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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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December 14, 2010

Too Many PhDs, Revisited

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Posted by Derek

Part Two of the week-long blog roundtable on chemistry jobs is up over at Just Another Electron Pusher. This one is a data-rich post on the topic of whether there are too many science PhDs being turned out. Or are there just too few jobs for them? Can we tell the difference between those two situations, and does it matter? Well worth a read.

Comments (43) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


1. imatter on December 14, 2010 10:58 AM writes...

I wonder if Chemistry Departments' desperate attempt to recruit graduate students to as cheaper teaching assistants to teach all of these laboratory courses has something to do with this--of course, with little regard whether these students will have jobs in the real world.

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2. Anonymous on December 14, 2010 11:14 AM writes...

Nobody in a chemistry department (including the profs) looks that far ahead. As long as they have TAs/grad students there's no problem because their immediate needs are filled. None of them knows (or probably cares) about what the state of the job market is.

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3. Virgil on December 14, 2010 12:21 PM writes...

Great data-rich piece of writing. cenblog is now in my bookmarks.

One issue that occurred to me, is the ability of scientists from different fields to change fields easily. While this is not impossible, it is certainly very difficult, even within a given discipline (e.g. the life sciences). One thing that makes it difficult, is when grant (and even manuscript) reviewers label you as a particular type of scientist...

I trained as a liver biochemist, did a post-doc' in neurochemistry, then another in cardiovascular biochemistry, and am now a cardiac physiologist / pharmacologist. At each stage, my ability to get grants funded was derailed by reviewer comments such as "the applicant does not have a strong background in field x".

When people get stereotyped so early on in their careers, it becomes very difficult for the "glut of science PhDs" to re-tool for the changing needs of the market. For example right now I'd say there's a drastic shortage of good lipidomics people, but the likelihood of a bunch of established post-doc's just re-training in lipid mass spec is vanishingly low. Similarly, HTS is trucking along in academia, but very few people (excepting former drug industry employees) know how to do it properly in an academic environment. We will have to wait for the news of these unmet needs to filter down to PhD programs, and by then it will be too late.

We have to find a more efficient way to re-train existing PhDs for new technologies and trends. Of course, as long as tenure depends on grants, papers and other metrics, the ability to go on a sabbatical to learn a new field continues to shrink.

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4. barry on December 14, 2010 12:40 PM writes...

and how are we to count a chemist who left the field and is now employed as a lawyer, an MBA, or a software engineer? Is he/she an "employed chemist"?

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5. anon1 on December 14, 2010 1:02 PM writes...

Of course, there's often little connection between number of grad students across the country with jobs, total or in subcategories, except where there are "hot" areas that get funding. What drives the academic world to say there should be for numbers in any given academic dept? Need (teaching assistants, lab techs etc,) individual investigator funding (they that gets more typically look for more heads), and space (although, squeezing a few more into limited footprint is not uncommon).

And then, you have the time and uncertainty factors. Those who enter grad school today won't typically be in the job market with PhDs for 4 to 7+ years. Can any of us really predict the demands of the job marketplace that far in advance in todays increased global environment? Just few years ago, synthetic / medicinal chemists were in such high demand that their jobs looked very secure, a great place to be in an industrial position with many opportunities to move as a way for career advancement. Now, that's changed, with these jobs often being some of the first to be eliminated in the US, as it's considered by upper management to be a technology that can easily be outsourced. One can debate the longer term value, productivity, and success of this strategy, but that's not the point here.

Most of us are not so clairvoyant as to really be able to see where the jobs will be in the next 5 to 10 years. Medicinal Chemistry? Molecular Biology? Solar Energy? Fuel Cells? Wall Street? They come, some go, some come & go, other persist. Some actually try to invent new things to help companies and society. Others just suffle paper in ways to make it look like they create value. Yet, one thing is common, which is risk all around.

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6. Sick of it on December 14, 2010 1:29 PM writes...

"efficient way to re-train existing PhDs for new technologies and trends."

Virgil, they are running a chop shop. That means disassembly, as in "You're here for a good time, NOT A LONG TIME" . Your crazy idea just slows down the student loan process.

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7. anchor on December 14, 2010 1:35 PM writes...

Derek: ... "there are too many science PhDs being turned out. Or are there just too few jobs for them."

My take is both points are correct, meaning the gap is too wide to be narrowed anytime soon! Very sad indeed.

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8. Sick of it on December 14, 2010 1:39 PM writes...

"Wall Street"


Risk all around? Now thats hilarious. Where's my bailout?

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9. HK on December 14, 2010 2:07 PM writes...

... I'm going to go cry into my beaker. It used to be filled with hopes and dreams, now it's just... small molecules.

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10. Stewie Griffin on December 14, 2010 2:10 PM writes...

Some of the comments posted thus far are similar to comments on Chemjobber's December 13th post. In response to Virgil's comment I've copied/pasted my comments from Chemjobber's blog here:
"Regarding the retraining of scientists...
Why limit the retraining (or "training centers") to a national lab setting? What if the training took place at an actual private sector company? Suppose the scientist is hired by the company, but their salary for the first year comes from the government (in the form of a one year "retraining fellowship" or the like) rather than from the company. This way the company's concerns about financial loss due to lag time/training of the new hire will be lessened.
Take CJ's example of electrochemist. Perhaps there are some analytical PhD's graduating this year that could do electrochemistry just fine but they don't fully possess all the skills of the company's ideal hire. If there's truly a shortage of qualified chemists for the position, then the company should be willing to take on some "underqualified" staff if they don't actually have to risk money on the new hire. The flip side is that the new hire would most likely have to accept that their fellowship pay isn't going to match that of the ideal candidate. After a year of on the job training this new hire would be fully capable of performing all the functions that the company was originally looking for. Then the fellowship would expire and the person would be hired at the company.
I know there's lots of assumptions in there and the details are not clear on how exactly this would work (will you absolutely be hired when the fellowship ends? how would you get the fellowship? etc), but I like the basic idea. In essence what I'm describing is an industrial postdoc where the government pays the bills. Since the company doesn't foot the bill they would/should be willing to hire someone they wouldn't have been willing to hire before. The company wins b/c it ends up with a good scientist possessing all the desired skills, and the scientist wins b/c they get training in the actual job they would end up doing. "


"But what happens when employers stubbornly refuse to hire b/c they know that with a glut of labor they can wait around for their perfect candidate? On the flip side, laid off chemists probably hold out as long as possible to try to get the same standard of living they had before the layoff. But would they be more willing to take a temporary pay cut if it meant they'd eventually be ensured full-time employment with a salary increase after the training period?
Robert Reich makes an interesting point in his book Aftershock... he proposes we have "re-employment insurance" rather than unemployment benefits. In other words, instead of getting unemployment benefits while searching for a job, you would get the benefits by going to work in an area that needs workers. In essence the gov would be paying you to get retrained. You would have a lower pay for a while, but eventually once you're training you should be able to command a higher salary.That's essentially what I am proposing for the government funded industry postdoc/retraining."
Stewie Griffin

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11. Han Solo on December 14, 2010 3:43 PM writes...

Eliminated the h1-b, L-1 and various other tech visas and you'll suddenly find the majority of US chemists employed in their chosen profession.

Even if jobs were plentiful the above visas gives management an incentive to fire those over a certain age or shop excessively for the perfect fit (which seems to include being a dependent visa slave).

You guys and gals appear to be blind. Take a look at the makeup of most of the Pharma/chem outfits and you'll find foreign managers hiring foreign chemists. Not to mention the preference of academia to hiring foreign staff.

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12. @Han Solo on December 14, 2010 4:12 PM writes...

Xenophobia rears its ugly head...

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13. David L on December 14, 2010 4:13 PM writes...

In the news you hear about the fact that the US is falling behind other countries in our education system. China et al. are cranking out more people with higher levels of knowledge and education than the US. So we want to start cranking up our education system too, in order to compete. However, currently we apparently have too many PhD's. So should we really be encouraging all our young citizens to garner the highest education they can? Where are all the jobs going to be? In my area is general contractors, plumbers, and electricians that drive the fanciest cars and live in the nicest houses. Any many of them only have a highschool education.

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14. MedChem on December 14, 2010 4:27 PM writes...

Han Solo

I think I can speak for most if not all companies--companies hire the best candidates they can find, foreign or not. And workers on a work visa actually cost more due to legal expenses.

But you ARE correct that if the US eliminated these work visas, jobs would be a lot more plentiful.

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15. JasonP on December 14, 2010 4:27 PM writes...

The effect of globalization and H1b programs on scientific Americans is no racism or xenophobia, it's the plan truth. Maybe it has to happen for the betterment of the world, maybe we are collectivly shooting ourselves in the foot like idiots, but just don't insult me or those who agree with accusations of xenophobia.

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16. Leigh Krietsch Boerner on December 14, 2010 4:27 PM writes...

Thanks for the link to my post, Derek! Highly appreciated.

@Han Solo: The NSF report included data on the number of temporary visa holders getting PhDs over the last ten years. In '99, 35% of PhDs were awarded to non-US citizens. Last year it was 36%. So a little bit of growth. However, US citizens have been consistently more likely to have a "definite postgraduation commitment" (defined in my blog post) than visa holders or permanent residents, by about 3.3%.

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17. Resveratrol Receptor on December 14, 2010 5:08 PM writes...

Since the late 80's scientists have become considerably dumber. Thus, they have failed to appreciate that there will be no decent jobs for them after grad school.

I submit the evidence:

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18. bbooooooya on December 14, 2010 7:20 PM writes...

"The effect of globalization and H1b programs on scientific Americans is no racism or xenophobia, it's the plan truth"

Employers hire the best and productive workers, if they don't, they don't stay in business. Your statement implies that either Americans aren't as smart as foreigners, or not as productive. Which is it?

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19. Jackass on December 14, 2010 8:50 PM writes...

The H1b issue is only half the problem. Outsourcing is the other half. We should immediately eliminate the H1bs and levy taxes on the companies that are sending are jobs overseas. You would see the unemployment problem vanish. Subsequently, scientists job security and salarys would match what they deserve.

However, the professors would miss the oversupply of cheap labor, and the companies wouyld miss the oversupply of disposable workers. Instead of bonuses and promotions for the people sending our jobs overseas, they should be fired.

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20. John on December 14, 2010 8:56 PM writes...


There are 461 million people with a college degree on this planet, and less than 90 million of them are in the US.
Assuming the best people want their scientific training here, you'd expect Americans to make up 20% of any program.

However, our K-12 ed is lousy, so a smaller relative proportion of Americans are qualified to pursue such training. We thus end up with Americans around 10% in selective groups/programs.

This is self-reinforcing: foreign-born professors may recruit primarily from their home countries, etc.

Anecdotally, qualified applicants for the last few positions we filled, were roughly 75% Asian-born (mostly Chinese, some Koreans, a few Japanese), 15% Indian, and ~10% American.

All of the qualified Americans had immigrant parents and/or one parent with a math/sci/eng background.

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21. z on December 14, 2010 9:31 PM writes...

@Stewie Griffin, re: retraining. Most Ph.D.s are very highly specialized and most employers want someone who is very highly specialized. I don't know whether a one-year retraining period will really make people as attractive to employers as someone who spent 6 yrs. working in the area for their Ph.D. And how do you combat the perception that you are changing areas because you were not a high performer? And there's age discrimination too.

I'm not saying people can't switch fields. We hear lots of anecdotes about people who have successfully done so. But how practical is it? What percentage of people who try really feel that they have succeeded? And how many did so without huge costs (going back to grad student salary, starting over on the ladder and maybe never getting back to where you were before)?

Maybe I'm being too cynical. In fact, I hope I'm being too cynical, since, as a relatively young organic chemist in the pharmaceutical industry, I will probably have to make such a transition sooner or later....

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22. Agent K on December 14, 2010 10:05 PM writes...

There are 3.5 billion women in the world and less than 170 million of them are in the U.S.
Assuming the best women want their children to be born in the U.S., you’d expect real American kids to make up 5 % of total kids in the U.S.
However, our women get married late and some don’t even bother to have kids, so a smaller relative proportion of kids in the U.S. are qualified to be really American kids. We thus end up with real American children around 2.5 % in the U.S.
This is self-reinforcing: foreign women in the U.S. may give birth to fake American kids, etc.

Am I the only one who finds this argument so funny?

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23. watcher on December 14, 2010 11:22 PM writes...

Imposing protectionism, which in itself is well documented as only a short-term false fix to an economic imbalance and does nothing to resolve the longer term, underpinnings which plague the pharmaceutical and chemical industry, by changing visa regulations does nothing to make science more attractive compared to other career choices.

Many new college grads want instant career advancement, high fianancial reward, with plenty of vacation and benefits. It's the generation of immediate gratification and success and reward. The smartphone, instant e-mail all the time, Tweeter, twitter generation. Fun, yes. conducive good, thorough, science, highly questionable.

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24. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on December 15, 2010 12:45 AM writes...

"Only the hyperqualified need apply."

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25. Anonymous on December 15, 2010 3:08 AM writes...

"Many new college grads want instant career advancement, high fianancial reward, with plenty of vacation and benefits. It's the generation of immediate gratification and success and reward. The smartphone, instant e-mail all the time, Tweeter, twitter generation. Fun, yes. conducive good, thorough, science, highly questionable."

And as the wheels have fallen off the US economy they're now all going to discover that no matter which career path they choose, they're screwed. Sooner or later, the US will have to wake up to the fact that you only get the shiny toys if you make something the rest of the world wants and can sell it to them.

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26. ANon on December 15, 2010 9:13 AM writes...

"Many new college grads want instant career advancement, ...................."

Unlike the old days where we used to:

a) Walk uphill in snow both ways to school.
b) Be grateful to have two left shoes two sixes too small.
c) Follow the coal wagon for fallen bits to burn for heat
c) Work in the...


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27. @26 on December 15, 2010 10:08 AM writes...

"Sooner or later, the US will have to wake up to the fact that you only get the shiny toys if you make something the rest of the world wants and can sell it to them."

True, I always wanted cadmium in my toys to make them very shiny.

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28. Virgil on December 15, 2010 10:59 AM writes...

Re: the H1b argument, you either have to be blind or stupid or both, to propose that eliminating tech' qualified immigration will solve any problems.

Surely, if a nation is to have any immigration policy (and we have to have something, we can't just lock the doors), then it makes sense to let in the most qualified. That's exactly what the H1b and similar programs do.

Let's not forget also the tremendous economic multiplier of immigrants. Just by way of anecdote, I'm an H1b immigrant (now a green card holder). I pay taxes just like y'all. I also pay social security, but as a non-citizen will never get to claim a penny when I retire (you can thank me later for supporting your government subsidized retirement). Oh, and yes, I employ 2 US citizens, whose jobs simply would not exist if it wasn't for me. The founders of some pretty large companies (ever heard of Google?) are immigrants too.

And BTW, anyone who claims to be a "true American" and not an immigrant, just needs a history lesson. Go back about 150 years and that should settle the matter.

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29. ChemAnon on December 15, 2010 11:07 AM writes...

Here's a radical solution to the PhD scientist glut: Nip the problem in the bud and divert the bulk of undergrads to med and law school. (Previously, I would've included MBA program, but MBAs are a dime-a-dozen nowadays especially with online/distance schooling nonsense.) After all, in comparison to PhD scientists, aren't physicians and lawyers generally considered more "essential" to society? Let their ranks get flooded with people of equivalent quality so that the market price of health care and legal aid plummets. Let their salaries take a dump like those of professional scientists.

Biggest obstacles to this radical plan: Unlike science grad programs, the AMA and ABA actively limit the number of MDs and JDs in in training to safeguard their tangible value. Even the most prestigious of chemistry grad programs cannot boast acceptance rates as low as the top-tier med and low schools, let alone the top humanities departments!

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30. Shane Atwell on December 15, 2010 11:30 AM writes...

The PhD glut is created by government grants. Eliminate the government's involvement in education and the glut goes away. Let industry create the grants that train new scientists and there'd likely never be a glut again.

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31. JasonP on December 15, 2010 1:29 PM writes...

People who come here on a visa program can never understand what it is like from an American's perspective. Let me spell out reality for you:

1. Basically only in America does the world's intelligent come to work. You don't have the same thing in S America, China, India etc. Therefore the American worker competes against a world of skilled people, not just their fellow countrymen. Again I repeat this is largely an American thing. Just imagine turning the tables and trying the same scenario in China.

2. I have a right to defend my economic well being, and that always means someone else loses in a capitalistic world.

3. As discussed H1B floods in skilled workers. This is a help to a point, but of course the corporations push it as far as possible to suppress wages.

4. Due to draining wages, due to competing against the world at the graduate education level also, science is in decline in America, as is job availability.

5. There are very real political and economic consequences to all of this and it is deliberate. It is in a nation's best interest to support its own scientific population and maintain capability. I'd say the same is true for manufacturing but we've already fully blown that.

There is no spin here, its the plain truth. We could all be a lot more safe and confortable but we're living through a period of flawed ideology in economics.

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32. Nixon on December 15, 2010 1:50 PM writes...

"Employers hire the best and productive workers, if they don't, they don't stay in business. "

I would argue that hiring foreign dependent slaves who work for less and possess zero, I mean zero creativity is the reason that pharma and chemistry in the USA is going out of business..

Your dogmatic adherence to the false creeds of yesteryear is stunning. Management wants short term profits at all costs and could care less they are p*ssing in the same water they drink from. Their goal is to fob off a sketchy corporate model to ignorant investors then cash out.

I'm not sure what competitive forces you believe exist that will cut down either a developing company (which is mostly IP smoke and mirrors) or an advanced company that squanders the majority of its resources on advertising.

The idea that a company cares about producing a quality product anymore is a thing of the past. Have you followed the perpetual recalls of Johnson and Johnson? That's a company which is flushing its once great brand for a quarter or two of short term profits. The list of pharma companies engaged in sociopathic behavior is endless.

Unfortunately many deluded chemists believe they are professionals with a future, rather than coolies working in a chain gang under the pitiless sun.

So why don't you give us some more bull-Sh*t about companies are just responding to market forces. The fact is there are no consequences for a company legal, or otherwise, if they should desire to never hire another American citizen.

The proof is in the pudding.

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33. Curt F. on December 15, 2010 2:51 PM writes...

2. I have a right to defend my economic well being, and that always means someone else loses in a capitalistic world.

No it doesn't! The whole point is that of all economic systems ever tried by humanity, capitalism is the best at *growing* the pie instead of figuring out how to slice it. How do you explain the prosperity of South Korea in comparison to North Korea since the 1950s? It is not even debatable that North Korea made sure to protect its own industries and scientists from foreign competition. Same for East Germany after WWII.

From a more personal perspective, even though (!) I am an American citizen, I've benefited from the US visa system. The foreign colleagues and professors I had the privilege to interact with in graduate school were intelligent, warm-hearted, and creative. I certainly benefited from the chance to study and work with them.

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34. JasonP on December 15, 2010 3:07 PM writes...

Curt, someone always looses. Or to look at it in another light: someone always does not gain. If everyone could win, then there would be no economics. The US was so rich in the past because it was in a position to be so, and the rest of the world was not. Within rich countries there are always poor and less well off. The pecking order is a human social condition, and even when we try to eliminate it (communism), you still have the same dictators.

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35. Curt F. on December 15, 2010 3:56 PM writes...

JasonP - you seem more interested in being richer (than someone else or some other country) than in being rich. In that case, yes, someone always has to lose. If you want to be at the top of a pecking order, I guess that is your right.

But I'm interested in improvements which grow the pie and give me more pie to eat, even if those same improvements give others more of the extra pie than me.

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36. JasonP on December 15, 2010 4:02 PM writes...

Oh I want that too Curt, but I don't see too many balanced functions in the world to reach that goal. Its still dog eat dog. Nothing wrong with the concept of H1B, just take care of your own first, and those you bring over give real option for citizenship and equality.

It is the moral thing to do on many levels.

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37. @ChemAnon on December 15, 2010 6:55 PM writes...

Actually right now, to go to law school is probably worse than going to grad school in the sciences. There is a huge glut of lawyers because all of those people with unemployable liberal arts degrees went to law school. Only it sucks worse because they emerged with $200K in debt.

My general prediction is that science jobs are not the only sector facing outsourcing pressure. Every job that can be outsourced eventually will.

Protectionism will not help also because it creates massive inefficiencies because it artificially shields a sector from global competition. Whatever industry you are protecting will churn out products that are made more expensively with less incentive to meet the needs of the consumer because they know they are being protected by an outside force. Eventually this inefficient industry will have to be put out to pasture anyway.

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38. JasonP on December 15, 2010 7:47 PM writes...

37: I've heard that being said many times now. Its like listening to a Buhddist chanting a mantra. Economic ideology as religion. Outsourcing is is natural, it is the only way.

Then why did we have economy BEFORE globilization? It is not rational to suggest that a whole economy of a nation will be outsourced. Isn't it obvious that the inevitability of something like that would be market crash once a nation (America) no longer has any means left to generate income?

I think you can pretect your own markets without bending over for outsourcing nations. Why? Because eveone else in the world is doing it.

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39. BioMed on December 15, 2010 8:09 PM writes...

@3 Virgil: "the applicant does not have a strong background in field x".

This has nothing to do with the strength of your background, and everything to do with protecting the turf of field x. Since grant dollars are zero-sum, there is incredible resistance to making one of their buddies from field x go without because they gave those dollars to you.

@29 ChemAnon: "Nip the problem in the bud and divert the bulk of undergrads to med and law school."

Impossible because the entry points are very tightly controlled by these professions including severe restrictions on immigrant labor, regardless of qualifications. Of course, you don't see a lot of doctors and lawyers getting laid off in tough economic times either... hmmm...

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40. anonymous on December 15, 2010 8:27 PM writes...

Actually we did have protectionism in the past. I remember walking into Duponts cafeteria where the had a showcase for awards given to employees who were there for 25 or 50 year anniversaries. Can you imagine that today? Did globalization really make us better off. I have no interest in building up the middle class of China. The problem is, China is looking after Chinas interest and the US is looking out for the multinational companies. No one is looking out for the poor shlob chemists who blew a decade of there life training for a job that doesn’t exist.

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41. Curt F. on December 15, 2010 8:41 PM writes...

Nothing wrong with the concept of H1B, just take care of your own first, and those you bring over give real option for citizenship and equality.

Now these sentiments I agree with, especially the latter ones. Maybe a good idea would be to eliminate employer sponsorship of H1B visas. Instead, would-be visa holders could agree to pay a monthly visa fee, and some company somewhere would have to certify that the visa holder is gainfully employed only once every 18 months. That way visa holders could avoid "visa-slave" situations that exist at some American firms, and those who really wanted to stay here could stay here, even if their first job ends (as long as they get another one in 18 months). The government might even make more revenue in the form of the monthly fees.

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42. Curt F. on December 16, 2010 12:36 AM writes...

I have no interest in building up the middle class of China.

I have huge interest in building up the middle class of China, and here's why: every Chinese that joins the middle class is entering a "flat", globalized, connected world, where they can leverage their intellect to help solve not just their own local problems, but also the problems of the world markets. When more smart Chinese people gain access to sanitation, energy, and education, more technologies get invented (and we can use those inventions here!), stuff at my Walmart gets cheaper, and one more Chinese person gains income to buy products from us. That benefits not just them but also me.

See also here:

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43. sepisp on December 16, 2010 3:37 AM writes...

"Really good people will be less concerned about money if they can do work that is meaningful to them", says that #17 ScienceMag. What idealism. Intelligent people don't require filthy-rich-grade salaries, but they're not willing to be underpaid either.

What irks me in attitudes towards science is that we are expected to starving artists. In my country, academic jobs are considered inferior, because the pay is low in a Western context, but there's no job security. Furthermore HR managers often consider academic experience poisonous in a resume: it doesn't count as realistic work experience with respect to work in the industry.

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