musings on music and life

March 31, 2016

PhD in chemistry = ?

Filed under: Chemistry, Chemistry Jobs — sankirnam @ 11:29 pm

Derek Lowe had an interesting post earlier about outsourcing and the effect that free trade agreements have had on chemical employment in the US.

This raised a question in my mind: what does a PhD in chemistry enable you to do? If you get a degree in organic chemistry, that usually implies you have some kind of expertise in organic synthesis, but as we’re seeing lately, more and more synthesis is being farmed out to CROs internationally. These CROs may have PhDs in their labs carrying out the synthesis for their clients, but that’s besides the issue; I am concerned with holders of PhDs in chemistry in the US. Generally speaking, fresh PhD graduates will usually enter industry positions working on early-stage projects, if they are doing synthesis. If the early-stage synthesis is being shipped out to other countries, then how can fresh graduates get their foot in the door? Derek Lowe states that companies are generally wary about outsourcing late-stage API synthesis to other countries due to IP security issues, but “for early-stage material, it generally works pretty well.”

Now here’s the kicker: Derek Lowe concludes by saying, “there probably be shouldn’t be that many basic-level organic chemistry services in the US. There are times when it makes sense, and the further up the value chain the more sense it makes, but “grunt work”, however you define it, is (other things being equal) going to migrate to lower-wage situations”. If fresh PhDs are generally expected to work on basic synthesis when they are first hired by industry, does that mean that a PhD simply certifies you to do “grunt work”? And does that mean there is no longer a market for fresh PhD’s in the US to do synthetic work? This would go a long way to explaining why postdoctoral experience has become a requirement for industry positions in chemistry, to ensure that fresh entrants are more experienced and can begin at a more advanced stage.

I had the opportunity to have an in-depth chat with the current ACS president Donna Nelson and the ACS president-elect Peter Dorhout at the ACS convention in San Diego earlier this month about the issue of underemployment and unemployment of chemists today. Interestingly enough, they pointed out that there has been a 100% increase in the number of BA/BS degrees awarded in chemistry over the last 15 years, but the unemployment gap has also grown to about 14% today (the link is from 2013, but that is the latest figure I could find). Another thing to keep in mind is that students can dodge unemployment/underemployment by going back to school for another degree, so this statistic can be difficult to measure. This is key at both the BS and the PhD levels, and PhD’s have the additional option of doing a postdoc, which is becoming increasingly common – and as Chemjobber says, “postdoctoral positions are quite often the scientific equivalent of an inferior good, that is a position that one would not take, if one had a better option”. There is also not enough effort being done by universities to track the career paths of their graduates; at the bachelor’s level, that may be prohibitive due to the volume of data (but of course, that should not be an issue for a “data scientist” skilled with “big data”), but at the PhD level, it is more feasible, and should be done. There should be a database where students and postdocs should be able to look up PI’s and track the careers of their graduates; a PI who has too many students going to get additional degrees after their PhD would raise a red flag. There should also be some way to tie federal grant funding for PIs with student career success – but the issue there is what metric would you use? My idea is to track the number of students gainfully employed in their field of training and with a salary of at least $100,000 within 3 years of graduation (I think that’s reasonable, but feel free to tell me I’m crazy). The exception would be those on the academic track, either as an assistant professor or a postdoc.

The other thing that crossed my mind is that the ACS should put out an advisory to all students interested in chemistry about the poor job market, similar to what was done by Texas A&M University for its incoming Petroleum Engineering students in 2013! If the ACS were to really be looking out for its members, it should do what the AMA does, and start restricting the supply of chemistry graduates. In any case, it is amusing (and heartening) now to see the word percolating out. If the Chemistry subreddit is any indication, the level of realtalk nowadays is increasing, which is a good sign.

The modern scientific-academic complex as it exists today in the US is the legacy of Vannevar Bush. In a document called Science, the Endless Frontier, he advised the president at the time (Truman) to continue funding fundamental science in a big way, setting up the huge expansion of the university system in the US, and the eventual founding of the NSF in order to publicly fund science. This rapid expansion of the US university system in the latter half of the 20th century made it relatively easy for PhDs and postdocs at the time to find academic positions. Unfortunately, the market has long since saturated, resulting in the situation below, summarized by Jorge Cham in a tongue-in-cheek manner:phd030909s

I know people are tired of reading this over and over again, but I wanted to get these thoughts down, as they’ve been in my mind for a while. I’ll do my best to refrain from this topic in the near future, since people have told me that they do find this depressing.


March 26, 2016

U. Srinivas video

Filed under: Carnatic Music — sankirnam @ 2:14 pm

This video has been making the rounds on Facebook lately:

This is from a concert of Mandolin U. Srinivas at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana in 1990, with Sikkil Bhaskaran (violin) and Palghat R. Raghu (mrudangam). Anantha R. Krishnan (Raghu sir’s grandson) can be seen in the back!

These early recordings of U. Srinivas are gems; there is something timeless about his music that defies description. The video starts with some racy swarams in Kalyanavasantham for Naadaloludai, followed by a sedate rendition of Paramaathmudu (Vaagadeeswari); this is the same one I uploaded a few years ago:

The sangathis Srinivas plays in Vaagadeeswari are really unique – they do not compromise on the raga chaaya (identity), but at the same time these phrases are only possible on the mandolin. After this comes the main piece, Swara raga sudharasa (Shankarabharanam), followed by a majestic thaniavarthanam by Raghu sir. This fittingly receives a standing ovation from the audience. After listening to this, I realized I had heard this concert before, because the audio had been uploaded on Sangeethapriya.

I am really grateful to Sikkil Bhaskaran sir for uploading this video to Youtube for public viewing; I unfortunately did not have the opportunity to hear Palghat Raghu sir live a lot, and so videos like these are deeply cherished.

March 23, 2016

Vegetarianism and sustainable food solutions

Filed under: Philosophy — sankirnam @ 7:54 pm

Before I start, I’m linking these two videos here (warning: they are rather graphic and not for the faint of heart).


Don’t get the wrong idea: I’m not one of those militant PETA-type activist “in-your-face” vegan people who goes around guilt-tripping others into conformity. I know vegans and vegetarians often get a bad rap for that, as can be seen by the numerous jokes on Reddit, such as “Q: How do you know if someone is vegetarian/vegan? A: Don’t worry, he/she will tell you rather loudly and obnoxiously”. But this is a topic that does deserve serious attention.

As I have said earlier, thanks almost entirely to the work of just two (or three) individuals, Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and Norman Borlaugwe are able to support 7+ billion people on this planet. We currently have the resources to feed a rapidly increasing population, but the issue as to whether these issues are being allocated efficiently is a purely economic one.

I know a lot of the stuff I’m about to say is sure to be controversial; after all, diet is a fundamental aspect of who we are, and because we eat on an extremely regular basis, how and what we eat becomes a part of our individual identities. That being said, there really is no argument or reason to eat meat – that is, kill animals for their food any more. There are a few angles to look at this. One is that nutritionally speaking, we now know that it is possible to be perfectly healthy on a purely vegetarian or vegan diet; these are growing in popularity, and there are a number of successful vegan athletes today. The other is the utilitarian argument, and the chief proponent of this is the philosopher Prof. Peter Singer. His arguments are laid out in this paper, and in his famous book, Animal LiberationIn brief, Prof. Singer states that the notion that it is our right to have dominion over other animals is immoral and “speciesist”, in much the same way that the idea that one cultural group can enslave another is now thought to be racist. The utilitarian branch of philosophy is extremely interesting, because the postulates and arguments it uses are very simple, and when taken to extremes, can cause a lot of people to become very uncomfortable because it tests their notions of morality and right and wrong.

Another angle is that the meat industry (or the animal and livestock industry) is one of the biggest contributors to pollution in all forms – atmospheric, aquatic, and in the production of solid waste. Yet another angle is antibiotic resistance. About 80% of antibiotics produced today are used in the livestock industry, and the overuse of antibiotics is the reason for the recent development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. On the other hand, as Derek Lowe points out, there haven’t been any recorded instances to date of humans getting infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria from animal sources. I think the key phrase here is “to date”, and that it is just a matter of time.

There are a couple of start-up companies getting in on the “sustainable food” trend, which is great! Hampton Creek, Impossible Foods, and Beyond Meat are some of the better-known of these companies, and have already released products on the market. Hampton Creek’s claim to fame is their product Just Mayo, a vegan, eggless mayonnaise. I don’t know anything about regular mayonnaise, but Hampton Creek’s product is smooth and delicious. The key breakthrough is their use of pea proteins to simulate the texture and consistency that egg proteins gives to regular mayonnaise. Interestingly, Hampton Creek was involved in a lawsuit with Unilever a few years over the use of the “mayonnaise” descriptor of their product. The aforementioned companies are the most well-known; there are others in this market space, and I really do hope that the demand for these products increases, enabling these companies to grow. If you can’t tell, I am very passionate about this! I really would like to work in this area, as it is something exciting that contributes to humanity in a very real, tangible way. Like I said earlier, the relationship we have with food is very close, and as a chemist, being able to develop products which I or others put in our mouths would feel more fulfilling than maybe developing some lead medicinal compound that might be developed into a medication that I or others may use (I apologize for the overuse of conditional statements here!). I have applied to these companies multiple times in the past but received no response – if anyone knows anyone working at these companies, please do let me know!

Another solution for sustainable food is hydroponics. Traditional methods of farming require a lot of water, and this was recently exemplified in California politics. Agriculture is a minor contributor to the GDP of California, and yet was the biggest consumer of water in the state. On the other hand, having farms and food growth is necessary for life, which is why the situation is not so cut and dry. That being said, indoor hydroponic farms are becoming a thing. Indoor hydroponic farms use much, much, less water than ordinary outdoor farms, but obviously use a lot more electricity, since they are missing sunlight. I do think that this will be a solution for sustainable food in the future – thanks to advances in technology, power generation, distribution, and storage is no longer a major issue*. Providing clean, potable water for the population will become a bigger issue, and techniques that conserve water (such as hydroponics), and desalination of sea water will have to be embraced in a big way. Farming may have to become decentralized, in the sense that every suburb or city will have 5-10 hydroponic farms in the neighborhood to supply locally-sourced food to the residents. Indoor hydroponic farms can be located anywhere, even in business districts – a multi-storey office building can be a hydroponic farm!

*Ok, I know there are a lot of things to be worked out – for example, energy generated from renewable sources such as solar or wind cannot be stored nearly as well as we would like, and the distribution of electricity in the grid can be a lot better. Renewable energy generation is getting more efficient every year, and the amount of solar cells we need to power the planet is not really that much. As this paper states, “Covering 0.16% of the land on Earth with 10% efficient solar conversion systems would provide 20 TW of power, nearly twice the world’s consumption rate of fossil energy and the equivalent 20,000 1-GWe nuclear fission plants”. More details can also be found here.



March 5, 2016

PhD Job Prospects

Filed under: Chemistry Jobs, Data Science, education — sankirnam @ 3:44 pm

A friend of mine sent these two articles and asked for my comments on them.

  1. A bridge to business
  2. Enterprising science

The first article talks about how valuable PhDs, postdocs, and PhD candidates are to management consulting firms. It goes into detail about the training that a lot of PhDs receive while working towards their degree, and that their training is just as valuable as what MBA’s receive.

Now, it all sounds nice on paper, but my experience has been the polar opposite. I applied to several consulting firms last year and was either soundly rejected or received no response (which is quite common when applying for jobs online), and this is in spite of being one of those “[valuable] Science-PhD holders” the author talks about. So I really have no idea what management consulting firms are looking for.

The author also states:

“The broad set of valuable transferable skills that you developed while in graduate school go largely unrecognized and unarticulated within the academy. Most PhD graduates restrict their job searches to what they feel qualified to do, rather than exploring what they are capable of doing.”

Again, this trope sounds nice on paper, but my experience with applying for jobs has been quite the opposite. The whole idea of “transferable skills” only really holds in the tech industry, and that too for a small set of subjects (more on this in a moment).

The second article mentions that early-stage scientists (such as assistant professors, post-doctoral fellows, and PhD students) should also look into commercializing their successful ideas and forming start-up companies. This is solid advice. The article also mentions that professors are also not the best people to be running start-up companies, due to the many demands on their time. That is better left to younger people. Of course, this comes with a caveat.

Applied sciences, engineering, and computer science are by their nature easier to commercialize, as opposed to theoretical or more “pure” fields. Problems that are academically interesting are not necessarily ones that will lend themselves to commercialization once investigated. Another issue is that startups are rarely founded off of PhD research because the interests of the advisor and the student are opposed at that point. The advisor will want the successful student to continue working, generating results and writing papers, while the student will want to leave to start the company. In any case, as the author mentions, it never hurts to allow PhD students opportunities to network with successful people in their field; this will help later when they apply for jobs! Sadly, most schools do a piss-poor job in this regard. In most universities, PhD career services are virtually nonexistent, as are networking events for graduate students.

In any case, back to the subject of transferable skills. From what I have seen, transferable skills are those secondary skills that you might pick up on the course of your degree that are not necessary for success in that field, but can be used somewhere else. For example, most PhD holders would have given talks at conferences at some point. Based on that, “making and giving presentations” can be listed as a skill, even though this something that no self-respecting person would be caught putting on his or her resume. This skill is transferable to other fields where giving presentations is important, such as consulting. I’m not sure if this is a good example or not, but it is what I could think of.

Now, one transferable skill that is being thrown around a lot lately is “data analysis”. The author even refers to it in the first article I linked to above:

“If you have earned a PhD, you know, for example, how to analyse data. You also understand how to examine those results to gain insights.”

The term “data analysis” is beginning to seriously annoy me, because it is incredibly vague. A five-year-old putting his hand on a hot stove, screaming in pain, and then learning not to touch the stove again is doing data analysis! Yet would people call the five-year-old a “data scientist”? Even if others wouldn’t, I would – the kid has used evidence (even if it is a single datum) to draw a conclusion! So yes, in the broad sense, we are all “data scientists” and we all go about our day doing “data analysis” all the time, even if we do it unknowingly!

But the crux of the matter is that the type of data you will encounter varies from field to field, and the types of conclusions you can draw – the analysis, in other words – is domain-specific. In other words, “data analysis” is not a transferable skill. This is a seemingly simple fact that unfortunately is being overlooked by recruiters, employers, and tech workers. For example, I can readily interpret NMR spectra, GC-MS data, and other types of spectra that are commonly encountered in a chemistry lab. However, I would be laughed at if I claimed to be doing “data analysis” in the sense that is used in the tech industry today! What the tech industry calls “data science” or “data analysis” is the statistical interpretation, most often using methods derived from computer science, of large sets of facts or figures that have been compiled. Case in point: Thanks to a friend, I got an interview a few days ago for a “data analytics” position. The HR recruiter who called me was thoroughly confused by my resume, and I had to clarify that even though I had a PhD in science, I had zero skills that they were looking for. She told me “oh yea, we regularly hire people from a variety of backgrounds for this position…we have computer scientists, math majors, statisticians, and even physicists!”. Now, as far as transferable skills go, they probably have a very good command over computer science and programming, as well as a strong mathematics background. These skills are not generalizable to all scientists (just like how I would not expect a PhD computer scientist or statistician to be able to go into a chemistry lab and synthesize small molecules)!

As one of my friends told me,”…well, looks like you have a PhD in an inferior science”.

March 3, 2016


Filed under: education, Internet craziness — sankirnam @ 3:17 pm

Well, this just made my day:

Thanks to this, I now have journal access again! I cannot overstate the importance of this in my life; just like how most people read the newspaper or news websites regularly to know what is going on around them, so too do practicing, serious scientists read journals in their field in order to keep up with the latest developments. Not having journal access is like being disconnected from the scientific world or community at large, and that is no fun at all. In my case, it’s especially important, as interviewers can sometimes ask, “So, what have you read lately that caught your eye, and why is it significant or interesting?”. Being able to answer with references to the primary literature sends a positive signal that you do take the initiative on your own time to stay abreast of the field.

March 1, 2016


Filed under: Philosophy — sankirnam @ 5:12 pm

The topic of longevity and increasing lifespans has been on my mind lately, and as usual, here is the best place to release my massive brain fart!

It’s no surprise that humans today are living longer than ever. This is thanks to things like sanitation, modern medicine, and even improved nutrition. Nutrition deserves a special mention; the varied and nutritionally complete diets we enjoy today are thanks almost entirely to the work of just two (or three) individuals: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and Norman Borlaug. It is mindboggling to think that thanks to these three people, we are able to support an additional 2-3 billion people on the planet! 

The lifespans of people in developed countries has increased significantly over the last century, but interestingly enough, economic and social policies seem to be lagging behind. This is similar to what women face in the workforce; unfortunately, the resolution of female employment, motherhood, and fertility issues is something that we need to straighten out immediately as a species. Just like that, an awareness of our increasing lifespans and how that affects macroeconomic issues like employment and education is worth considering.

Note: I am not an economist, just someone with an interest in the subject.

According to Google, the current retirement age in the US is 62:

Traditionally, the full benefit age was 65, and early retirement benefits were first available at age 62, with a permanent reduction to 80 percent of the full benefit amount. Currently, the full benefit age is 66 for people born in 1943-1954, and it will gradually rise to 67 for those born in 1960 or later.

I’m speculating that in a few years (or decades), the retirement age may be pushed even further, to 70 years or so. Of course, that may face heavy opposition, since older people are more likely to vote, and naturally want to protect their benefits. My idea is that as the retirement age gets pushed upward, we should also increase mandatory education for the younger population. In the US, education is mandatory until 12th grade. What would happen if we added 13th and 14th grades as well, delaying the entry to college by 1 or 2 years?

I don’t think this would be too difficult to implement (apart from the usual resistance to the status quo), and it would result in students being better prepared for college or whatever career paths they choose. We live in an age now where the collective knowledge of humanity is available to everyone at his or her fingertips; but of course, not everyone has the ability to parse the information efficiently. Additionally, we need to be well-versed in so many areas in order to succeed in the workforce or even contribute to society as an informed citizen. As Steven B. Sample (former president of USC) mentions: “[…] there are two essential languages each student in America must learn: first, English and, second, calculus“. I would like to add the following skills or knowledge (of course, I may be biased as a scientist):

  • computer literacy (which includes everything from familiarity with a GUI,  word processing, using a spreadsheet for basic data manipulation/analysis, searching for information on Google, to programming),
  • scientific literacy (including a basic understanding of mechanics, electricity, magnetism, chemistry, heat, work)
  • Mathematical knowledge up to integral calculus, as well as a sufficient background in statistics that allows awareness of the shortcomings of simple tests of statistical significance
  • Full functional literacy in English. I think this goes without saying, especially in an English-speaking country.
  • A knowledge of macroeconomics that includes not just basic concepts like supply, demand, marginal cost, and marginal benefit, but also allows one to understand issues like how free trade can affect domestic labor markets and currency exchanges.
  • A full understanding of how the political system in the US works, at the city, county, state, and national level.
  • A basic understanding of human biology and medicine. People should learn in school why vaccines work and why getting vaccinated is important, the fact that antibiotics are ineffective against viral diseases, as well as birth control, family planning, and other topics.
  • Biology and geology (sometimes called Earth Systems Science). Evolution needs to be taught in schools; it is not fiction, and is a phenomenon we can recreate in the lab with bacteria populations, for example. Evolution is what drives the recent surge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, after all! Also, high-school graduates should be aware of what “climate change” is and what contributes to it (mainly water vapor, CO2, and other greenhouse gases such as methane).
  • World history and a basic knowledge of geography and other cultures. You don’t necessarily have to know the exact latitude or longitude of Lesotho, but it would be nice if you knew it was a land-locked African country completely encircled by South Africa.

Whoa, I got a bit side-tracked here. But my point remains: we can (and probably should) extend mandatory education by another year or two; there is plenty of stuff that should be taught. Just like how inflation creeps slowly upward over time, extra years of mandatory education may need to be added on over the decades. As lifespans slowly increase, the proportion of our lives spent in school will remain constant.

Of course, the other concern which I mentioned earlier is reconciling education and employment with the ugly truth of female fertility. In humans, a woman’s fertility peaks in the early and mid-20s, after which it starts to decline slowly, with a more dramatic drop at around 35. This is the time when most people are trying to get their careers underway! Comedian Aziz Ansari illustrates this much better than I can:

From a historical perspective, women nowadays are indeed having kids much later than previous generations – but is it late enough? The fact that female fertility and financial stability seems to maximally coincide for most people between the ages of 25-30 means that you will have a new cohort of youngsters joining the workforce at intervals of 25-30 years. The turnover frequency of people in the workforce therefore also has to be in that range, in order to avoid social unrest due to the mass unemployment of young people. Therefore, as the retirement age rises, and people keep working until older and older ages, it also makes sense to keep children in school for longer, to match that rate of turnover.

Feel completely free to tell me I am crazy…

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