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The nonsensical math behind "best jobs" rankings

Dentists deal with our bad breath and shameful flossing habits. Best job in the nation!
Dentists deal with our bad breath and shameful flossing habits. Best job in the nation!

You may have come across news today that physicians' assistants have better jobs than HR managers. Or that mechanical engineers have better jobs than civil engineers.

That's because the job-search site Glassdoor released a report "25 Best Jobs in America." This comes just two weeks after US News & World Report released its "Best Jobs" list, an annual ranking of 100 occupations. And those sites aren't alone — job search site CareerCast released its latest ranking of 200 jobs last April. CNN likewise ranks best jobs.

These lists always get a good amount of attention, and with good reason — you can find out if your job is superior, because it's scientific! And not only that, but it's easy to imagine that lots of Americans want to figure out how to be happier at their jobs — a new Gallup poll shows that fewer than one-third of American workers are engaged at work.

However, there are some glaring weaknesses to these best jobs ranking systems.

1. They're rankings

The problem with ordinal rankings — and the more variables, the more problems here — is that it implies meaningful differences between one job and the next one that is one ranking below it. You can definitively say that one job pays more than another, but is it true that computer systems administrator is better than insurance agent is better than epidemiologist, as US News' rankings imply? And even if somehow that were empirically provable, what's the practical application of this knowledge? Should the insurance agent drop everything and go be a computer systems administrator?

2. "Mathematician-ness"

With apologies to Malcolm Gladwell, this is a way of saying that best job rankings reward a job that fits a particular idea of what "best" is. Gladwell has leveled this criticism at the US News college rankings, saying that they reward "Yale-ness." And just as those colleges reward selectivity (thereby advantaging Yale and schools like it), these rankings reward particular things. Careercast, for example, gives physical and environmental demands equal weight with stress, and together gives those factors equal weight with income. Glassdoor is more minimalist, rewarding job growth, pay, and the number of opportunities out there.

So US News' unique weighting put dentists at the front of the pack. CNN picked biomedical engineer. Glassdoor picked physician's assistant. That could easily say that these are good jobs to have (they probably are!), but it really tells you about the traits these three organizations think make a job "best." And while Glassdoor has fewer, simpler variables, you have to consider where the data is from. While US News relies upon government tallies of job growth and pay levels, for example, Glassdoor relies upon data from its job posters, as well as employees who have reviewed their companies and jobs on the site, and it only includes jobs that have a certain number of reviews. So the kinds of jobs you're going to get a lot of reviews for are going to be the kinds of jobs that people who visit have. If only three brain surgeons have ever reviewed their jobs on Glassdoor, they're not going to be considered among the best jobs.

3. Math implies that things are measurable

Data-intensive rankings imply that there is some sort of a measurable tradeoff between variables, however those variables are put together. According to CareerCast, physicists make $106,000 a year and come in at No. 22. Medical records technicians, at No. 23, make around $34,000. In other words, these two jobs are nearly equal in their "bestness," despite their vast differences. What that seems to imply is that the extra $72,000 a physicist makes per year makes up for that job's worse job outlook, higher stress, and worse work environment in such a way that it's almost exactly as "good" as the medical records technician job. Which means rankings set themselves up for the impossible task of applying value to things that are priceless. Can you really put a price — or quantify a stress trade-off — on a good job outlook?

4. How do you get there?

On average, a college degree means more pay than a high school diploma, and a professional degree, master's or Ph.D. can up the pay even more, so it's easy to argue that more schooling is worth it. That said, that's seven years of your life, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars, if you want to be a lawyer. Neither the Glassdoor rankings, US News rankings, nor CareerCast's incorporate academic qualifications into their methodologies.

5. What really matters

It's not that these rankings are totally meaningless. US News, for example, has a reasonable explanation of how they came to their methodology, saying its rankings "offer job seekers an intuitive method to compare professions based on components that matter most: salary, the number of expected openings, advancement opportunities and career fulfillment."

So there's some sort of a loose formula at work, and it does make a certain kind of sense: low pay + no advancement +  job insecurity + unfulfilling work = a miserable job. But that's a long way to get to the answer of what makes someone satisfied with their job. If you want to know how satisfied workers are, you could just ask them.

Indeed, some places have. The UK government has undertaken a study to show which jobs correlate most highly with life satisfaction. The University of Chicago's General Social Survey has also been used to tally up which jobs have the highest career satisfaction. The surveys even come from outside academia. Business Insider and jobs database CareerBliss analyzed workers' reviews of their jobs to find "happiest jobs" as well. Yes, these sorts of things are subjective, but that's sort of the point, because every group of people in any given occupation is a self-selecting crowd. Firefighters or lumberjacks (No. 192 and 200, respectively, on CareerCast's list) likely have a higher tolerance for putting their bodies in harm's way than mathematicians. In the equation of what makes a good job, "physical demands" may simply be a much lower-weighted variable for that type of person.

So "worst job" doesn't at all mean "undesirable job" or "torturous job." If so, all those kids at journalism school (newspaper reporters are No. 199 on CareerCast's list) have no idea what they're getting into. Or they're insane.

Jobs rankings do get one thing right: there is much more to a good job than a high salary. That's why we're not all striving to be surgeons. But when you mash too much of that jobs data together, a lot can get lost in the shuffle.

Note: The author of this piece used to work at US News and considers it a fine institution full of talented people.