks have you kept (even though the internet exists)?
    Demography texts are still pretty good for most of the formal demography that gets done out in the “real” world, even if you find people in academia doing much fancier stuff.

    What are your go-to references / resources?
    StackExchange/StackOverflow – seriously, I cannot stress this enough

    What are some trending majors / careers now and in the next ten years?
    Data science is very trendy right now, but it’s so trendy that the term now just means “anyone who would have been called a data analyst 10 years ago” at many places, so you need to think carefully about whether a job is a match for your skills and interests. I think that so many data science programs have come online in the past 5 years that there’s actually going to be an entry-level talent glut eventually and the market for new hires will crash, so I would suggest something “purer” like stats or computer science or applied math if data science jobs interest you.

    What’s enjoyable about the job and what is not?
    Enjoyable – unlike my foray into the private sector I can see how what I do is actually useful to people and society. I don’t work crazy hours. There’s usually not a ton of pressure. I’m paid better than you’d expect at a public agency and the benefits are quite good.
    Not enjoyable – The political dynamics of my agency aren’t great, it’s hard to explain why without giving away where I work. Also, my work tends to be more about maintaining existing processes than creating new ones, which I personally find less interesting.

  10. AndrewCSkibo says:

    Responding to the book comment. As you will see from the books these go away back, and they are keepers. All have numerous marginal notes, including some that make me wonder if I was really paying attention.

    Halmos, Finite Dimensional Vector Spaces

    Kramer, Mathematical Methods of Statistics

    Lehman, Testing Statistical Hypotheses, back when it was just one skinny volume.

    Mood, Introduction to the theory of statistics, back when it was just Mood. This was the book for my first undergraduate stat course.

  11. Rik says:

    Hi, I’m Rik, I have a non-descriptive job title (data scientist) at a large pension administration company. I work in the innovation department, and we try to make our company more digital by solving concrete problems people have. The core of my work involves finding the problems people have, figuring out how we can help them (and they can help us!), and then building the solution. I also tend to be the first person people contact when they are programming without being in IT (IT doesn’t really recognize that investment managers can program, too!).

    > What advice would you now give your younger self?

    Stay the course, but have a little more courage once in a while.

    > What subjects outside of my major would help me in doing this career?

    If you have a quantitative background, that’s good. The best thing to have is a good portfolio of stuff you built.

    > How did you choose the school(s) you went to (for each degree)?

    I went to the nearest university, and then did the double master offered at that university because it was exactly what I wanted to do.

    > If hiring interns, what characteristics are important / do you look for in outstanding applicants?

    Taking the initiative, not afraid to speak their mind, willingness to learn, and a good sense of social interaction. I had a trainee come up to me yesterday to introduce herself. She didn’t even know I was in the office, but figured it couldn’t harm to check. Very positive impression!

    > How did your college experience help you with your job?

    I have a dual degree in mathematics and compsci, so I reason about programs in a very structured way, but mostly the capacity to look at a problem and get a good sense of which threads to pull, as well as working together on group projects. My work is one entire big group project.

    > What did you realize something about yourself or your passions that you didn’t know you had coming into college?

    I studied mathematics, but I get unhappy if I don’t do something concrete. My company is full of people who just pitter-patter around and don’t really do anything (pension is mandatory where I’m from, so we’re never out of a job). I want to get results, and I want those results to mean something to our participants.

    > What classes were most important in your major?

    Hard to say. Group work is the most important lesson for me, and it’s a bit hard to pick just a couple classes when it comes to reasoning about programs.

    > What textbooks have you kept (even though the internet exists)?
    `
    First off, the internet is a mountain of shit with a couple diamonds in it. It is absolutely worth keeping good books around as a single source of lessons, so you don’t have to dig through the first 500 hits on google before you find anything worth reading. I do this with cookbooks, too!
    The list is Introduction to Algorithms (good reference), and an Introduction to Chaotic Dynamical Systems (because it’s fun).

    > What are your go-to references / resources?

    Python or package documentation and Google Scholar. Sometimes stackoverflow. I’m not fond of most blog posts or things you find on Medium. They’re usually written by someone who did the thing for the first time and doesn’t really know what they are doing.

    > How do you “keep” your professors and helpful people? How do I get a mentor in your field (now)?

    I didn’t keep contact with my professors, really. My prof asked me if I wanted to do a PhD (I have a Master’s degree), and I said I wanted to try industry first. After having tried, and seeing some of the struggles people doing a PhD around me go through, I can honestly say I made the right decision then.

    > What are some trending majors / careers now and in the next ten years?

    Mathematics and especially statistics. “Data science” (whatever that means). If you are good at programming and good at statistics, you should be able to land yourself a job pretty easy. But make no mistake, social skills are tremendously important (and completely undertaught).

    > What’s enjoyable about the job and what is not?

    There are a lot of enjoyable things in my job.
    – I get to advise people who manage billions, and they trust me to do a good job. At the age of 27, that’s a pretty rare opportunity. I of course don’t do it alone, but I have a lot of responsibility.
    – Teaching people new things, whether that being some programming technique, or a way to attack a problem for a trainee.
    – I have an incredible team. In particular I have one project manager who basically takes away all the procedural crap (reporting, chasing signatures, etc.) for me and allows me to just focus on finding problems and solving them.

    There are also not so great things.
    – Our company is SLOW. You have to spend a lot of time explaining that, yes, we could do machine learning and scripting in .NET, but no, it’s not a good idea. There are lots of checks and gates you have to pass through before you’re allowed to touch anything, and all those checks and gates are set up for the old way of doing things, which means the new way of doing things is very painful.
    – Our company is designed to put its trust in processes, not people. So often people don’t take responsibility and you have to chase them.

    > Why does the good outweigh the bad?
    – I have a good project manager.
    – There are literally millions to be saved for the pensions of hardworking healthcare workers.

    > What’s a typical day in this career?

    I usually start the day by catching up on some email. In every project there has to be “someone” who has a problem they want solved, so we send emails with questions and summaries and thoughts. If I have time I get started on some task for one of my projects. Usually that involves programming, but I also spend a lot of time configuring software or debugging infrastructure (when someone in our team has an issue).
    We have a daily call in the morning in which we talk through our current projects, see if anyone is stuck and needs help. Then more work, maybe grab a coffee with a colleague if we’re in the office, just to shoot the shit.
    Then we might have a meeting with some external party trying to sell us something, I might get a message to help with some programming problem (yesterday I helped our trainee write constraints for a SAT solver, checked if some environment problems were resolved, that sort of thing). Then lunch, maybe I have scheduled a block of working together with someone from another team. Then at 16:00 a meeting with a project owner to give them a status update and discuss next steps, and then around 17:30 I walk out the door and don’t think about my work anymore.

    > What’s the stress level and the balance between personal and work life?

    I would say very good. I work 36 hours, but I can work more or less depending on circumstances. Like last week my grandma passed away, so I got condolences and nobody felt weird about my lowered productivity. On the other hand, if I’m having a good week, I might work 45 hours to finish some project.

    > What have we not thought to ask you?

    I find it hard to overstate the importance of social skills. If you can’t connect with people, you can’t get anything done in a company, no matter how hard you work. A PhD seems like a fairly lonely pursuit with not a lot of fallback options. In business, people are there to help, and the problems you run into, someone probably already has seen before. All in all, the challenge is very different, but not any less fun.

    (submitting without rereading because who has time for that. apologies for typos, incoherencies, etc.)

    • wally says:

      “…but have a little more courage once in a while”

      Absolutely. I’m a late career guy who works at a small company with folks I get on with, so I can’t complain. But I feel I could’ve been much further ahead at this point, e.g retired and trying my hand at poetry (or pottery)…with more of the following:

      a) courage
      b) discipline
      c) ability to plan

  12. Daniel H. says:

    “What subjects outside of my major would help me in doing this career?”
    I find it helpful to think of me as a characterin a RPG game, having a large table of possible skills that can be trained. This table includes skills like:
    – give an interesting, well-structrued 30-minute presentation
    – give an impromptu 5-minute presentation (e.g. you are asked to give a short summary of your current task or a certain topic in a meeting)
    – write a clear, structured, understandable email describing a problem
    – write a 10 page paper describing a technical problem and the solution
    – after a short meeting, know what others expect you to do (without getting an explicit task description)
    – share work and tasks with someone else (aka collaboration). Pro version: when your collaborators are rather difficult to work with.
    – in a confusing discussion, make everyone agree on what could be done next (meaning: more work get’s done if you do participate than if you didn’t join the meeting)

    I could go on and there are many more topics and areas of expertise that could be mentioned here. What I want to hammer home is: All these are skills that can be trained!
    – When I started working, writing a 10-page technical report took me roughly 50 h of work. Now it’s less than 5, and I like the result way better. You can train yourself to write clear and efficient.
    – I’m from Germany and English is not my native tongue, but we are increasingly doing both project discussions and writing in English. Again, this is something you can train (e.g. by writing blog comments, sorry, but this is a good training opportunity).

    So my suggestion would be to take all training opportunities for whatever seems helpful.

  13. David Ash says:

    I think this is not the right set of questions.

    Two people in their answers mentioned “social skills”. The most important questions to be asked involve social skills, so discussions of social skills in this context deserve way more attention than to be buried deep in this blog post.

    The reality is that many people are drawn to technical and mathematical (STEM) fields because their social skills are not that great. “People people” are generally drawn to completely different fields. So if we are talking about a group of people who, in general, don’t have the best social skills, it bears a deeper discussion than to just say to someone–who may have chosen a STEM field precisely because they DON’T have great social skills–that “social skills are important” but without amplifying much.

    The questions I would ask are:

    “What is the best career path for someone who has great mathematical skills but weak social skills?”

    “If someone has weak social skills, and improving those skills is correctly identified as important for their career, what is the best career path to take to improve those social skills?”

    For example, I personally found that my social skills stagnated a lot in academia, but improved a great deal in a business environment. For me I found that the business environment was just a better place to develop social skills. YMMV. But given that social skills have been (correctly IMHO) identified in a couple of the comments as really, really important–and given that many math and tech people don’t naturally have great social skills–this is a topic that needs to be addressed head on, not just in a few comments.

  14. jim says:

    Here’s my advice to all students heading off to college or generally starting off in life:

    1) No matter what career you choose, there will be things that are cool and things that suck, more or less in equal proportions.
    2) The trick in life is about how you handle what sucks: learn to get it done and move on. Neutralize it and it won’t matter.
    3) If you’re relatively smart (say >60th percentile), you’ll do well at almost anything if you put in the work.
    4) Work pays off: you get smarter. No shit. That’s really true. If you work at something you’ll get better at it and smarter in general.
    5) Given (1)-(4), it doesn’t matter that much what career you choose. So choose the money. You’ll never regret it.
    6) As soon as you get your first job, open a brokerage account and a Roth IRA and start learning how to invest. At first go slow and be careful.
    7) in your first few years of work, live like a student. Scrounge every cent. Build your savings as fast as you can.
    8) If you start working at 24 and save $10K that year, then add another $500 to that each year, you’ll have about $1M by the time you’re 45 at average market return.
    9) Retire and do whatever the hell you want.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      I’m pretty much OK with (1) – (4) and the first sentence of (5), but I think that thereafter you are restricting yourself to a population that puts money above meaningful work. I didn’t go for the money, but went for meaningful work — and plenty enough money came along with it. Maybe I was just lucky, but I think that for many people, meaningful work is the most important criterion.

      • jim says:

        “for many people, meaningful work is the most important criterion.”

        My guess is that a lot of people feel this way, but if they understood the world as it really is, their perception of what is “meaningful” might change.

        Strong business communities go hand in hand with high standards of living and low poverty rates. It’s a pretty simple and indisputable relationship.

        I’d take it a step further and even say – to a very rough approximation – one’s salary reflects the degree to which one contributes to human welfare. Obviously there are glaring exceptions. But just the same, Jamie Dimon’s efficient operation of JPMorgan Chase lowers the cost of home loans to millions of people, as well as providing millions of people with pension income. What’s more, he forces other banks to follow his practices multiplying his effectiveness to the entire industry. In aggregate his success provides a benefit to society that’s likely many multiples of his average annual income, options included. The same could be said for the suite of people he gathers around him, and the people they hire, right down to the tellers.

        Westerners undervalue the benefits of business to society because they take it for granted. But alot of people in other countries would see it otherwise.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          You and I seem to have different perceptions of “the world as it really is”.

        • AllanC says:

          I do not accept this, even in the approximate. It may be true for some but mostly not; and it is highly contingent on one’s definition of the set of things that contribute to human welfare and how one rank orders contributions (i.e. how one assigns units of good to various “contributions” so we can tally them for a score).

          Do not put it into the minds of young adults that compensation is connected with social worth. That is such a socially hurtful concept. Please dispense with it.

          Your math is a bit off on the returns. Historical market returns have been around 10% +/- with dividends reinvested. A $10,000 investment at t=0 with contributions of $500 at t+1 after that with a 10% rate of return for a 21-year period yields an absolute dollar amount (assuming no tax & friction costs) of $105,504. To net a million you would need a return of 23-24% and that is not a likely rate of return over a 20-year period (and I am being charitable by even characterizing it as not likely. It’s basically 0% if you invest is an index fund save for some run of massive inflation. But even in that case, it won’t be worth nearly as much because buying power has decreased).

          BTW waiting until retirement to do what you want in life is a little like saving sex for old age. I mean, you can do it but why? Life is not meant to be lived in purgatory only to escape near the end.

          • David says:

            Allan, I may say more soon about the contribution to human welfare, but just regarding the math: I think he means you invest $10,000 the first year, $10,500 the second year, $11,000 the third year, etc–not investing just $500 new money a year after the first year. With this investment schedule you would get, at a 10% annual return, $961,041.24 at age 45 if you start at age 24.

            • AllanC says:

              Thanks David.

              I read Jim’s remark in a rather uncharitable way; no doubt biased from the fact that I disagree so strongly with some of his other remarks. It is a good reminder that I should do better to actively think about the various way in which a claim could be interpreted prior to issuing commentary (and I agree with your interpretation being equally or in this case more plausible)

          • Martha (Smith) says:

            AllanC said,
            “BTW waiting until retirement to do what you want in life is a little like saving sex for old age. I mean, you can do it but why? Life is not meant to be lived in purgatory only to escape near the end.”

            This is a good response to Jim’s remark “9) Retire and do whatever the hell you want.” Since reading Jim’s item 9, I have been thinking about how much I enjoyed the last year of graduate school, and the next few years when I was proving a lot of theorems. I don’t think I could do that now. And I had a lot of really enjoyable and worthwhile years teaching math and statistics. I don’t have the energy to do that now. So I’m glad nobody gave me Jim’s advice when I was young. (BTW: I had good savings habits and good retirement plans, so I an fine with the income I have now in retirement.)

            • To be fair, Jim is talking about retiring at age 45, an age when most people in academia are maybe just getting tenure or a couple years after. They may not even have gotten their first major grant (like an R01 in biology) yet. They may still qualify as “early stage professors” for special grants available just for that group…

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