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March 2010

With a degree, without a job

The NPR website has a thought-provoking article about the difficulty in finding a job for even the most educated. Here are some highlights:

  • Although the unemployment rate for college graduates is "less than half of the 10.5 percent rate for high school grads", some students who "fled to graduate school recently as a temporary safe haven from the economy [are finding] themselves still without jobs."
  • College seniors have to compete with experienced workers, who "are settling for more entry positions" because of the current economy.
  • Starting one's career in a downturn negatively affects graduates' wages for about a decade, according to an expert. (Also see this old post of mine on the topic.)
  • Exhibit A: A woman who got her master's in public administration from NYU two years ago still remains unemployed to date, and takes the degree off her resume when she applies for waitressing jobs.
  • Exhibit B: A man who got his law degree two years ago from Michigan State has yet to find a job besides a short stint at AmeriCorps, and is being financially supported in part by his fiancee and her family.

I wonder what happened to the young graduates profiled in the New York Times article I wrote about here - the ones who were "holding out for the perfect job." It seems that even fewer companies were hiring this year than last, and it is all to Lehigh students' credit that many have jobs by now. I truly believe that the old way to look for jobs (send your resume, hope that someone likes it) is slowly disappearing. Instead, two trends are emerging:

  1. Companies recruit by hiring interns, i.e., people they have had the opportunity to observe at work before they make them an offer. Students who have done co-ops should be particularly well-positioned to take advantage of that trend. Sadly, few college students use this opportunity because it makes graduating with their class more challenging. (They have to take classes over the summer to compensate for not being on campus one semester of the regular academic year.) On the other hand, some unscrupulous companies might use co-ops or even unpaid internships to avoid hiring; they have little incentive to upgrade interns' work status if graduates cannot use a competing offer for leverage.
  2. As the author of "What color is your parachute?" likes to repeat, the best way to get a job is to let people know you're looking and have them create the position for you. This is the "pull" approach to hiring, as opposed to the traditional "push". (Click here for more on the push-pull strategy in inventory management.) This assumes you have a network of people who can help "pull" you into their company. While it is easy to focus on cases where this strategy is abused (think of the CEO's daughter who is hired for a position she is not qualified for), this is also the best possible sequel to Point 1: someone values the skills of this or that person enough to help her be recruited by his company. Recent graduates might have a difficult time implementing this strategy, since they have not had enough work experience to build concrete expertise, but they can use the alumni network of their alma mater to help them. People are often willing to share advice and put students in contact with recruiters they know.

Most interesting I thought was the emphasis on holders of advanced degrees: people who made a bet that going back to school and incurring more student loans would pay off. Master's degrees are the cash cows of academia, since universities provide little funding for these students (undergraduates receive financial aid, doctoral students research or teaching assistantships), and universities do have a financial incentive to convince students to return to school for a Master degree, although the people who make the admission decisions are - thankfully - more preoccupied with the quality of the incoming class.

I do think a Master degree in a field related to students' college degree is an excellent investment that will help them fast-track their career. (Everything else being equal, it makes sense for companies to give Master holders more senior positions with more responsibilities more quickly.) But recent graduates unhappy with their work situation often think of a Master degree as the way to put their career path on a better trajectory, and the whole self-help industry is built on convincing people to change their lives. Radical change is often more seductive than incremental one, because people who feel stuck and dissatisfied can immediately see the difference, but that approach will not necessarily yield the best results in the long term.

I am reminded of a graduate who took my senior elective when he was at Lehigh and, mere months after taking a job, contacted me first to see if I could write him a recommendation letter for a MBA program and then, once he realized most MBA programs now require several years of experience he didn't yet have, a recommendation letter for a Master program that had nothing at all to do with his training. We are talking about a Master degree really off the beaten path there, something narrow and specialized, four months or so after he had graduated from college and two months after he had talked about getting a very different advanced degree.

I emailed him that, although I was willing to recommend him to the off-the-beaten-path Master program and would write a strong letter, he might want to re-consider. (I doubt my email thrilled him. What can I say... I say what I think.) That Master was so different from the rest of his education that he would really have to make it work; he would not be able to change directions again before getting his MBA, which meant at least two years in the narrow specialized field, after less than a year in his first job - something that never looks good on a resume - and I did not feel he had taken the time to contact people in that industry to figure out whether he would like the reality of the new job, not just some idealized version he had in his head. It'd have been easy to reply "sure, I'll write you a letter" and go back to the other things I have to do, of which there are many, but him enrolling in that program would have been a monumental mistake. He ended up changing jobs two or three months after I sent him that last email and now works at a better company in a better position that is related to his college degree. When I recently heard from him, he was very happy and doing a great job. Sometimes applying to Master programs is the easy way out but it is not always the best way.

The New York Times also ran an article recently about overqualified people who are just glad to have a job - the former financial analyst with a MBA from a top school who is now doing claims for a moving company ("The posting for his job had specified “bachelor’s degree preferred but not required.”"), "the former chief financial officer working as comptroller, the onetime marketing director who is back to being an analyst." The article steers clear of sensationalism and high-flyers turned greeters at Wal-Mart, and emphasizes instead the positive aspects for small companies that are "benefiting from an influx of talent it probably never would have been able to attract in a better economic climate." The article also gives tips to help keep overqualified workers, such as providing them with a lot of flexibility, and briefly touches upon the future for these employees and "how long simply having a job will be enough".

I'll end with a dark-humor joke I found in a recent Economist (Laid-off lawyers, cast-off consultants, January 21, 2010)

Q: What do you say to a recent law-school graduate?

(I'll let you think for a second...)

A: A skinny double-shot latte to go, please.

Unintended Consequences

I've just read a fascinating article in Vanity Fair about the unintended impact of the 1987 movie Wall Street. (I first learned about the article, which was written by famous author Michael Lewis, on the Nanopolitan blog.) Director Oliver Stone wanted to "prosecute the values underpinning American capitalism" in his movie and call for change; character Gordon Gekko was supposed to be a "diabolical money manager". Yet, Wall Street financiers love the movie and make its most enthusiastic audience.

Here is a telling excerpt: "Michael Douglas often expresses his astonishment at the many Wall Street males who have sought him out in public places just to say, “Man, I want to tell you, you are the single biggest reason I got into the business. I watched Wall Street, and I wanted to be Gordon Gekko.”" And also: "The character of Gordon Gekko doesn’t really even exist anymore. Or, rather, he has become so ordinary—the hedge-fund manager—that he blends in with the landscape." Ouch. On the second page: "There may in fact have been some naïve and innocent young man still wandering around Wall Street in 2008, but no one will believe it. On Wall Street, youth and innocence have long since divorced." Ouch again. There are more Wall Street jibes in that article (for instance the last paragraph of the second page), but they are best read in context. Please click here to go to the Vanity Fair site.

Interestingly, a sequel will be out in the Fall: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. From the synopsis on the movie website: "Emerging from a lengthy prison stint, Gekko finds himself on the outside of a world he once dominated." IMDb summarizes the plot as follows: "As the global economy teeters on the brink of disaster, a young Wall Street trader partners with disgraced former Wall Street corporate raider Gordon Gekko on a two-tiered mission: To alert the financial community to the coming doom, and to find out who was responsible for the death of the young trader's mentor." We'll have to wait until September for the answers.

Choosing a graduate advisor and program

The following links offer excellent advice about selecting graduate programs and advisors, a timely topic this time of year (thanks to the Nanopolitan blog for the pointers):

To complement their posts, I want to emphasize that you don't really have good advisors - instead, you have good student-advisor relationships. By the same token, you occasionally have bad advisors, but often you have bad student-advisor relationships. While some advisors certainly are more successful than others in helping their students develop, it should not obscure the fact that what represents a good relationship for one student might be awful for another; in addition, some will thrive in an environment where others falter. They should recognize their strengths and find the advisor who can make the best use of these skills.

An old Nanopolitan post describes the "advisor from hell", who inflicted verbal abuse on his post-doc and tried to hurt his career. The post-doc ultimately realized the relationship was not salvageable and moved on, but that was obviously a very difficult decision to make.

To summarize (using my own insights and the posts above), here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Job prospects after graduation, especially in academia, heavily depend on the name of the university you get your PhD from (and the university where you do your post-doc, if applicable), the ranking of the department, and the recommendation letters your committee members will write for you.
  2. Everything else being equal, an advisor with a strong record of supporting students through Research Assistantships is better than an advisor with a strong record of supporting students through Teaching Assistantships. That's because you want time to do research. Being a TA a few times is a wonderful experience if you want an academic position down the road, but it is also very time-consuming.
  3. Some advisors want to meet with their students almost every day, others every few weeks, others once a week. Make sure that your advisor's habits match what you are comfortable with. Ideally, your advisor should be open to meeting at least once a week if you are getting started in your research, and a little less often as you become more senior and develop independent-thinking skills.
  4. An advisor with lots of students might produce a lot of attention-generating papers, but he might also be short on time to spend with each student individually.
  5. Everything else being equal, you should avoid working for an advisor whose students take much longer than the department average to graduate. You should also look into the jobs the students accepted after graduation, especially industry vs academia.
  6. Failure is no fun. If a department has a history of failing many graduate students at the qualifying exam, you want to know that before you accept the offer. You don't want to start the process again somewhere else. Besides, often students who fail the exam do not want to start again from scratch elsewhere and will simply change career paths, but they might have been outstanding researchers if they had joined another institution.
  7. Don't choose a program based on a single faculty member. He might decide not to fund you or he might leave. Make sure you have a backup plan if the person you want to work with is not available.
  8. If there is a faculty member you're interested in working with and you're already on campus (for instance in the Master program), try to take his or her classes so that he/she can see your worth first-hand. Plenty of students with excellent undergraduate transcripts end up being disappointments because they cannot adjust to graduate-level work. But also, students who look average on paper sometimes end up as success stories.
  9. Ask students what they think and ask professors about their advising style, but be aware that people might have an agenda.
  10. Don't forget you're in this for the long run. You need to maintain a good working relationship with your advisor for four to five years, while many of the friendships you make will ebb and flow and sometimes fade. Pick an advisor you can see yourself working with - not just someone whose name will look good on your CV.  
  11. Understand most advisors do the best they can, and you're only aware of a tiny part of what they're doing (writing grant proposals, attending committee meetings, preparing lectures, editing their students' papers, etc). They're not trained in how to advise students - often they only have the example of their PhD advisor (or possibly their post-doc supervisor) to provide inspiration and develop their own advising style by trial and error. Be willing not to take things personally.

Manufacturing Musings

The April issue of Dwell has an insightful dossier on manufacturing, with some hints of material science and civil engineering thrown in. Unfortunately, that dossier is not available online, but here are a few highlights, which will appeal to my engineering-trained readers.

Manufacturing 101 - Done wrong and done right (p.114). Drywall is due to an ex-Navy engineer named Augustine Sackett, who obtained a patent in 1894 for this invention that eliminates the need to wait for weeks for plaster to set. His invention became really popular after World War II and the postwar building boom, which led to the construction of inexpensive houses using assembly-line techniques and gypsum wallboard, "a linear descendant of Sackett's invention."

The problem is that, to make drywall out of gypsum, manufacturers must remove its water molecules in a process that "also produces copious amounts of CO2 and water vapor, both greenhouse gases." Another step later in the process produces even more CO2 and water vapor. Did you know that "nearly one-eighth of the man-made CO2 in our atmosphere comes from the creation of building materials like cement, glass, concrete and drywall"? 

Thankfully, a company called Serious Materials has come with a solution, and a material it calls the EcoRock drywall. (From the company website: "The only termite-resistant drywall. The highest mold-resistant drywall in the industry." and "EcoRock uses 80% less energy to produce than gypsum drywall.") Its idea is to "tak[e] the leftovers of other manufacturing processes," primarily slag, a leftover product during glass or steel manufacturing. According to the CEO, "EcoRock cooks itself and dries itself." The journalist explains that "the mixture of materials results in a chemical reaction that gives off enough heat to drive the water out [the process that used to generate CO2 and water vapor] and bind the slag particles together." (Also see this page about EcoRock on Popular Science.) EcoRock is an exciting development in the quest to decrease greenhouse gases.

Absolutely Fabricated. (p.118) The suggestions of a few "movers and makers" on the future of manufacturing include 3-D desktop printers, but also, more broadly, the customization of some products (people will create and build their own designs, avoiding factory-made items such as chairs) and the made-to-order factory manufacturing of modular houses because "there are fewer qualified tradesmen coming along, and young people are less interested in working in the trades", which will increase the price of hand-built houses and make them affordable to only a slice of the population. I would guess that the shipping costs involved in prefab are sizable (the report takes care to dispel the notion that a prefab is much cheaper than a "regular" house), this could be a way to sustain manufacturing in the US.  

Prefab in the Desert. I also enjoyed the feature "Dwellings: Plan of Steels" (which you can read online) in part because of the engineering challenges raised by building a structure in the California desert:

  • "if [wood] isn't handled perfectly, arid conditions turn it into a pretzel," so the owners ended up selecting a modular steel structure. ("In technical terms, the steel framing system... is a mezzanine system, with a point-loaded, bidirectional, moment-resisting frame made of cold-formed, light-gauge galvanized steel manufactured by ASC Profiles in Sacramento, California. It’s strong in two directions, resists twisting or bending, and won’t rust." I wish I could explain all the technical terms, but I can't. The only thing that I remember from my solid mechanics course in college is that we wrote a ton of obscure equations that seemed to have no application whatsoever. The Blue Sky Home website - Blue Sky being the company that created the house in the desert - has more information, but it is also geared toward the engineering professional.)
  • The thermal properties of steel created their own set of challenges: "It can burn wicked hot in the desert sun before turning searingly cold on a frosty desert night. The conductive properties of steel tend to amplify whatever’s happening outdoors inside the house... A Pennsylvania firm, Accelerated Building Technologies, created a channel system through the foam that forces hot and cold temperatures to follow a zigzag path along metal pieces embedded in the insulation, thus deadening its effect on the interior temperatures." This would make for a great thermodynamics lecture.

Manufacturing and the Aging Workforce. Since the post is on manufacturing, I'll take this opportunity to mention a great article in the March issue of Harvard Business Review, on How BMW is defusing the demographic time bomb. BMW thought about ways to address the aging of its workforce in one of its German plants, aging which - it seemed - would spearhead a decline in productivity. Researchers staffed a production line using the expected staff mix of employees in 2017 as guidance, including an average age of workers on the test production line of 47 rather than the current plant average of 39. By making some simple changes suggested by the workers, for a total of 40,000 euros (pennies on BMW's standards), "the line achieved a 7% productivity improvement in one year, equaling the productivity of lines staffed by younger workers." These changes included putting wooden flooring to reduce knee strain and exposure to static electricity jolt, orthopedic footwear, magnifying lenses and manual hoisting cranes. The line also increased output and reduced defect rates as well as absenteeism.

Drying hands using air pressure alone. In the same vein of saving energy that motivated the creators of EcoRock, the March issue of Dwell has a short feature on Dyson Airblade, the hand-dryer that has become ubiquitous in public restrooms. (Again, it is not available online.) What is fascinating there is that the Dyson digital motor (DDM) that is key to the hand dryer was initially "developed to make small vacuum cleaners for the Japanese market", and the engineers were looking for new ways to use their invention. Their ideas weren't working, until "someone's hands happened to be wet and the air knife dried them brilliantly." The rest, as they say, is history. The article includes sections on prototyping and manufacturing. Click here for more information on how the Dyson airblade(TM) technology works, including videos from the company's media center.

Also, since the blog is three years old today, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my readers for helping make my blog a success! Thank you!

The Innovation Market

The March issue of Harvard Business Review has a fascinating article on creating an innovation market ("An industry dedicated to financing inventors and monetizing their creations could transform the world"), written by Nathan Myhrvold, who is a former Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft and is now the CEO and a co-founder of Intellectual Ventures.

The article begins as follows: "My company, Intellectual Ventures, is misunderstood. We have been reviled as a patent troll - a renegade outfit that buys up patents and then uses them to hold up innocent companies." I thought that was an interesting way to start, because some people might not have heard of Myhrvold or his company before reading the article, and the image of a patent troll is not what a CEO should give first-thing to readers, even if it is to deny it.

The article struck me as really long (nine full pages plus a paragraph). Here are the main themes:

  1. "Charity is not enough". "At universities and government agencies that fund academic research, patents typically don't enter into tenure or grant decisions... [Research grants are awarded] without any expectation of a financial return. In other words, research grants are gifts, not investments". Myhrvold points out an "overdependence on government funding", which is compounded by the fact that federal funding is more and more aimed at life sciences rather than "areas that produce a greater proportion of fruitful inventions - such as the physical and information sciences."
  2. Risks can be managed by building "a diversified portfolio of tens of thousands of inventions that span a wide range of technologies." In addition, patents need to be given "the respect they deserve." The issue there, Myhrvold argues, is cultural rather than financial. He writes: "When I'm attacked as a patent troll, it's usually by people from these special interest groups, who don't feel they have to respect others' patents." (His opinion there is sure to antagonize some people.)
  3. Myhrvold hopes to build a professional industry commercializing innovation but recognizes the industry will need to achieve a critical mass of key players. His strategy is to create inventions from scratch, cultivate an inventors' network and invest in existing inventions. One interesting suggestion he has to turn inventions into money is to create patent-backed securities, although I am not completely clear how that would work.
Myhrvold's article should be a valuable read for anyone interested in innovation. Not all the ideas he mentions will come to pass, but he makes good points, especially regarding the dependence on federal funding.

The Economist has also written about Myhrvold recently, because of Bill Gates's support for a type of nuclear reactor Myhrvold's company is developing, which "eliminates the need to enrich uranium" and "could vastly reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation" - quotes are from the HBR article, which mentions it too. What is most interesting about the Economist article is that the journalist had the time to read Myhrvold's essay before handing in his copy, and is therefore able to comment on it, referring for instance to quotes by Amar Bhide, who wrote The Venturesome Economy, now out in paperback. (Bhide "compares invention to writing a book: imagine if authors had to buy intellectual-property rights for every idea that they referred to in their work, rather than simply acknowledging it in a footnote.") While Myhrvold is apparently a controversial figure, people seem to agree the patent review system needs to be reformed.

The comments on the Economist site also make for a good read. I thought the one made by "perguntador" particularly interesting (and I have not had a chance to verify his claim, so it might not be accurate - he does mention an old article in the New Yorker that he says would back him up) - he points out that , if his recollection is correct, "mr.Myhrvold was a senior partner and strategist in Bill Gates' Big Plan That Backfired - his attempt to privatize Internet back when the World Wide Web was in its infancy. In their view, an open, free Web was a thing which only made sense to hippies and dreamers. So they began to draw plans to create a World Wide Web under commercial control - by Microsoft, of course." You can read his comment in full on the Economist's website.

The New York Times wrote about Myhrvold last month, with a blog post addendum here. That article describes Intellectual Ventures as "a secretive $5 billion investment firm that has scooped up 30,000 patents." After describing Myhrvold from the viewpoint of his admirers, the journalist adds: "His detractors see a cynical operator deploying his bulging patent trove as a powerful bargaining chip, along with the implied threat of costly litigation, to prod high-tech companies to pay him lucrative fees. They call his company “Intellectual Vultures.”"

The NYT has also been given access to Myhrvold's HBR article, which it says is 7,000 words long (I am not surprised). It has interviewed Myhrvold and gives his views considerable space, in an attempt to provide a balanced attempt of the situation. On the other hand, the journalist does not shy away from, at times, putting Myhrvold in a negative light. "Lawyers call such firms [that hold patents, but do not make products] nonpracticing entities, NPEs, though they are often labeled as patent trolls." Also: "Several analysts say that Intellectual Ventures has been primarily a master practitioner of exploiting the current rules of the game to its advantage. Many companies in the patent field use shell companies to mask their activities, and Intellectual Ventures seems to employ them with uncommon frequency." (The blog post has more information on the use of shell companies.)

The question this all raises for me is whether the Myhrvold HBR essay should have been tagged as "special advertising section", which HBR does in other parts of the magazine (or "column" or "personal essay"), and whether the publication of such a one-sided self-serving article - admittedly a very interesting and well-written one - by a controversial figure could hurt HBR's reputation and credibility among business professionals.

The Perils of Academic Book Reviews

Reviewing academic books does not exactly sound like an extreme sport. Publishing such reviews hardly qualifies as a thrill-seeking adventure. Yet the editor-in-chief of The European Journal of International Law has found himself at the center of a controversy - and now of a lawsuit - after he refused to withdraw the review of an academic book that the book's author took issue with. (Many thanks to the author of the Nanopolitan blog for providing this link describing the main facts of the saga.) 

You can download the editor-in-chief's lengthy editorial here. He writes on p.1: "On 25 June 2010 I will stand trial before a Paris Criminal Tribunal for refusing to remove a book review written by a distinguished academic to which, however, the author of the book took exception." (The book in question, in case you are wondering, is called The Trial Proceedings of the International Criminal Court. ICTY and ICTR Precedents.) The editor-in-chief also provides his detailed answer to the book author's letter from p.3 to p.6 of the editorial, in which he makes what seems to be very reasonable points arguing that the reviewer, although critical of the book, did not write deliberate misrepresentations, in contrast with the book author's claim that the review "contains false factual statements which the author... could not reasonably believe to be true." The editor-in-chief also suggests that the book author write a comment, to appear online at the bottom of the review, expressing her disagreements with the reviewer. This sounded like a good solution, protecting the reviewer's right to dislike the book while giving the author the opportunity to answer.

The author, instead, chose to take legal action. It turns out that in libel cases in France (and I am not exactly sure what role France plays in this story, but I guess one of the protagonists lives there), "all investigations of the merits of the case are exclusively reserved for the Criminal Court itself and, therefore, as a direct consequence of the complaint being filed, it was necessary that [the editor-in-chief] be referred to the Court for trial." Since he did not even write the review, this must be a worrisome prospect, in particular because of the "heavy financial burden of defending [oneself in] such a case", but he continues to believe that "removing the review... would have dealt a very serious blow to notions of freedom of speech." The fact that the case involves scholars from the legal profession, who should be well-acquainted with freedom of speech and its ramifications, gives this story a kafkaesque quality. 

The editor-in-chief ends with an appeal for assistance, which you can read on p.9. He is particularly interested in letters from editors of legal and non-legal academic journals (a) expressing their views of the case and/or (b) providing copies of reviews that are as critical as (or more critical than) the book review because of which he will now stand trial, "so as to illustrate [this] review is mainstream and unexceptional." The email address to send this documentation to is: EJIL.academicfreedom "at"