Grading on a curve

Grading on a curve. The term gets thrown around a lot, especially on a university campus; however, it has meaning beyond academics.

Students believe grading on a curve helps those at the lower end of the distribution.

In academics, it is a measure of student ability compared to their peers so when faculty grade an exam they don’t necessarily care about the absolute grade, but the distribution of scores. For the record, grading on a curve is hard work. You have to calculate the class statistics—mean, standard deviation, etc.—and then determine how many points needs to be added to each test to move the curve to the desired point. (In reality, “scaling” is more often used with the same number of points being added to all scores to change the numerator, or questions “thrown out” to modify the denominator.) I graded on a curve—students on the low end of the curve loved it… students on the high end of the curve hated it because what usually happened is that it helped low scoring students more than it helped those at the top. (For the record, I often felt the need for grading on a curve was due to my inability to craft a good test, not just a reflection on the students abilities.)

But, we are also graded on a curve professionally, and that grade is most often expressed in dollars.

Where is this going? When I take the time to reflect, I ask myself three things:

  1. Do I like what I am doing?
  2. Am I being compensated fairly?
  3. If number two is no, what do I need to change?

Do I Like what I’m doing? Sometimes, when the answer to question one was a “yes,” I stopped. This decision may not have been right financially, after all, if you are treating employment as Me, Inc., the goal should be to maximize shareholder value (being a shareholder of one). Trading time and talents for money should dictate finding the maximum return on those valuable commodities. For the majority of my career, the answer has been a “yes, but…” which leads to question two.

Am I being compensated fairly? The problem is finding the right metric. For most of my professional career, I have used the American Chemical Society (ACS) Salary Calculator. This tool is a member only resource I have found very useful. New graduates and experienced professionals can use the online tool and it covers academic and non-academic positions, degree type, the degree year, geographic location, and additional job details. The output is not just the median but also a breakdown by centiles. Today,,, and other online services are providing basic information (usually, a salary range) or an estimation of your market value.

Is the information accurate? The ACS Salary Calculator is the most direct as it uses data from their annual employment survey using a large member base. From a limited sampling of positions for which I know the salary ranges, and offer useful information to make comparisons. So this rephrases the question to “where am I on the curve?”

I’ve taken comfort at being “above the mean”—or median. Except, of course, those times when I stopped at question one because the gig was just too exciting to worry about money. (I remember my father making the following statement to my musician brother when he stated he had a “gig:” “If you’re getting paid, it’s not a gig, it’s a job.” (Gigs can be a lot of fun if you don’t need the money.)

Being used by an organization is not a good feeling, but if you’re on the low-side of the salary curve, what can you do?

What do I need to change? Unlike a test, in the work world, you can’t rely on the grader to modify the curve. You can ask for a raise and attempt to justify the change based on your performance against the curve, but I can’t think if a case where this worked. The most direct way is getting an offer to work at a similar job for a new company for a higher salary. Again, based on a small sample of managers I’ve discussed this issue with, most are not willing to negotiate based on a competing offer. If you are ready to change companies, it’s a good way to move on the curve. But what if you like the company where you work?

Increasing your capabilities is another way to move on the curve. Are there opportunities at work to learn new skills that will make you more productive or allow you to contribute elsewhere in the group or organization? If not, what can you do outside of work? I have used a fair amount of personal time for professional development. The effort might not lead to an immediate improvement; however, building new skills and solving significant problems should be rewarded. If it’s not, look for another gig—I mean job.

Always ask questions. As a successful scientist or engineer or (insert your field here), what do I need to learn to manage projects or teams effectively? How can I better support my company (business unit) to satisfy our customers, both internal and external?

Which curve are you on? How do you move on the current curve or switch to the next curve?

Of course, you can also jump to a new curve. You may be in the 90% percentile for engineers in the world-wide-widget industry, but if the widget industry pays comparatively low salaries, it’s very likely you won’t be able to move much further on the curve. Unless your skills are directly transferable, you’ll probably need to do something that puts you on a different curve.

Changing where you’re at on any curve, or changing curves, takes time, effort and usually a monetary investment.

  • The time commitment can be substantial: one, two or even 10 years!
  • It takes real effort. It’s much easier to go golfing or skiing on the weekend than to learn skills you’ll use only at work.
  • Funding may be a significant obstacle, but with planning or finding “next best alternatives,” progress is possible.

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