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On the Poor Career Prospects for People with Postgraduate Degrees : 2

August 21, 2019 7 comments

In the previous part of this series, I went into some detail about the careers of those who studied or worked alongside me during my MSc. To make a long story short, the majority are either no longer involved in scientific research or have menial unstable jobs with some vague connection to what they studied or used to do for a living. Some of you might say that this is to be expected since the biomedical sciences produce many times more graduates than the number of available jobs. While that may be true now, it wasn’t always the case. Indeed, until the early 1990s, those who studied or worked in that sector could either find decent to acceptable jobs or simply move into related areas with considerable ease.

Now let us now talk about another sector which, for over 50 years, provided highly stable, well compensated and intellectually engaging employment. I am talking about pharma. From the end of WW2 in 1945 to mid-1990s, pharmaceutical corporations (large and medium) provided some of the best and most interesting jobs and careers in western countries. And it worked both ways, since those who worked in them came up with the most important advances in medicine we have ever seen. There is a very good reason why this period is often referred to as the ‘golden age’ of drug discovery. And then it started going wrong and is now a mere shadow of its former self. Years ago, I linked to a spoof by somebody else about how things went to shit in pharma.

To be fair, this fall was not instantaneous and it was only after 2008 that the whole sector was irreparably damaged. But ya.. things had been on a downward slope since the mid-1990s. In retrospect, the true beginning of end started in late 1980s, when certain large corporations (Pfizer, Merck etc) decided to recruit ivy-league MBAs. The first signs of this rot manifested as gradual consolidation within that sector. While I could write multiple books on why consolidation in the pharma sector was so disastrous, here is the very brief version. Monopolization and oligopolization always results in counterproductive centralization, destruction of real innovation, greatly increased rent-seeking and is bad for everyone other than the upper management of those corporations in addition to their lawyers and bankers.

It should be noted that corporate monopolization has been much more disastrous in the West than Asian countries because corporations in the later are answerable to their governments to an extent unimaginable in the former. But why are we talking about how the pharma sector used to be about 20 years. Well.. because it is relevant to my choice of career. One of the main reasons for me taking the educational path I took was that working in pharma was an excellent career option with long-term stability and a pretty decent work environment. Sure.. nothing is perfect, but for someone with my interest and talents, it was as good a match as realistically possible.

Also, the pharma sector used to be fairly conservative in both hiring and firing people. Until early 2000s, mass layoffs and multiple site closures for the purpose of “corporate reorganization” were unknown in pharma. Many larger corporations even had defined benefit pensions until mid-2000s. Yes.. you heard that right. To make a long story short, those who stayed out of corporate politics and had generally satisfactory job performance could reasonably expect lifetime employment, and this was widely expected by employers and employees right upto early 2000s. You were not expected to work beyond normal work hours unless necessary due to nature of experiments and there was tons of autonomy at the site and group level. And in spite of all this, vast majority of pharma corporations were profitable businesses and remained so over multiple decades.

But how is any of this linked to my story? As it turns out, I ended up working in pharma for a few years and through direct experience and observing the career trajectories of acquaintances had a ringside seat to the beginning of final collapse of employment in pharma sector. Here is a post from 2011 in which they document that almost 300k jobs in that sector were lost between 2001 and 2011. And those layoffs did not stop in 2011, though they have sorta run out of people to fire- especially in past 4 years. The total is now closer to 400-450 k jobs and even if we assume that 60-70% were in sales and administration, it is fair to say that ivy-league MBAs have finally killed the goose which used to lay golden eggs. Far more problematically, it has altered the career course for many who would have otherwise gone into pharma.

In other words, their short-termism not only destroyed decades of institutional knowledge but also their ability to rebuild in future. And it shows! And before I explain you how, it is important to quickly explain the process of drug discovery and approval. It all starts with either the discovery of a new drug target (usually protein) or some effect of a chemical compound in cell-based or animal assays. From there it enters the pre-clinical development phase where chemists make hundreds and thousands of chemical cousins of the initial lead compounds and test them in a number of assays, animal models of some disease and extensive toxicity testing in multiple animal species. Only after it has cleared that phase can it be even considered for human trials. Small phase I trials are usually the first (dozens of people), followed by larger Phase II trials (hundreds) culminating in Phase III (hundreds to thousands and often) over a few years.

To make another long story short, the system was designed such that drugs which entered Phase III trials were unlikely to fail, and this was the case for most of modern history. Sure.. you did encounter situations where testing in larger populations (P III) revealed some rare but nasty side effects or the drug was not as efficacious as previously expected. But outright failures of efficacy in Phase III trials was really rare. Then something changed and nowadays the majority of drugs which enter Phase III trials fail, and they usually do so for lack of efficacy. Curiously, this often occurs when Phase I and Phase II data was either very good or pretty promising. So.. what is going on? While many industry insiders have tried to explain this deeply troubling trend by invoking all sorts of clever sounding bullshit, there is a simpler and more rational explanation.

A large percentage, likely overwhelming majority, of drug development in past two decades has been based in two types of fraud. The first involves manipulating metrics to make something look far better than it is in real life. Examples of such frauds involve cherry-picking patients, burying negative data, changing criteria for success, playing around with data and statistics and other stuff which is not technically illegal. The second type involves falsification of data, deliberately deleting data, kicking non-responders out of trials to improve responses rates etc. But what does any of this have to do with the downward career trajectory of people working in that sector?

Well.. since we have already exceeded 1200 words in this post, I will leave that discussion for the next part of this series. In it, I hope to go into some more detail about how neoliberalization and financialization of pharma destroyed its older and much more successful business model and institutional structure- all to make a handful of people on wall street and upper management far richer than they otherwise would have been. You will also see how stuff such as pushing opioids, antidepressants, antipsychotics etc to doctors and constantly jacking up prices of old and new drugs replaced developing newer ones as the main source of corporate growth. And ya.. I will also go into what happened to all those middle-aged and older people who lost their jobs and, in many cases their entire, careers after decades of relative stability.

What do you think? Comments?

On the Poor Career Prospects for People with Postgraduate Degrees : 1

August 17, 2019 33 comments

A few years ago, I wrote a post about how the defined and stable career trajectory is now dead in west and west-aping countries such as Japan and South Korea. Some months after that, I wrote about how the hiring practices of corporations in west have shortened the length of semi-stable career for most people to about 15 years. Then, about a year ago, I wrote a series on the long term social, economic and cultural effects of career insecurity. While they don’t make cheerful reading, it is interesting to note that these and my other older posts (pre-2016) on this general area (link 1, link 2, link 3) anticipated the rise of pseudo-populists such as Trump, the alt-right and popularity of socialism among “Millennials”. Also, have a look at my post on why rich and well-off (even in USA) are barely having any kids.

But let us get back to the topic of this post, and talk about something which I have often hinted to in previous posts on this topic. Ever wonder about the real career prospects for those with proper postgraduate education in the sciences and other related areas such as engineering. And yes.. this is relevant to issues other than the immediate future of western countries. What I am now going to describe, based on personal observations, is going to vindicate many of your darkest suspicions but also make you feel depressed. But before we talk about my observations, you should know a couple of facts about me. Longtime readers are probably aware that I came here and started my MSc when I was 20 years old in the later half of 1990s. After finishing it, I worked a couple of jobs in my field and then started my PhD in a proper STEM subject in mid-2000s and finished at the beginning of this decade. The point is, I have seen a lot more change than many others have seen.

To be more precise, I had a ringside seat to the demise of career security for smart people with postgraduate education in western countries. And don’t worry about me, I am still doing OK and will (knock on wood) continue to do so. But back to the topic at hand- What do my personal observations about the career trajectories of others who graduated a few years before myself, or alongside me, say about the overall situation. The very short answer is that it is already very bad and getting worse- if that is possible. While there are many ways to describe what I have witnessed, a chronological account of the careers of people who graduated a few years before me provides the best (if somewhat disturbing) insight into how things have gone to to shit.

While biomedical sciences have notorious for overproduction of graduates, until the mid-1990s most of them could get some half-decent jobs or at least transition into careers where their skills were useful. Somewhere between mid-1990s and 2000, that became much harder or no longer possible. To make a long story short, only those who went into to medical or dental school now have anything approaching “normal” careers. And even for them, things are pretty dismal. For starters, most are single, divorced or unhappily married with a single child. Out of the ten or so guys I know who took that route, only one has more than 2 children- and half have none. Almost every woman who went to medical school (around my age or younger) has either zero kids or just managed to squeeze one out in their late-30s. And they all look older than they should.

But at least they have some semblance of a career trajectory, because most of the rest (aka the majority) who did not get into medical school have none. Sure.. there are a few who have done OK in either academia or industry (usually the later) but most of them just seem to disappear. Confused? Let me explain. Over the years I have followed the careers of many PhD students who were smart, liked by their supervisors and generally expected to do OK in later life. But things did not work that way and many of them after promising starts and careers lasting for a decade or so, just disappear. To be clear, I am not suggesting they are dead or have commited suicide (though the later cannot be ruled out). It is just that their career in science seem to end and they stop updating their LinkedIn profiles. In almost every case, detailed internet searches failed to reveal much more than their current addresses and some more recent photos.

While I am sure that most are still alive, it is clear that they do not have well-paid or marginally prestigious jobs. Maybe they are bagging groceries at the supermarket, driving for Uber, delivering Pizza, tutoring kids or in one of those mediocre administrative positions which have proliferated in past 15 years. My point is that most of them are now doing jobs that require nothing more than an undergraduate degree. Isn’t that a terrible and cruel waste of human potential and hope? But wait.. it gets worse. Let me talk about the fate of a few people I used to know well in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And it gets depressing real fast..

When I was just finishing my MSc, there was a new postdoc from UK in the adjacent lab who had come here with his then-GF (also a postdoc). The guy was bright and competent, because within a couple of years he got a decent academic position back in UK. So far so good. Based on mutual acquaintances and PubMed, it seemed he was doing well for a decade or so. Sure.. his GF dumped him after a few years, but he seemed set for an OK career. Somewhere in 2012, his research output just stopped. My guess is that his job loss might have something to with post-2008 austerity politics in UK. Anyway.. he reemerged a few years later as proprietor of a small businesses selling dietary supplements. So a guy with a PhD, over 30 papers in decent journals and an academic career lasting almost a decade ended up hawking supplements like one of those scummy Instagram and FakeBook influencers.

Another person who did his MSc in an adjacent lab ended up running cell-phone kiosks in malls and is now selling insurance. Yet another PhD student who was considered to be very smart ended up moving to his home-city for a postdoc. He then regressed to working as a lab tech and eventually as a freelancer, the last I heard. At least, he lives in a place where his parents own a house. Another ambitious PhD student, after a couple of stints at prestigious labs as a postdoc, seems to have ended as a part-time freelancer at some research institute in another large city. The women seemed to have done a bit better, and more than a few ended up as scientific writers or mediocre administrative positions in corporations with varying degrees of stability. But in almost every case, there had no defined career with the degree of stability expended by their parents generation. Also, many of them either have no kids or one token child squeezed out in their late-30s.

To be clear, all of this occurred to people who studied, or worked, at prestigious research groups in one of the top two universities in that state. But wait.. it get worse. In the next part, I will tell you what happened to the careers of people who worked in the pharma sector between 2001 and 2008-2009. It is really bad.. to put it mildly. In future posts, I will also go in some detail about the dismal career prospects of people with postgraduate degree from well-regarded universities in subject such as Chemistry and Physics. Also degrees in engineering (various disciplines) from well regarded universities are no longer the ticket to a stable career. I hope to show you how all of this ties with rise of neoliberalism, de-industrialization and increased financialization of economy in western countries- and the death of hope.

I have a feeling that some of you might say something the lines of these people being lucky since they are still employed in jobs which pay more than median wage. Funny thing.. that is not the way things work in countries which harbor any hope for a better future. What I have described is how things typically unfold in countries that are in a steep and likely irreversible decline.

What do you think? Comments?

Recent Articles about Problems at Boeing, Including the 737-Max Series

April 3, 2019 4 comments

As some of you might remember, I recently wrote about how the 737-Max series fiasco at Boeing is just another symptom of late capitalism and the terminal decline of USA. Turns out, it was more prescient than I first realized. Here are links to a few more recent posts by journalists and industry-insiders which go into some detail about issues mentioned in my original post. As you will, the 737-Max fiasco is the symptom of a much larger systemic corporate problem at Boeing.

Pontifications: I don’t know what to make of this -Post details similar problems occurring with other commercial airlines being developed and built by Boeing over past decade. He thinks Boeing can get back (american exceptionalism?), but I would not be so sure.

Four concurrent commercial airplane programs (the KC-46A being a hybrid between commercial and military) each had trouble. Two of their last four airplanes have been grounded by regulators. A third airplane had such poor quality control the customer stopped taking delivery. Three of the four were years late. What’s going on here? Boeing resources were clearly stretched too thin. Billions of dollars were going out the door in cost overruns. Were bad management decisions made by the bean-counting McNerney regime? Was there something systemic happening? Or just a run of bad luck and bad timing? I know people will say bad luck is just a myth, but sometimes (as the saying goes) [stuff] happens.

Whistleblowers in 737 Max Case Say FAA Was Lax in Inspector Training – No shit! That is what happens when ivy-league educated CONartists with little to background in engineering think they are smarter than their engineers. Also, this won’t stop Boeing from making the same “mistakes” again- they will just get better at covering them up.

“Multiple whistleblowers” provided the committee with information alleging that “numerous FAA employees, including those involved in the Aircraft Evaluation Group for the Boeing 737 MAX, had not received proper training and valid certifications,” Senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, said in a letter to the FAA’s Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell Tuesday. Those claims and two 737 Max crashes since October that have killed 346 people prompted Wicker to launch an investigation into potential connections between training and certification shortcomings and the FAA’s evaluation of the airliner, he said in his letter, which was released by the committee Tuesday.

U.S. Air Force Again Halts Delivery of Boeing’s Tanker Over Debris – Turns out the quality of Boeing airlines, even those sold to the USAF, has a lot in common with american cars made during the late 1970s. Maybe destroying unions and employing poorly-paid workers was not a smart idea. Nah.. just kidding, killing unions made tons of extra cash for the top management and some shareholders. Don’t worry, capitalism and managerialism is safe..

The Air Force has stopped accepting deliveries of Boeing Co.’s new refueling tanker aircraft for the second time in a month because of debris found in closed compartments, according to Secretary Heather Wilson. The halt in deliveries of the KC-46A Pegasus is the latest issue to plague the $44 billion effort to create the first U.S.-built flying gas station for the Pentagon’s fleet since the KC-10A Extender in 1981.

Disaster and the Boeing CEO – Ever wonder why CEOs, nowadays, seem to have no understanding of what the corporation they head actually does? Me too..

McNerney came to Boeing in 2005 from 3M after two previous CEOs resigned. The Dreamliner was the company’s moonshot product, the first commercial jetliner to use lightweight carbon composites and electrical systems powered by lithium-ion batteries.But production delays forced the company to deliver its first plane three years behind schedule, in 2011. Then in January 2013, an empty plane caught fire at Boston’s airport, and nine days later a plane in Japan made an emergency landing after pilots detected a burning smell. The FAA grounded the 787 for four months

and it turns out that the Ethiopian airline pilots did actually do exactly what Boeing recommended when the aircraft started to become uncontrollable. Death by poorly designed software?

737 Max 8 Anti-Stall System Reactivated After Being Manually Disabled – Remember that this occurred a few months after they first claimed the MCAS system was “fixed”.

The Wall Street Journal reports a slightly different sequence of events. It states that the pilots initially disabled the system (following Boeing’s recommendations) but were unable to regain control of the aircraft. The system was either manually reactivated by the pilots themselves as part of an absolute last-ditch effort to recover the aircraft or came back online automatically. The WSJ points towards the former conclusion, while Reuters appears to have heard the latter. Either way, we now know the pilots reportedly disabled the system properly, yet were either unable to regain control of the aircraft after it had activated or unable to prevent it from activating again. The reasons why this happened are themselves still unknown.

If this is how Boeing treats safety issues and concerns for their most popular airliner series, I wonder how they design, test and build their “innovative” newer airliners.

What do you think? Comments?

Era of Creativity in American Music, Cinema , Television etc is Over: 1

March 31, 2019 10 comments

Regular readers might be aware of an older post in which I wrote about why the past decade of mainstream movie-making in USA has been full of sequels and reboots rather anything vaguely original. The short version is as follows: the uncritical worship of financialism is behind this and many other (and much larger) systemic problems seen in USA today, from brick-and-mortar retailers dropping like flies to Boeing making some truly atrocious design choices for its 737-Max series. And yes.. ‘late capitalism’ and ‘financialism’ are interchangeable terms- in most contexts. I also wrote another post about how the downstream effects of late capitalism explain the proliferation of ‘superhero’ movies we have seen over the past decade. But how is any of this connected to the title of this post? For starters.. the general lack of creativity we have seen in american music, movies, television, streaming services, video games etc over past ~ 15 years is just another symptom of the same underlying problem.

But before we talk about that problem, let us first spend some time to properly define the issues involved. For example- How does one define creativity and how long did the ‘golden era’ last? Do music sale numbers, box office receipts etc matter and do they affect how we define creativity? So let us begin by discussing all of this and more by using real life examples. That way, I can explain the issues involved in very clear and straightforward terms. Given my greater interest in the visual arts, I will first focus on cinema, television, specialty cable shows and streaming outlets in this part. Here is a good question to start this discussion- Was there ever a ‘golden age’ of american cinema? The answer to that question, while affirmative, is a bit complicated. See.. most people are trained to think that the ‘golden age’ of american cinema was between 1927 and the mid-1950s, when TV started to become the more widespread form of audio-visual entertainment.

I think differently. While cinema was the dominant form of audio-visual entertainment in that era- it was not the ‘golden age’ by any stretch of imagination. The quality and originality of the movies in that era left much to be desired- and that is a huge understatement. While a small part of the blame can be assigned to technology, most of it was a result of how the whole system was run. See.. Hollywood studios were the worst thing that happened to Hollywood- because they were run by losers who cared only about the bottom line and exerting their egos over creative people. That is why movies from that era are so bland, insipid, and unmemorable. Sure.. they made money- but that was largely a consequence to there being no other competing audio-visual media. Also cinema theaters were among the first public places to be air-conditioned. The true golden age of american cinema began after the studio system fell apart in the 1950s and the Hays “moral” code became increasingly irrelevant throughout the 1960s.

The golden age started sometime in the early- to mid- 1960s. And there is something else, which facilitated this era. Today, we think of Hollywood movies as being internationally popular. This was, however, not the case for many decades. Many large European countries had flourishing local film industries for many decades before and, in some case, even after WW2. The Italian, Spanish, German and Russian film industries has tons of very talented directors, producers, actors and the financial means to make and distribute their products. So why did all these other players slowly decline after the 1950s and 1960s. Well.. in the case of film industry in Russia, Germany and other East-European countries, the rise of state communism and promotion of extremely bland control-freaks into position of power resulted in complex regimes of unofficial censorship. People with non-standard worldviews were either silenced or learned to keep quiet.

Let me put it this way.. the majority of memorable and influential movies you can think of simply could not be made in those countries after the early 1960s. Do you think they would have allowed their people to make movies such as Jaws, Star Wars Trilogy, ET, Back to the Future Trilogy, first two Godfather movies, Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Blade Runner, The Matrix, the first Jurassic Park, a couple of the original Indiana Jones etc? But why stop there.. what about the first two or three Police Academy movies, all those teen sex comedies from the 80s and 90s, spoofs with Leslie Nielsen or by Mel Brooks and many.. many more transgressive comedies. My point is that the quality of even mainstream Hollywood movies was pretty good (compared to rest of the world) between the late 1960s and early 2000s. But why was Hollywood able to make and market some pretty amazing movies in those three and a half decades- while the rest of the world kept making the same types of movies they had been making since the 1950s?

Some of you might invoke reasons such as american exceptionalism or Hollywood being run by a certain religio-ethic group. The reality is rather different and it all comes down to a combination of two or three factors that were unique to Hollywood. Firstly, after the late-1960s there wasn’t anywhere near the level of direct and indirect creative censorship as compared to other countries. For example- films in former east-Germany and Russia had to pass multiple rounds of scrutiny by people employed specifically to enforce ideological purity. Or take the case of India, where films that did not adhere to the standard Bollywood format had no chance of getting funded and filmed, let alone distributed. In sharp contrast to that, one could make and raise money for all sorts of crazy sounding ideas (some of which later became cultural landmarks) without the fear of being labelled as a dangerous subversive or a perma-failure in Hollywood.

Then there is the effect of 3-4 decades of post-WW2 opportunity for non-rich or non-connected people to get into the film industry. See.. one of the big differences between the american movie industry and the its equivalents in the rest of the world was that the former let people who were not rich or connected into the movie industry- especially behind the camera. Just look up the biographical details of most iconic movie director, producer, special effects guy etc between the late 1960s and early 2000s and you will see that they did not come from a family who was already established in the industry. but why does this matter? Well.. people who rise to their position by coming out the ‘right’ cunt are usually not the most competent or capable candidates for any given job. In my opinion, this was probably the most importance difference between Hollywood and its equivalents in other countries.

The third reason is linked to how success and failure was treated in Hollywood as compared to its foreign counterparts. Which is really a fancy way of saying that frequent failure was considered an unavoidable part of making movies. A few moderate failures or even a couple of nasty ones was not an automatic death sentence or cause of perpetual ostracism in Hollywood- as long as you had a decent record of success or demonstrable competence. To be clear, I am not saying that the american film industry was some great meritocracy full of fourth and fifth chances or kind altruistic people. But it was significantly better than its counterparts in other countries as long as you were white. It was this combination of factors which allowed the extraordinary three and a half decades ‘golden age’ of Hollywood- from 1968 to 2003. But why did it end at 2003? Let me put it this way, truly significant movies made after 2003 are few and widely spaced.

In the next part, I will go into some detail about why 2003 is the best cut-off point for Hollywood making truly amazing and creative movies. As you will see, it has much more to do with new business models based in financialism, managerialism and other bullshit ideas that are also destroying other industrial sectors in USA. You will also see how similar the demise in this sector is to concurrent demise of others such as pharmaceutical research, physical retail outlets and many more. I will also show you what outcomes these financial and managerial types are targeting and how that explains the demise of creativity. You will also see why these losers were in the back-seat during ‘golden age’ but are now firmly in driver’s seat of this dying car.

What do you think? Comments?