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Thursday, June 22, 2006


A story in the paper yesterday asked the question, is a college education still a good investment? On one hand, a college education is an experience that young people can have. You live on your own, with thousands of other kids. You go to classes and learn about things that you will be asked about on a test. On the other hand it's a very expensive four years of your life. You will have little time to earn money. At the same time the spending of money will be accelerated. You are hoping that later in life your earning potential will be accelerated. If your parents can help you are ahead of the game. If you are putting yourself through college this is a major risk of an investment. What guarentees are there that you will have a good job some day?

People like to bring up the fact that Bill Gates never finished college and now he's the riches guy in the world. The link to education and money however is pretty solid. One of the main reasons is that all higher paying jobs require a degree just to get your foot in the door. If you're like some people you have contacts through family members are other associations who can give you that little extra something that gets you the job. If not you are forced to pay your dues. Get the education and then get the rest of the package that will land you your high paying job. Bill Gates had the rest of the package to begin with.

What is the rest of the package? I have a degree in Biochemistry. During the course of my education I used a Mass Spectrometry machine to analyze the compounds that I produced in organic chemistry lab. When a potential employer wants someone with these skills however, I cannot use my education. They are looking for hands on experience. What they are saying is that my education was superficial. They want something real because you won't be taking tests on Mass Spec on the job. You will be using the machine for what is was intended. Education is thus a mere introduction to the world you might be working in. As time marches on during this rapid advancement in technology, is education keeping pace with it's Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorol programs?

Vocational schools teach people how to perform such jobs as mechanic, plumber and so on. Plumbing has remained the same for a long time. Cars have become a little more advanced. In most new cars you have to take your car back to the dealer where specialized mechanics can run computer diagnostics. They have specialized tools fit to particular models. I'm no expert but I am guessing that individuals with basic mechanic degrees from vocational schools have additional training required if they are to work in a dealers garage.

Feynman talked about educators assuming that what they were teaching was actually learned. In math you can teach a student that 2 plus 2 equals 4. In the real world, does the student understand that 2 apples and 2 oranges equal 4 pieces of fruit and not 4 apples? I see hiring managers these days requiring education and experience.

For example, take this description for a researcher position:

Bachelor’s degree in a scientific discipline.

Minimum 2 years laboratory experience in molecular and/or cell biology.

Demonstrated working knowledge of scientific principles and standard laboratory practices.

Familiarity with Virology and/or Immunology.

Knowledge and experience in the correct handling of hazardous and radioactive substances.

Does familiarity with virology and/or immunology mean that these two fields are almost the same? Does the scientific degree mean that you can have a degree in physics? There is more to this job description:

Perform general molecular biology techniques, including PCR, cDNA cloning, RT PCR, RNAi, expression cloning, and cDNA mutagenesis.
Perform cell culture and FACs analysis.
Assist in sample preparation for Mass Spec. analysis.
Assist in design and development of in vitro assays.

That's a lot of stuff to know in two years. All of these skills are taught in 4 year degrees but not in a four year physics degree. There are no degrees that train hiring managers to write up job descriptions. Human resource people are generally considered to be the experts here but this is not a science. It is an attempt to hire the right person for a a job. You could just say you are looking for someone with a degree in Biochemistry who can do some molecular biology work. RNAi? The field is too new to have any meaning. FACs? Just a machine that is complicated but not beyond the learning curve for a college grad. Development of assays? It's more of an art that people know or do not. I don't think it can be taught. Kits can be sold but developing an assay is real science. If we had an assay for cancer for example we would understand cancer much better.

The real issue of education and employment is the same as a Cargo Cult ceremony and airplanes landing. If you are in charge of hiring, do you know the difference between a typist and a secretary? If you are seeking employment do you know that having the skills and education is what you need to get an interview? Doing well at the interview gets you the job. The additional skills are what make the airplanes land. Many human endeavors fail because someone started with a lack of knowledge or finished with a lack of knowledge. True knowledge is what education should lead to. A college degree is a weak substitution for evidence of true knowledge.

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