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Communications of the ACM

Letters to the editor

Salary Disputes


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In Moshe Vardi's September 2020 column, "Where Have All the Domestic Graduate Students Gone?," the short but woefully incomplete answer is that the wage premium for a Ph.D. in CS is simply too small to justify foregoing five years of industry-level salary. But why is that the case?

Part of the answer may be due to government policy discussed back in 1989, when an NSF document addressed the "problem" of Ph.D. salaries being too high, and suggested as a remedy increasing the pool of international students (https://bit.ly/2IuFZl7). This would swell the labor market, holding down wage growth. The foreign students would receive nonmonetary compensation in the form of a green card:

"A growing influx of foreign Ph.D.'s into U.S. labor markets will hold down the level of Ph.D. salaries to the extent that foreign students are attracted to U.S. doctoral programs as a way of immigrating to the U.S."

But the domestic students would find that the resulting wage suppression would make Ph.D. study a bad choice:

"... a key issue [for the domestic students] is pay. The relatively modest salary premium for acquiring [a] Ph.D. may be too low to attract a number of able potential graduate students ... A number of them will select alternative career paths ... by choosing to acquire a 'professional' degree in business or law ... For these baccalaureates, the effective premium for acquiring a Ph.D. may actually be negative."


Perhaps we should double the $$$'s/year and double the number of awards in computer science.


To be sure, it is not fully clear whether this represented official NSF policy. But in any case, the effects predicted did indeed occur in the subsequent years, and we now see university CS departments struggling to find domestic applicants.

Whether justified or not, the recent restrictions placed on international students expose a dangerous dependency on obtaining students from abroad. Many events beyond U.S. control could result in this pool drying up. American institutions must address this urgent issue.

Norman Matloff, Davis, CA, USA

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Author's Response:

A "working draft" does not represent government policy. Having watched the evolution of graduate studies in computing over the past 40 years, I am highly skeptical of the argument that the current situation is the result of a directed government policy. As to economic impact of immigration, an authoritative source is a 2017 National Academies report: https://bit.ly/34o3rJ3 The report concluded" The long-term impact of immigration on the wages and employment of native-born workers overall is very small."

Moshe Y. Vardi, Houston, TX, USA

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Editor-in-Chief's Response

Domestic U.S. students have extraordinary opportunities in industry, but we have done little to create incentives for their advanced graduate study. The NSF graduate fellowship program provides less annual support than a typical research assistantship, and the number of awardees has not been increased in more than 10 years. Perhaps we should double the $$$'s/year and double the number of awards in computer science. A common complaint is these awards go disproportionately to "top" universities—as coincidentally do "top" students. A remedy would be to distribute these awards over the top 70 departments (approximately half the departments reporting in the Taulbee survey). Any such programs would by no means make Ph.D. study competitive with industry pay, but would show our commitment to encouraging such study (and be a step toward the much higher Ph.D. program compensation offered in countries such as Switzerland).

Andrew A. Chien, Chicago, IL, USA

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Read Worthy

While reading John MacCormick's Viewpoint "Using Computer Programs and Search Problems for Teaching Theory of Computation (Oct. 2020, p. 33), I couldn't help but think that the author was describing using Niklaus Wirth's book, Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs, in an introductory CS course, much like the one I took in 1983. I whole-heartedly agree. I still refer to that book every once in a while. It's one of the oldest programming books on my shelf.

Lee Riemenschneider, Lafayette, IN, USA

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Author's Response:

Lee Riemenschneiders insight helped me view these ideas from a different angle. Niklaus Wirth gave our community a new perspective on programming languages, algorithms, and data structures-a perspective optimized for teaching and learning, not for doing research. Perhaps the approach described in my Viewpoint can do the same for the theory of computation, offering novice students a treatment optimized for learning rather than academic research.

John MacCormick, Carlisle, PA, USA

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Editor-in-Chief's Response:

A timely highlight of Niklaus' extraordinary work! The March issue of Communications will include a Viewpoint by Nicklaus Wirth reflecting on 50 years of Pascal.

Andrew A. Chien, Chicago, IL, USA

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Lost in Space

Regarding George Neville-Neil's October 2020 Kode Vicious column "Sanity vs. Invisible Markings" (p. 28), writers should pay more attention to differences in their terminology for "invisible markings."

A "blank" is a single character with its unique Unicode, ASCII, EBCDIC, or other code.

A "space" is a complete row of blanks.

A "tab" is a partial row of blanks with a length that may be programmable and vary from one "system" to another.

Obviously the "space bar" has been misnamed for more than one hundred years. When someone presses the space bar, the result is one blank.

Richard Rosenbaum, Bloomfield Hills, MI, USA

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Everything Old Is New Again

The biggest dark pattern in the Practice article "Dark Patterns" (Sept. 2020, p. 42) is itself. The new discovery they report is just to repacking of old wine in new bottles. Technologists, in particular, seem to be immune to learning from history. If the authors read Jill Lepore's These Truths: A History of the United States, they would learn that psychology in communications has been rediscovered with every new medium. It was learned by newspapers in 1770, in telegraphy in 1850, in radio in 1920 in TV in 1950 and now in the Internet. I can remember my father reading the "Women's Wear Daily" in the 1950s telling me about the academics that had just discovered advertising and wrote articles telling the department stores to advertise in the summer when traffic was slow, rather than near holidays when traffic was already heavy. The authors end up telling design engineers to set standards for themselves because of a "misalignment between the industry and society" without telling us how to discover the needs (wants?) of society. The idea that some neutral third-party advocacy agency would be a stand-in for society sounds like Plato in the Republic asking for society to be ruled by Philosopher kings because democracy was too fragile to survive. That didn't work out too well.

Tom Jones, Seattle, WA, USA

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Footnotes

Communications welcomes your opinion. To submit a Letter to the Editor, please limit your comments to 500 words or less, and send to letters@cacm.acm.org.


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