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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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April 25, 2011

The PhD Problem: A Global Perspective

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Posted by Derek

Nature News has a big article on the "Too Many PhDs" problem, which we've discussed several times around here:

In some countries, including the United States and Japan, people who have trained at great length and expense to be researchers confront a dwindling number of academic jobs, and an industrial sector unable to take up the slack. Supply has outstripped demand and, although few PhD holders end up unemployed, it is not clear that spending years securing this high-level qualification is worth it. . .

The piece looks at several different countries, each with its own set of problems. Japan seems to be in just awful shape as far as doctorates go; it makes the situation over here look not so bad. China, for its part, is cranking out zillions of fresh PhD holders these days, but (as the article is quite frank about) many of them aren't worth much. That isn't stopping them from getting jobs (for now), but it's something to worry about.

And we all know the picture here in the US. But this article doesn't, to my mind, do as good a job as it should. Mention is made of the problems in the pharma/biotech/life sciences industries, but all the hard numbers refer to academic positions. Looking at this graph, you'd think that academia was the main destination for all PhDs, all the time - after all, that's all that's over in the right-hand box. (I'll leave aside the poor graphic design. The same colors mean completely different things in each of those three graphs, which means that you're constantly having to tell your brain not to draw the conclusions it's trying to draw).

The article also details conditions in Germany, Poland, Egypt, and India. About the latter, I have to wonder if they're facing the same quality-control problems that China has. The good people there are quite good, but there are plenty of others. I occasionally get unsolicited e-mails from PhD candidates (or finished doctorates) from the more obscure Indian universities. They're either seeking a job, with apparently no idea who I am other than some guy with a e-mail address, or seeking advice on some aspect of chemistry that (it seems to me) they should have mastered long since. . .

Update: See this Wall Street Journal piece for more on India, and just that very problem.

Comments (53) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry)


1. p on April 25, 2011 10:52 AM writes...

I've said it before but...

Yes, pragmatically there are too many PhDs. That is, there aren't enough jobs to accomodate the number of PhDs we make. However, we damn sure have enough problems that need addressing that those PhDs are needed. We just need them working.

I have no idea how to do that. Industry seems to be run by bureaucrats and finance types who think R&D is bad for business, government is over-extended and in debt and academia is circling the wagons.

Also, while we may not need this many PhDs, what should those people do instead? Do we need more lawyers? Bankers? Maybe if we all just sit around and exchange pieces of paper and electrons we'll all have prosperity.

All that can be summed up as: it's an employment/economy problem, and one not solely dogging scientists.

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2. Sam on April 25, 2011 11:58 AM writes...

" Derek said- China, for its part, is cranking out zillions of fresh PhD holders these day"

Those large research facilities created by US pharma are allowed to transfer those lame PhDs to USA facilities using L-1 visas.

It's considered an internal company transfer rather than 'real immigration'.

There is no longer any role for a US PhD. Pharma seems quite content with mind bogglingly incompetent foreigners.

They're docile and disposable.

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3. Hap on April 25, 2011 12:05 PM writes...

Entrepreneurship would help, but I suspect the equilibrium Ph.D. concentration in an entrepreneur-driven Ph.D. economy would probably be lower. It fits best the flexibility and ideas that Ph.D.'s are supposed to give, and potentially the innovation we need, but the lower wages, high risk, and not huge upside (because of the money required, VC and investors will get the major part of any profit) aren't likely to attract people to become Ph.D.s unless there are no better options. Even then, lots of the jobs that might open up for Ph.D.s from startups will end up in CROs or in other countries.

I thought that the previous driver for innovation was in the pure R labs, but those don't exist (they don't make money now, so businesses aren't interested, government labs don't (or won't) have the money, and academia benefits from producing cheap Ph.D. labor and not jobs) and if they were to exist will probably be elsewhere. Academia appears interested in multiplying temp positions and expanding the adminstration, so I can't see how academia positions could ever take up the slack. I'm just not seeing a good way out.

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4. tgibbs on April 25, 2011 12:49 PM writes...

Most of the students entering our PhD program in Pharmacology come in oriented toward industry careers rather than academia, and in the past they've generally succeeded in finding industry jobs. We'll be watching closely to see if the economic downturn and the contraction of the pharmaceutical industry changes that.

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5. Rick on April 25, 2011 1:02 PM writes...

And yet, we keep begging kids to enter PhD programs saying it'll strengthen innovation? How about strengthening our basic educational system in, say, high school and college?

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6. luysii on April 25, 2011 1:43 PM writes...

Sad to read this sort of post over and over in one form or another. Most of the chem graduate students entering the Harvard chemistry department in 1960 did very well and had no trouble finding academic positions (Tom Lowry, Kathy Scheuller/Richardson, Ruth Lewin/Sime, Don Voet, Don Rose, Joe Landesberg, Dave Sigman, Rolf Sternglanz). It wasn't something we were even worrying about back then. Oldtimers tend to look back on the past as halcyon days, but it certainly seems to be compared to the comments and posts on this blog.

I wonder what the experience will be (or is) of those who started in the department in '06 (most of whom should be finishing up about now). Does anyone know? Probably a post-doc. So what about '03 or '04, who should be finishing their postdocs. Again, does anyone know?

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7. Steve on April 25, 2011 2:20 PM writes...

This is only a problem if you start with the premise that everyone completing a PhD should get a job related directly to that PhD.
Assuming you also have the premise that the available jobs in academia and industry should go to the best candidates, then it seems there are two options:
1) reduce the number of PhD positions to fit the number of academic/industry jobs, and have extremely high entry levels which are designed to ensure only the best get onto the PhD course.
2) allow the selection to occur post-PhD, in the job market, as occurs now.

Option 2) seems a lot more practical. We just need to let potential PhD candidates know there are no guaranteed jobs.

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8. Steve on April 25, 2011 2:21 PM writes...

This is only a problem if you start with the premise that everyone completing a PhD should get a job related directly to that PhD.
Assuming you also have the premise that the available jobs in academia and industry should go to the best candidates, then it seems there are two options:
1) reduce the number of PhD positions to fit the number of academic/industry jobs, and have extremely high entry levels which are designed to ensure only the best get onto the PhD course.
2) allow the selection to occur post-PhD, in the job market, as occurs now.

Option 2) seems a lot more practical. We just need to let potential PhD candidates know there are no guaranteed jobs.

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9. pete on April 25, 2011 2:49 PM writes...

@7 Steve
"We just need to let potential PhD candidates know there are no guaranteed jobs."
I remember over beers, a Prof from my PhD days pointedly looked around the table at us pre-Doctoral types and noted that very few from his cohort of Post-Docs at MIT were still doing science. That quieted the conversation like a bad fart - though most of us went on to do fine nonetheless.

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10. Virgil on April 25, 2011 3:08 PM writes...

One factor which I do not believe has been covered so far in this debate, is the quality of incoming PhD candidates. As someone involved for several years in selecting and interviewing senior undergrad's for entry to graduate school in the life sciences, I have noticed some fairly major changes in both academic performance and (more importantly) attitude. If these problems persist once the kids get out into the "real world", is it any wonder they have trouble finding jobs. Some examples...

1) Quality and grasp of mathematics is not what it used to be. Pure and simple, math is just not on their radar in the life sciences. This causes major problems down the line... just about every thesis I read has statistical errors.

2) "Padding" of CVs. Every single kid applying to grad' school has done some type of volunteer work. They've all coached inner-city high school kids. They all went to some 3rd world country to build a hospital or cure malaria. They did this because a careers adviser probably told them it would look good on their CV. That's great, but it means nothing in terms of scientific ability. For academia I would argue it is a distraction, and admissions tutors put too much weight on this stuff. Smarts should come first, above everything else.

3) Questioning of authority and general respect for teaching staff has declined dramatically - kids simply argue a lot more about grades these days than they used to. Not legitimate stuff, but flat-out "I deserve a better grade because I worked hard" kind of BS. Every class I teach, in addition to getting a full copy of the slides as handouts, the students constantly ask for a "study guide" - this is nothing more than a euphemism for what's going to be on the exam. When I refuse, I get bad teaching evaluations - these kids know how to get what they want and are not afraid to ruin people's careers and reputations in the process.

4) "Entitlement" is far greater nowadays. As described in the excellent book "Generation Me" by Jean Twenge. Kids of the '80s have been spoon fed and told that the world is their oyster, so when they get out into the real world they're in for a huge shock because it's not! A huge percentage of high school students fully exect to be "famous" during their lifetimes, based on their intake of reality TV and the assumption that everyone can be a move star, olympian etc.

5) The application process. Many of the kids I interview have applied to 10+ schools! Often this place is their safety school, and I fight like hell at the admissions meetings to ensure we don't intake a bunch of applicants who failed to get in elsewhere. The sad thing is, even the people who get rejected from here will eventually get into grad school somewhere (after maybe a year of working as a tech'). Restricting the number of applications an individual can make, would stop a lot of folks from ever getting in the door, and that would increase the quality of the finishers.

I know it's hard to say it, but could the problem with newer PhDs not getting jobs be in any way related to the decline in quality of candidates getting PhDs?

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11. Anonymous on April 25, 2011 4:00 PM writes...

luysii, the job market sucks. Employers are taking advantage, I recently saw an ad from a CRO that required 4 years of non-peptide (ie; not med chem) postdoctoral experience. FOUR years of postdoc REQUIRED. I suspect there was a good number of applicants.

Virgil, some very good points. One of the big conflicts is that when employment gets tough, a lot of people go back to school hoping the additional education will help them get a higher paying and more secure job. No doubt this current crisis has shuffled quite a few less-than-qualified applicants into the Ph.D system. But then again, nobody forces professors to take these sub-par students. (Do they? I honestly don't know) I suspect fingers can be pointed in many directions with respect to your observations.

The part I find most troubling in the Nature article; grad programs aren't slowing or decreasing enrollment. They're continuing to enlist students at a very high rate. Despite all the economic turmoil and the increasing number of articles like these that point out the Ph.D oversupply, the message is not getting out to the people who need to hear it the most.

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12. Hap on April 25, 2011 4:02 PM writes...

#7: That might be fine if people were paying for their own Ph.D., but the government is spending lots of money to train people to be Ph.D.s in science (not just to get research). If you're training people to be scientists, than it's likely that you expect that training to be used. If it's not going to be used, then perhaps you could have spent that money better elsewhere, or not at all.

I think people have gotten the message that jobs for Ph.Ds are guaranteed - there's a reason that so many grad students come from somewhere else. Of course, now they're going home because there aren't jobs here and because there are jobs elsewhere, so now we pay to make jobs elsewhere. I think that's a bug, not a feature.

#10: The CV padding is probably an effect of applications to undergrad, where intelligence is assumed (at least at the top end) and so selections are made by everything but. In addition, grad school isn't an intelligence contest, alone - lots of other factors determine how good someone will be as a scientist and whether they can make it through grad school, and so selection on the basis of (perceived) intelligence might not be best.

I haven't really understood the "entitlement" angle, either - it didn't just spontaneously appear, no? They learned it from lots of someones...someones who, in all likelihood, are leaving them with trillions of dollars in debt, no retirement savings (probably - where'd all that SSI money go?), and lots and lots of expenses. Someone sure as hell acted as if they were entitled - why would we think those after us would learn anything else?

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13. Anonymous on April 25, 2011 4:26 PM writes...

If I controlled the purse strings I would not fund academic R&D, certainly not so broadly as it is now.

The whole system is design to maximize the amount of crap you put out, big lab, lots of students, more funding. Maybe 5% of what you put out can be the money maker.

Maybe if we stop the political games, and actually try to solve real problems, supercondutors, energy storage, electromotive polymers, solar capture.

All areas where chemistry can be applied and have a profound impact, rather then regurgitated borylations and cross coupling in aqueous systems (then extracting in DCM).

Not organic enough? Thats not what I'm interested in? How dare someone dictate what research I do.

How about a one step carboxylate to methyl reduction?

EAS of trisubstituted aromatics

The Majority of Academia are fooling themselves and patting themselves on the back with marginal improvements better left to those who would (if they would ever) practically apply it.

The old adage NO RISK, NO REWARD applies. Grad school to most seems fairly low risk on face value.

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14. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on April 25, 2011 4:46 PM writes...

The Ph.D. glut will take care of itself when the federal government goes bankrupt or nearly so. The academics will find that they rank lower on the funding scale than public union pensions. I hope to see second and third-rate graduate research institutions defunded or simply shut down.

Not everyone is going to be the next Einstein and professors should stop pretending.

About that entitlement mentality, it was the rumor in our graduate school that, "If you sit at your desk long enough, they will give you a Ph.D."

Some of these schools are glorified diploma mills, except that they suck up 5-8 years of your life. I like the diploma mills that simply sell you the degree. I'm going to buy a Ph.D. in Plasma Physics. No reason to be merely useless when one can be twice as useless! : D

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15. Surfer on April 25, 2011 6:20 PM writes...

How about the fact that radioactive particles have been found in milk in 13 US cities?

There is no safe level to ingest these particles!

Now that's a global problem!

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16. anon 13 on April 25, 2011 6:24 PM writes...

If you sit at your desk long enough, they will give you a Ph.D."

did we go to the same grad school???

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17. Medicinal Madness on April 25, 2011 6:33 PM writes...

"...solve real problems, supercondutors, energy storage, electromotive polymers, solar capture."

Nah, the Medicinal Clowns are so bloody brilliant in living off the Federal Reserve Teat that they couldn't care less if oil was @ $500/barrel priced in a worthless fiat dollar.

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18. Virgil on April 25, 2011 6:41 PM writes...

@11 anonymous
As far as I know, at private universities, many programs have decreased enrollment, because students are often supported by school money during their first couple of years before they identify a home lab. As school endowments, and the # of faculty with research grants to support students, have dropped, so have admissions. in my school, total life sciences grad' intake has dropped from about 100 in 2005 to near 60 this year. Maybe in the state sector it is different, or more schools are cropping up to take up the slack.

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19. mother nature on April 25, 2011 7:45 PM writes...

PhD diplomas are really hard to obtain , so why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? China has totally figured it out. Sell PhD diplomas and the companies will flock. CEO's with an R&D dont care about any differences cause they wont be around long enough to deal with any repercussions. All the major Pharma are doing it and will continue until there is a major scandal-might be a while, cause all the companies with skin in the game have found out how screwed up their work is. Plastic Army men- yes. Appropriate experimental controls-not necessary due to cost.

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20. See Arr Oh on April 25, 2011 8:13 PM writes...

Hey all:

A short (ok, long!) response to some of the major points expressed in this comment thread:

#1: I agree with your assessment about lawyers and bankers. Yes, these people are genuinely smart and some really do want to help, but what's the tangible asset they create? Do they really MAKE widgets? Do they write books, teach classes, build anything? Again, some do, but at least scientists, at some point in their career, can point to a process, a patent, a new molecule that's never before existed, and say "I made that, and maybe it'll help someone."

#10, 11, 12, 13: Motivation is key. You have to ask yourself WHY you'd want that PhD....will it honestly make your life better? Will you make more $$$ for the time invested? Will you help to cure a disease, make a polymer, or discover a new reaction? I feel sorry for those who would go to school simply as a way to avoid the poor economy, or to feel like it's just a path to a better-paying job. You have to know what you WANT.

Why is it that no one sits budding scientists down and asks them simple, but important life questions, like where they want to live, what they hope to accomplish, where they see themselves in 20 years. I, for one, would have benefitted from such a conversation. Most of my "mentors" just kept figuring that keeping my nose to the grindstone would somehow teach me these "soft skills" by osmosis.

#10: Math prep would naturally vary depending on what the student's end goals were. I, for one, am a synthetic chemist, and although I appreciate the utility of DiffEq and triple integrals, I rarely use anything other than trig and algebra in my daily work. I also tend to agree with Hap (#12) that CV padding is not a symptom, but a cause of entitlement. The generations that preceeded mine (yes, I'm a "child of the '80s") told us since elementary school that we'd have to put in volunteer hours and show how "well-rounded" we were, or we'd never make it onto college. So, perhaps some of the entitlement comes from the students who say "What gives?" after putting in their time and watching themselves get passed over for jobs in favor of the mid-career professional recently laid off.

The thinking of many of my contemporaries (and myself) is: "When's our turn? How do we get started?" Gone are the days of the 3 year PhD and the guranteed faculty job - I understand and accept this.

But how hard would you want to work - and how angry would you feel - if all you ever heard was naysaying about the "death of the industry", lowered gov't funding, downsizing of pharma, and that to get the big time, you have to work 70-hr weeks until your mid-30s to land a career? How many crazy, risky ideas would you be willing to pursue when you find yourself tired, making little money, no benefits, no children, and wondering if you'll even be able to retire at 65 if you don't get a job until 35?

Our generation has put in their time to make the generations above us famous and secure. So who looks after us? When's our chance?

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21. PostDoc on April 25, 2011 8:26 PM writes...

Don't forget the business side of it. Its very popular nowadays for Western cash-strapped universities to establish international 'collaborations' (or create branches abroad), and import a low-wage graduate-student work force that allows small and medium sized groups to continue their existence.

Scientists have themselves to blame as much anybody else as they helped create this system. Everybody values research quantity over quality and as labor is cheep in the form of graduate students and PostDocs, it doesn't help if individual researchers take a stand and offer permanent contracts. Being sensible and nice in this environment will only make you loose to the 'competition'. Of course most don't even reflect that far as they try to keep their businesses afloat, keep their noses out of "everybody else's" problems, and sell as many products (articles) as possible until they retire.

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22. DBS on April 25, 2011 8:34 PM writes...


As you may know, there is a federal election going on in Canada at the moment. The NDP, a party that has always been a third party, is now poised to come in second; there are some scenarios where they could even gain control of the Prime Minister's office. Their platform lays out a fairly adversarial posture toward the pharma industry in the aim of trying to lower drug costs: . Anyway, I thought some here might be interested to hear about possible changes in Canada, pending the vote on May 2nd.

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23. anon the II on April 25, 2011 8:36 PM writes...

There's a related article over on Slashdot called "Why Science Is a Lousy Career Choice" ( It seems to be getting more comments than average.

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24. Anonymous on April 25, 2011 8:47 PM writes...

don't matter to us too much. Not much big pharma R&D done in Canada anymore?

Astra, BI, Gilead(process). A couple of smaller biotech good tax credits on R&D here. We have a lot of generic manufactures.

Canada has always set the price of drugs, so this is nothing new and we do generic swaps always in the pharmacy (pharmacists make money).

You want to see waste in the health care system, walk around a hospital here. Ton's of doctors (esp surgeons) milk the system. Scheduling operations to get overtime, operating on people who will die anyways. People take a 300$ ambulance for PMS pain, because its cheaper then a cab.

Pharma is just an easy target, because the patients are so happy that the doc wrote the script. They hold all the cards and are the masters in the health care world.

I'm betting that Harper wins and comes out stronger from this election. People are generally pissed that we have another election.

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25. Geo guy on April 25, 2011 9:15 PM writes...

The person who drew those graphs that Derek links to clearly didn't get a PhD in graphic design.

Maybe they didn't know about that "1.6 million colors thing" on computer monitors.

The data are sad in any case.

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26. rabauldevil on April 25, 2011 9:20 PM writes...

@Sam #2

"There is no longer any role for a US PhD. Pharma seems quite content with mind bogglingly incompetent foreigners.

They're docile and disposable."

Sorry Sam, I don't find those foreigners incompetent, nor do I find them disposable. I should know; I have worked in a number of Bay Area biotech companies and in academia since the early 90s and I know that those "lame foreign PhDs" are responsible for establishing companies here, for giving universities and companies valuable intellectual properties and for providing key proof of concept experiments.

All during this time, I found "native Americans" (in general, those born and raised in the US) sitting around and bitching about how these foreigners are taking over and how since they are US citizens, they are entitled to American jobs; jobs that were often created on the backs of these supposidly docile drones. I also found that on this side of the planet, American citizens get all the breaks that their talents merit. Bosses do tend to hire and promote those that talk and think like them. Despite this, I find the folks that make the contributions that matter are not the native Americans.

The "natives" just get the lion's share of the credit.

So, Sam, takehome lesson is this: quit whining.

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27. New Native on April 25, 2011 9:34 PM writes...

#26 rabauldevil

Wow. My last name is Rabinovich, I have a chest-length beard, yet I am now a Native American. Some kind of strange evolution happening before our eyes.

Not all change is good, folks, no matter how hard you try to rationalize it so.

Remember, some people thought "Radium Tonic Water" was a good idea too.

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28. Anonymous on April 25, 2011 10:05 PM writes...


and the 90's produced so many great drugs..... we all know how it works here we are in the biz.

IP rights and proof of concept.. who do you think reads this blog. We all know what gets outsourced.

Mixed results are always had, in the 1st and the third world. I agree that Americans whine too much and we have our fair share of incompetence. But there is something strangely disturbing for LARGE companies cutting internal R&D/manufacturing just to improve margins slightly in the short term.

Everyone wants to be the big shot scientist, no one wants to do the bench work.

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29. newnickname on April 25, 2011 11:05 PM writes...

Miscellaneous replies and comments:

#2 and #26: For me, the "docile foreigner" refers to the green card RANSOM: coworkers who won't speak up about the real problems with the program and just go along with the management line, not rock the boat just to get their green card and "freedom". Surprise: Once they have their green card, the ransom is paid and they become disposable! They see what happens to those who speak up or ask tough questions so they keep their mouths shut. On balance, I've had some foreign co-workers who are very smart, talented and hard working and some who are terrible. I have NEVER seen anyone so overwhelmingly gifted that they couldn't be replaced with an available US born, raised, educated competitor. It's management that sees a difference: the green card ransom.

I have asked in the past (nothing personal about Kishi, he IS a smart, talented, hard working guy): If Harvard hadn't hired Kishi away from Japan would there have been a huge, sucking, unfillable void in Harvard chem because no one of similar accomplishment or potential could be located domestically? I don't think so.

#10: Padding of CVs. I look at graduation programs and the number of named awards for undergrads has grown tremendously. There used to be one or two awards per department ("best senior thesis") but now there seem to be more awards than graduates ("Crayola award for best artwork on cover of senior thesis", "Cliff Notes' best TA award", "Al Qaeda Award for best exploding lab demo on high school open house day", etc.). If you don't get an award when you graduate you must have a SERIOUS problem.

General: I read a lot of similar editorials, essays, op ed pieces and they quote a lot of policy analysts, policy makers, policy thises and policy thats. I overhear students talking about what they want to do and "policy" seems to be the new "finance": everybody wants to be a chief and not an Indian. I think all the unemployed PhD chemists Could and SHould fill the thousands and thousands of vacant policy positions out there and give those up and comers and taste of their own policy medicine. What? You mean there aren't thousands and thousands of policy positions out there? Sounds like bad policy to be producing so many policy grads with no policy jobs for them.

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30. rabauldevil on April 25, 2011 11:21 PM writes...


In fact the 90s was magic time in biotechnology. That's the experience I got once I landed in the Bay Area in 93.

The 90s was an era where a number of antibody-based anticancer drugs got developed among them: avastin, cetuximab and trastuzumab. I don't know about the progress of cardiovascular drugs. I do know that Genentech had several drugs in the pipeline during that era.

Also, since it takes 15-20 years for fundamental discoveries to make it to the market (if not more - remember MRI?) then blame those scientist of the 70s and 80s for the alleged paucity of drugs - not the newly arrived foreign drones.

Anyways, what was your real point? All decades experience a roller coaster of progress; some ups and some downs - nothing new about that.

All I am saying is that foreign scientists did make significant contributions to the scientific and industrial milieu in this country and to deny this is to stick your head in the sand. Don't blame them for the outsourcing phenomenom. Point the finger at American business management and not the poor grunt on the lab bench.

Look if you're worried about R&D being cut in this country then why don't you copy a page out of those "foreigners" that are being so denigrated? Simply pull up your roots and move to where the jobs are.

Otherwise, stop whining.

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