Frontline is still killing it this season, most recently with "Post Mortem", an episode about the lack of standardization and reliability in post mortem medical examinations. Shows like CSI make the public assume that a team of crack investigators is on the case whenever someone dies, but in reality death certificates are signed by doctors on what amounts to an honor system, autopsies are rarely performed, and those that are performed are not often done well. Part of the problem is that most jurisdictions either elect coroners (who don't even need to have a high school diploma let alone any relevant training) or outsource post mortem investigation to private contractors staffed mostly with otherwise unemployable doctors.

For some reason this was the most interesting aspect of the episode for me.
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Lots of people get medical degrees.
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So what happens to the ones who, despite that fact, are completely incompetent? Alcoholics? Ex-felons? Previously I was under the impression that doctors who fell into this category all ended up working in prisons, which makes perfect sense. After all, who's going to care if the prisoners complain and who else would take such an awful job? But thanks to Frontline we now know that jackholes with medical degrees have other options. Like taking a circular saw to the cadaver of a car accident victim for eight hours per day.

This got me thinking more about analogies to other professions. What happens to shitty lawyers?

Do they end up in a basement somewhere thumbing through manila folders for the rest of their lives, or is there some lawyering equivalent to "alcoholic autopsy specialist"? Where do engineers who lack the ability to engineer a birdhouse end up practicing their trade? Do teachers who get busted running meth labs out of their basements or appear on registered sex offender lists end up teaching calculus on an oil rig or something?

Is there some hidden underbelly of the airline industry filled with pilots who couldn't even hang on to a job at a regional airline?

Tell me, where do the burnouts, losers, and felons in your particular field end up? Thirty years ago I'd say that for PhD-holding academics the "reject pile" meant adjuncting at terrible colleges, but the way the industry is today I think that's what about 75% of us are going to end up doing. We'll have to think of something more degrading for the true incompetents.

60 thoughts on “NPF: THE REJECT PILE”

  • Some become officers in the military, where a degree and a few weeks of OCS is all that's needed to transform some loser into a leader of men. The military doctors are real doctors and the military lawyers are real lawyers, but pretty much a degree is a degree is a degree. A liberal arts (law school) person will end up in admin, an engineer will be in charge of engines or a warehouse full of spare parts or something. We hear a lot about lowered standards for enlisted personnel, recruitment of people who can barely get a GED etc. The officer corps also contains a fair share of society's rejects.

    A tangent… My cousin is finishing up his training as a Physician's Assistant, doing his clinicals. He is in a program where he works around the country in prisons, providing health care to inmates. He transfers every few weeks. It seems like a good idea, in that he gets training, and prisoners get more access to care.

  • I work in IT – all the technologically illiterate and incompetent people end up in management at high turnover financial institutions. It's still very much an old boys network; I try to keep my nose out of their affairs while on contract but it's hard not to notice how the fuckups keep getting rotated around in the company until they end up at a CIO position at which point they get to write their ticket to a CIO position at another company where they will also fuck up and move on.

  • re: Dettman,

    So true. I always thought that being department chair must be some great academic position, until I realized that often it is just whoever gets the short straw, shows up to the faculty meeting late, or is too incompetent to be trusted with important teaching or research.

  • In engineering they go into sales. That way they don't have to be competent, just know enough to lie convincingly to the client.

  • I gather shitty biologists often wind up teaching high school. That, or working as lab techs indefinitely–the life sciences still have some jobs where it's cheaper to pay someone who dropped out of grad school 25K a year than to buy the half-million dollar robot to replace them.

  • The more advanced the degree, the less attention is paid to job performance. Let's face it: except in cases of gross negligence or unmistakable genius, doctors, lawyers, and engineers are graded on attendance.

    But unsuccessful ones sometimes move to small towns and play the big shot — easy in a place where there aren't any expert peers, and where the locals are desperate for any sort of professional.

  • @beergoggles – Without exception, every single one of my friends in IT describes themselves as a complete fraud. It's just that the little they know is enough to convince their ill-IT-erate bosses they are indispensible.

  • I'm a software engineer. The incompetent software engineers all hold jobs writing software. Sad but true. (I've interviewed hundreds of them over the past few years. At times it was hard not to ask "how exactly is it that you manage to do your job?")

  • I'm told that at Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis all the cataloguing and cross-referencing of new and previous case law and other legal material is done by law degree recipients who couldn't pass muster to practice in front of judges.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    While I am still shooting for tenure track at a terrible college (I have lofty goals), and will probably accept some sort of permanently renwewable adjunct at a middling college, I suspect I'll find nothing in academia and will end up doing policy analysis for the government or some consulting firm.

    Private high schools would probably also be an option for otherwise failed academics, I guess.

    And, as the previous commenter pointed out, there's always academic administration.

  • Monkey Business says:

    To elaborate on the IT point, we are all idiots. However, there are different rungs of idiots.

    The bottom rung is the Help Desk. They don't even have to think. Just read out of the binder, and if your head starts to hurt, send it to the Desktop Services folks.

    Desktop Services is the next rung. These are your keyboard jockeys, your Nick Burns types. The people just competent enough to say "I can't fix it, lets go reimage it."

    Then come the Project Managers. These people have enough knowledge to be dangerous. They're the kind of people that read stuff in airplane magazines and think it'll work in our environment because they said so.

    These are the Sales guys. They know just enough IT to dupe some company into buying their crap.

    Above them are the Developers. Developers are a mixed bunch; a precious few truly competent and talented individuals being alternately held back and held up by their code monkey collegues. If you had an infinite number of monkey developers in an infinite dev shop, eventually you'd end up with Microsoft Office.

    Above them are the Networking Guys. These are the guys that run cables, work in dusty and dirty closets, and know arcane bits of networking knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Arguably the most low tech, but it's the IT equivalent to union work.

    Above them are the Server Guys. These are the people responsible for performing the strange runes that make enterprise servers work. They are also the chokepoint of any IT project.

    Finally, we get to my department. Security and Compliance. We are goddamn superheroes. Our knowledge of the environment is unparalleled. We work with every level of the business. All other levels of IT bow to our whims. I once made a project manager and a sales guy to the crab and the worm, and then I made the crab fight the worm. When the shit hits the fan, it's up to us to turn the fan off. Everybody else just gets covered in chopped shit.

    So yes. My job? I'm the goddamn Batman.

  • @Dettman,

    It's funny and sad.

    But what's really said is that the minute an icompetent faculty member becomes admin, they're set for life. Those assclowns are the last to take pay cuts, the first to get raises, and are impossible to fire.

    So in academia, incompetence in the classroom actually pays off.

  • As a software developer, I can pretty much vouch for Monkey Business's account of things at the meta level.

    Within software development rungs, the incompetent ones usually end up being glorified help desk for when real help desk can't handle it, while the not-quite-incompetent ones usually get put on small projects of no real significance — writing small internal apps to satisfy the whims of the department head du jour who will use it for a week and then forget it exists.

  • Batman and other IT commenters…

    I find a distinction between ordinary IT folks and engineers who are IT. I am an engineer (not in IT) w/ long exposure and experience. Two of my sons are both engineers (EEs) and IT people. I have been involved in their professional lives enough to know that there are competents and plantation pogues plus everything in between.

    The biggest division in the house that I see is software and hardware/networks. Engineers can often write code that works, but it is more rare that music or history majors who learn to write code can design, build, and successfully run the hardware side.

    And yes, IT people usually develop (or bring) an attitude to the job because of the new and different ways their clients screw things up. In the worst case, engineers tend to be socially "underdeveloped."

    See the Dilbert clip on "The Knack."


  • The Times had an article about how lousy lawyers end up as local judges and magistrates (elected!) here in upstate NY, and the costs this incurs.

  • Sluggo:

    As much as it tickles your flesh to slam Rs, I think the numbers are agin' you.

    The academic admins at universidads and colleges (along w/ the teaching faculties) are overwhelmingly liberal, Leftist. Survey after survey has shown this to be the case.

    Percentagewise we have many more candidates for the Ctr for Amer Progress than for the Heritage Foundation.


  • Lousy fine artists often wind up the same place as excellent ones–in top galleries, museum collections, etc. The art-buying public doesn't know much more about its subject than the politician-electing public does about theirs, and in both cases particularly when those scrutinized can talk a good game.

    If they're not good salesmen, they often wind up in some art-related enterprise–going free-lance graphic design, selling art books, etc. while enjoying a subsistence life garnished with a few bohemian flourishes. The mystique, at least.

    Reminds me of the joke of the guy whose job it was to clean the shit out of the elephant cages at the circus. His friend asked why he couldn't find a better job. "What? And leave show business?"

  • displaced Capitalist says:

    as one of the sshitty lawyers you describe I can say that we become worse than public defenders, worse than ambulance chasers, worse than even insurance subrogators. Yes, we become Collectors. Suing people for their unpaid debts. It sucks. Royally.

  • I'm taking a marketing class this semester and my big project is to take a large publicly-traded American company, find a problem it is facing, and write a big summary/plan of attack. My group selected Delta Airlines. Problems, easy to find. The trouble is, while Delta is arguably the worst by most rubrics, all Airlines in the United States suffer from an overall culture of shittiness, apathy and frequent criminal negligence. Creating yet another way to comp unhappy customers with worthless sky miles is re-arranging the napkins on a cardtable next to a deck chair on the Titanic. (In Delta's case, their sole revenue stream seems to be coming from those hated baggage fees.)

    I travel to Asia about once per quarter. Whenever possible I fly as many legs on Asian-operated carriers. Why? Customer service is always head and shoulders above the U.S. brands. There is more legroom. Aircraft are clean and presentable. Gate personnel (and coffee baristas and janitors) all make an attempt to be polite and assist my dumb American Ass with whatever I'm failing at. I feel safe, my needs are met, and I am treated with respect. Hell, in Incheon/Seoul airport they even turn off the big news channel TVs and dim the lights in the middle of the night so it is possible to sleep on the chairs if one needs to.

    Something is wrong with our country, and no omnibus bill or sweeping kick-the-bums-out movement from either side of the spectrum is going to do anything about it. Monkey Business describes the IT industry… sadly it is just about how I saw eight years in the military. 10% dangerous psychopaths, 40% lazy self-righteous slobs, 20% reliable workers, 20% motivated workers, and 10% rising stars who usually move up and on to better things after their first tour. These worker types were scattered throughout the chain of command. The bottom 50% often made their way quickly into positions of authority. "Where's Chief? we have an all-hands training meeting." "Playing xbox in his stateroom. Don't bother him."

    Now that I work in the construction industry… good lord! Tradesmen can usually make things happen, but the foremen, superintendents, and big men? The most incompetent, rude, arrogant, "if I shout curses at someone's voicemail box and then speed dial their number every five minutes all afternoon the problem will be fixed" assholes I have ever seen. I live in an area lucky enough to have a lot of government spending and therefore there is still some building happening. Alas, almost every project I see goes weeks or months over schedule because invariably there are mouth-breathing jerkoffs in charge.

    At least private industry hasn't completely jumped on the "must have a degree to be in charge" meme. The worst project managers are the ones with a degree in "construction management" because they failed out of architecture school (having a distaste for hard work) and spend the rest of their days sitting at a desk on a jobsite fiddling with a spreadsheet on their laptop and checking facebook. They don't know how to operate a tool, properly wear safety equipment (or handle a medical situation), use a calendar, or mediate subcontractor conflicts. The usual manner of endearing themselves to the workers is to take everyone to a long lunch at Applebees. Beer thirty never comes soon enough.

    So we outsource our customer service and import our work ethic, because it's hard to find enough Americans with either.

  • Monkey Business was mostly right about IT. But I'm going to burst MB's bubble — no one respects Security / Compliance guys. Bunch of process-obsessed impediments to the developers who are trying to get work done. Maybe it's just at my work, but Security is where they send people too smart for Help Desk and too anal to write useful code.

    Also, MB completely skipped over the Database guys. Overpaid, highly specialized, completely invulnerable to layoffs. The developers need them, can't afford to piss them off, secretly envy their protected status. It's absolutely stunning how these guys have got their act together.

  • @eau: IT is still a profession where the 20/80 rule applies. 20% of the people do 80% of the work and the rest just steal their work/code/process or are just dead-weights that don't even do that.

  • @Monkey Business: I've been part of Development, Networks, Servers and Security groups (somehow I skipped being a DBA) over the years and one thing that has stayed the same is that these groups are always at each others throats trying to find ways to undermine each other. Developers insist on writing code without consulting Network or Security about how it can be put in production. Networking and Security insist on running infrastructure upgrades and firewall changes without consulting Development to see what apps it's going to break and then Servers comes in and tells everyone they did not scale their specifications for what goes on the server.

  • In my opinion anotherbozo is correct; art is entirely subjective. Speaking as a photographer, I guess the relevant skill set would have to do with marketing and social abilities, and those of us who are very bad at that end up either retouching someone else's work, or working as assistants for most of our lives. Whatever; it beats the hell out of the retail end of the spectrum.

  • In the airline business, unfortunately they tend to end up in a large smoking hole in the ground. That or they end up in management.

    There's an old saying – "A doctor buries his mistakes. A pilot gets buried with his."

  • I've got to back up Pat's assertion about the Security/compliance folks being the most despised of the IT world. I know because I've done it for a living. This is the best route for people with severe Asbergers syndrome and a God complex.

    Being an officious prick and throwing up roadblocks does not a superhero make and more than the road crew holding up the stop/slow sign is the star of the team.

    For anyone considering a career in IT – unless you truly dig minutia, unsociable people and no sense of stability, I would suggest a different path.

  • Well, I met one of those lawyers once.

    He was advertising as a landlord-tenant lawyer in a major city. I had a landlord-tenant issue. I made an appointment and went to see him. He operated out of his apartment.

    The apartment was small (normal) and extremely dingy, and smelled heavily of armpits. Mr. Lawyer didn't have an air conditioner, nor did he shower or wash his clothes very often. He had some sort of "nest" that he slept on, on the floor – some sort of thin mattress with piles of dirty clothes and sheets on top. No furniture to speak of in the entire apartment.

    I didn't hire him.

    I do believe he was a legitimate lawyer – he seemed familiar enough with the legal system, anyway. But his presentation needed a tiny bit of work.

  • @bb in GA: off the mark, and not the point. Individual charity is not quite the same as building a society that's fair for all, in which poor kids have a decent shot and you don't have to sell your house if you get sick (or count on some rich bastard's benevolence). Liberalism has built this kind of society in Germany, France, England, Canada, Costa Rica and God knows where else, but here it has the trials of Sisyphus. Corporations can't see what's in it for them, and well, no sense listing the illogic of it all.

    Liberalism in colleges do a lot for tolerance, too, for the "other." Andrew Carnegie was a great benefactor, with libraries etc., but had no trouble presiding over the murder of his striking miners, if memory serves.

  • Incompetent doctors go to work for insurance companies, either doing pre-insurance physical examinations (now turn your head and cough!) or helping find reasons not to pay claims. When an insurance company goes to trial, they inevitably have a phalanx of people with MD after their names explaining why the insurer should not have to cover what they were contractually obligated to cover. Talking to those MDs and finding out what their experience with actual patient contact has been is quite instructive, but most judges and juries never get to that conversation–they just hear the "doctor" part and freeze up.

  • @bb in GA

    I suppose it partly depends on how they're measuring "charity".

    Are we talking about giving to the local soup kitchen or are we talking about building a swimming pool at their suburban mega-church? Or getting their name on the new law building at the Ivy-League university they attended?

    I trust a study from the president of the American Enterprise Institute about as much as you'd probably trust one from George Soros or Noam Chomsky.

  • Engineers who screw up? It's hard to screw up so bad that you lose your PE license. Losing your job? Yeah, that can happen. So where do they end up?

    Most likely end up as technical sales reps for companies selling products they used to spec.

    Or they drift from one consulting firm to the next.

  • Tell me, where do the burnouts, losers, and felons in your particular field end up?

    Heh. I'm a writer. They usually end up on the best-seller list.

    I think I need to do more drugs.

  • Well, I worked at our local VA hospital for twenty four years. Felons typically have a hard time entering the Federal civil service, but burnouts and losers sometimes hang on for years.

    What? Why are you looking at me like that?

  • I'm an ESL teacher; we're mostly losers to begin with. But the full picture is more complex than that.

    I work for an adult English-language training center in a large city in Asia. The company runs many centers around the world and has a multi-leveled corporate structure that seems to work something like this:

    The teachers who are good at teaching and enjoy teaching – and they do exist – remain teachers for the entire term of their employment. They are usually smart and capable with decent people skills, so they often wind up seeking employment elsewhere.

    The teachers who enjoy teaching but aren't any good at it seem eventually to become lesson writers. As it turns out, lousy teachers make pretty lousy lesson writers as well. We teachers spend a lot of our time fixing their output, even though the administrators would rather we not, because everything's Perfect Already.

    Those with neither interest nor talent for teaching often become administrators, and decide what and how the rest of us should be teaching. They are able to deftly deliver lengthy presentations on *education* that do not mention students, achievements, curricula, or results, and instead discuss only marketing strategies and sales quotas. They also seem to be pretty good at not being bothered by any of this.

    As for the administrators who have no sense of dignity, no teaching skills, no lesson-planning skills, no measurable interest in education, and no skills applicable to any other industry whatsoever… well, there's nowhere else for them to go but straight to the top..

  • The most invaluable piece of wisdom I ever learned from my graduate director is the following: Most people, at all levels of advancement, are not very good at what they do. Whether you're at a McDonalds or Harvard or a Fortune 500 company, basically the same proportion of people are going to be totally incompetent, and that proportion is well north of 50 percent.

  • Guy From Ireland says:

    Failed engineers, nurses, doctors, lawyers in my experience go into sales of some form – the "successful failures" go in to HR and Recruitment agencies. The unsuccessful ones set up as "consultants" and the quick way to spot the spiral of failure? They have coat stands in their home offices.

  • @HoosierPoli:

    So, statistically, the chances are that your graduate director doesn't know what he/she is talking about? :)

  • Late to the party, so maybe no one will ever read this, but what the hey!

    High school English teacher. 22 years. Regular ed, Governor's Honors Program, alternative school.

    I agree that the Peter Principle seems particularly strong in public ed. My Large Metropolitan School District has plenty of clowns. BUT I see that in the private sector just as much.

    But what I really need to address is this liberal bias in education nonsense. Maybe universities are more liberal, but that was not my experience at Large State U. I took ag courses – not a liberal in sight. Most of my J-school teachers were conservative or middle of the road. My English teachers were flaming liberals and the smartest of the bunch…but the least practical.

    In high schools, at best, 40-50% of the faculty is liberal, and NONE of the support staff is. And your elementary faculties are much more conservative. Look at how teachers have resisted unionization here and how we keep voting for Repubs that slash education or create ridiculous standards that will never be met.


  • Shitty lawyers? Some will do temp doc review in roach filled basements at biglaw firms (see for ~$30 an hour with no benefits, but most of even that is now being outsourced. Some will work for personal injury firms and drown in student loan debt. Many end up with jobs outside the field of law and also drown in student loan debt.

  • "Where do engineers who lack the ability to engineer a birdhouse end up practicing their trade? "

    I can answer this one in at least one instance. 1-800-tech-support

  • Monkey Business says:

    @Pat: I never said us Security and Compliance folks were respected. If anything, it's the opposite. However, I resent being referred to as a process-obsessed impediment to developers getting work done.

    I currently work in healthcare, and prior to this a Fortune 50 firm. Let me say this: the Fortune 50 firm had significantly better security and about half as much regulation to deal with.

    See, here's the problem. Those developers that I'm keeping from getting work done? They're the ones exposing everyone's confidential and sensitive information to any two bit hacker that wants to steal a few hundred thousand credit card and social security numbers. I have to build processes around those systems to ensure that there's a big and strong enough wall between them and the bad guys, otherwise we'd have an incident once a day. Not only that, but I have to enforce a patchwork quilt of regulations from the Feds, the state, the county, the city, various licensing boards, and the credit card companies, most of which are redundant but have key differences that keep me from using them for everything.

    And the Database guys aren't invulnerable. I've smoted a few in my day.

    @beergoggles: IT is usually a big group of people who were labelled "Doesn't play well with others" in Kindergarten. No one likes to share. We're a fun bunch.

    @Nunya: I'm stealing and modifying your quote. "Security and Compliance: the best route for people with severe Asbergers Syndrome and a God Complex."

    People like me are usually the first, last, and only line of defense between the scary world of the Internet and your most sensitive and private information. You think developers, server guys, etc. give a damn about keeping the Russian mafia from stealing your credit card number and maxing it out? Hell no. That's my job. To borrow from Colonel Jessup; son, we live in a world that has digital walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with digital guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Nunya? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for developers and curse Security and Compliance; you have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Security and Compliance, while extremely annoying, probably keeps information safe, and my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, keeps information safe. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about in status meetings, you want me on that digital wall. You need me on that digital wall. We use words like "Risk", "Regulations", "Industry-Best Practices". We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time, nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who screws around on the internet and shops online under the very blanket of the security I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said Thank You, and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a keyboard and show up to work tomorrow morning. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to. Did I order a risk assessment on your application? YOU'RE GODDAMN RIGHT I DID!

  • Some shitty nurses go into sales or administration, but mostly, they stay where the are and just shut down. They used to leave the field, but there's no where else to go anymore.

  • I think there's enough of a spectrum of responsibilities in engineering, from the bitch who is made to check everyone else's calculations to the PE who signs off on everything, that "if you have a pulse and a degree you have a job."

    And if that fails? Grad school. Be a professor.

  • Not to disparage your career path, but I've just heard that a lot "The job market sucked, I got laid off, so I got my Master's. Went to work for a few more years, got laid off, got my doctorate. Went to work for a few years, got laid off, became a professor."

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