19 February 2009

The mathematician and the lumberjack

You remember the whole "mathematicians have the best job in America" survey from jobsrated.com (which was based on some fairly questionable criteria)? Well, apparently Sean Hurley at NPR did a story a couple weeks ago, where he talked to a mathematician (Peter Winkler, of Dartmouth) and a lumberjack. Peter Winkler likes his job. So does the lumberjack, although the pay sucks and trees occasionally fall on you, which sucks too.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting that they talked to people who have the jobs. Who could be more biased about a job than the person who does it?

I'm not sure how you'd do this, but to get a real feel for how good or bad the job is, I would think you'd want to have some truly randomly selected crop of job seekers investigating each job, following the person who has the job around for a day. Mind you, this should be a random sample of job seekers, including people who could never get the job, e.g. 30 year old high school dropouts would also be included in the group following around neurosurgeons. The only purpose of this is to find out how good the average person thinks the job is, so you need a representative sample of people, including people who are totally unqualified for some jobs, and totally overqualified for others.

Ideally they'd get to observe everything the person does and ask lots of questions so they could get a sense of how much thinking work goes in to each aspect of the job, and how and why she or he does each part. But they shouldn't ask so many questions that they stop the person from actually doing the job -- hmm, maybe it would be better if they videod some parts of the job and then asked the questions later, sitting in front of a monitor with the person who does the job.

Then you'd take the average of what the job seekers think of the job to find out how good or bad it is.

Otherwise you're just finding out whether people who actually get sorted (or sort themselves) into jobs like them.

AgainstWords said...

"Yes of course you would. But would the caveman?"

--- Wittgenstein (where neither he nor I mean to use 'caveman' in a pejorative sense)

There may be objectively measurable components which are unfavourable; but the question is the net value (and not just economic value) which the professional derives from their job.

In this sense, while there may be a "best job for a demographic with such-and-such a distribution of aptitudes and preferences", there is no such thing as a "best job" without any qualifications.

Consequently, reporting by interviewing people who ended up in the job is good, assuming you get more detailed information than "yes I think this job is great". If a professional portrays their view of their job with enough detail, people who are very dissimilar to the interviewee will neglect that interview under their own discretion, as the message of the professional will simply not resonate with those listeners.