Science Careers Blog

April 2009

Elisabeth Pain's article in Science Careers last week about professional service explained how many academic scientists consider it, at best, a necessary evil. Here's a story that will give you a good reason to make mentoring school children and other service to the community a bigger part of your academic life.

The University of Florida's medical school witnessed a new surgical technique last week that simplifies sutures and reduces complications from hysterectomies. What made this demonstration notable, aside from its medical substance, was the fact that the procedure was developed by a 14 year-old middle-school student.

Tony Hansbury II is a student at Darnell-Cookman Middle/High School in Jacksonville, Florida, a magnet school with a focus on medical studies. Hansbury, whose mother is a registered nurse, learned the basics of suturing in his 8th grade classes at Darnell-Cookman, and last summer he interned at University of Florida's Center for Simulation Education and Safety Research, also in Jacksonville.

Bruce Nappi, the center's administrative director and an MIT-trained engineer, noticed Hansbury's enthusiasm and encouraged him to explore topics he found interesting. One of those areas was the center's surgical lab.

During the internship, an OB/GYN professor asked Nappi and Hansbury to solve a vexing problem involving the use of a new tool to ease the sewing up hysterectomy patients. The use of the tool, called an endo stitch, had stumped expert surgeons, who apparently could not get it to work properly. But Hansbury, working independently, discovered a way of using the tool that was both simple and effective. With no surgical training other than what he picked up in his classes and as an intern, Hansbury was able to triple the speed of the endo stitch.

On 24 April, Hansbury demonstrated the technique as part of the university's medical education week. The audience included many board-certified surgeons, some with practices running longer than Hansbury's young life.

Makes you want to run out and start mentoring, doesn't it?

Hat tip: Daily Kos

Portugal has added Harvard Medical School to the list of American universities it collaborates with extensively.

On 27 April, Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Portuguese Ministry of Science, Technology, and Higher Education announced a long-term collaboration in translational research and education. The HMS-Portugal Program, to be launched officially on 21 May, will fund 12 collaborative translational and clinical research projects, streamline postgraduate medical training in Portugal, and provide career development awards to Portuguese M.D. trainees.

The overall aim of the new program is to "help populate Portuguese research institutions with an increasingly sophisticated clinical and translational research capacity, and to expand the rate and quality of Portuguese clinical and translational research contributions to the international community. The program is also designed to foster longlasting collaborative ventures, both within Portugal and between Portuguese and Harvard research groups," the press release states.

The HMS-Portugal program is part of a broader initiative launched in 2006 by the Portuguese government to give a boost to the country's research and education capacity. Already, similar programs exist between Portugal and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the University of Texas, Austin (UT Austin).

To get a glimpse of what it's like to be involved in one of these programs, from both sides, read former Science intern Sara Coehlo's article on Science Careers.

To get ahead in industry, "confidence is everything," says Ruth McKernan, chief scientific officer of Pfizer's new Regenerative Medicine Unit in Cambridge, England. McKernan spoke yesterday at a meeting of the Cambridge Association of Women in Science and Engineering.

 McKernan began her career with joint honors biochemistry and pharmacology, followed by a Ph.D. in molecular neuroscience. After a much enjoyed postdoc at the University of California in San Diego -- "I had a great time. I learned to surf" -- she settled into a job at Merck's former neuroscience research center in Harlow, England. She became the center's head 17 years later. In 2005, she moved to Pfizer, eventually helping launch the Pfizer Regenerative Medicine Unit in November 2008.

 Moving into industry can be a daunting prospect for Ph.D.s and postdocs, but it's not as foreign as you might think, McKernan says. You'll have to give presentations often, and much of the time you'll be working on collaborations with industrial and academic partners, "so you need to be a good communicator."

Industry research is well-funded, but you'll be working on projects that benefit the company, rather than focusing on your pet topic. "If [for example] you are totally passionate about protein structure, and that's all you ever want to study, then this is not the job for you," McKernan explains. But if you are passionate about science in a broader sense, or about making medicines, it could prove a good personal career move.

One huge contrast between academia and industry is the corporate aspect. "There is a different way of encouraging people in industry compared with academia," McKernan says. "You will be evaluated against your peers every year. Money will be used to label your performance in a way you won't have experienced before." This can be intimidating. But it means you'll know when you're doing a good job, she adds.

However, don't get too caught up in the rivalry, McKernan cautions. Don't view everyone as a competitor. Instead focus on what they can bring to your team. That's the guidance she received from a mentor in her early career and it has proved useful. "They don't have to be your best friend, but your competitors may be your partners somewhere down the line. So don't burn your bridges."

So how do you to make that first leap into industry? "Contacts," McKernan stresses. If you send your resume to the recruitment department, chances are it'll get lost in the pile. "Get names and contact details," she says. "Go to meetings and find out who in industry is working in you field."

Once you get to the interview stage, make sure you know your skills, she advises. There will be technical questions about your research, and employers will be looking to see how well you can apply this knowledge. Accentuate your positives, be confident, but be honest about what you can do. "If you come across as smart, flexible, and easy to work with, that will trade off with a lack of wholly specific skills," McKernan says. "If all else fails, pretend to be someone else," she quips: Think of a confident person you admire and try to emulate them. "I often think, what would Susan Greenfield do?"

Prior to the 27 April deadline for the NIH Challenge Grants--the main grant program resulting from the economic stimulus act--program officers and research administrators were predicting a huge volume of proposals, perhaps enough to destabilize, the federal government's already creaky electronic grant-submission system.

The proposal volume does seem to have been impressive. A research administrator at a major cancer-research center reported that her facility had submitted  64 proposals a full week before the deadline, with more to follow. Arizona State University reportedly filed more than 150 before the deadline.

As the 27 April deadline approached, some research administrators--who have already been encountering errors with the electronic submission system--predicted that would crash and burn under the huge load.  Some administrators suggested, half in jest, that some of the stimulus funds should be used to upgrade, or replace,

But today, 2 days past the deadline, disaster seems to have been averted. did, reportedly, go down at least once, but there wasn't much damage and the site was back up quickly.

Most administrators agree that things went more smoothly than they had feared. "I was pleasantly surprised by the relative ease with which I could submit my Challenge proposals," writes one research administrator. Another writes, "We submitted several over the course of the day, with the last one submitted at what should have been the worst time: 4:50 PM EST. In every case the submissions went through quickly and smoothly, with rapid email confirmation of receipt," writes another.

Not everyone was so lucky.  Some problems were reported as the deadline approached. "We had only one that was really at the wire and I sat and submitted over and over from 3:30 until 5 with no success," writes a third research admin. "I tried the tricks...--nothing worked." There were also complaints about unclear or contradictory instructions. There was also some confusion over which budget form to use, NIH says, and there were some false errors over DUNS numbers.

Despite the absence of major problems, some administrators and PI's remain nervous. That's because they haven't yet received the e-mail "validation" NIH sends out confirming successful submission. NIH anticipated this; the normal "window" for sending out these notices is 48 hours, but last Friday NIH announced it was extending that window to 5 days in anticipation of the large proposal volume. But not everyone got the word.  And until those emails are received, there's no guarantee that the proposals have made it through the final hoop, and PI's and research administrators may not sleep soundly.

Update, 30 April. Yesterday I asked NIH for information on the total volume of applications received in response to the Challenge Grant solicitation. This morning I got a response: It's too soon to tell, so call back in a week or two.

Essential Reading: What You Need to Know about Electronic R01 Submissions.

Earlier this month, we commented on an article that describes how private foundations serve as a source of funds for research, particularly family foundations that focus on specific diseases. Last week, a study released by the Foundation Center tells how private foundations are able to keep going during these tough times.

The Foundation Center surveyed some 5,000 private American foundations earlier this year and got more than 1,200 responses. The findings show the recession hitting foundations hard: Nearly two-third (63%) of the respondents expect to reduce the number of grants they award, with nearly half (44%) anticipating a reduction in multi-year grants, the kind often awarded for research. Larger foundations--those giving $10 million a year or more--are not cutting back quite as much as the smaller funders. About 4 in 10 of the larger foundations are reducing the total number of grants and the number of multi-year grants.

The good news is the vast majority of foundations (8 in 10) intend to maintain their programs, albeit at lower levels.  The study shows that despite the cutbacks, foundations are taking bold--and some might say risky--steps to keep their programs going. Nearly 4 in 10 foundations (39%) expect to dip into their endowments for grantmaking; in a typical year foundations use the investment income from those endowments to fund their grants, preserving or increasing their endowments.  A few foundations expect to make up some of the shortfall through new gifts from donors (17%), and by dipping into discretionary funds (13%) or reserve funds (9%).

Coping with the crisis means finding ways of achieving their missions in ways other than handing out money. About a third (32%) of the respondents, and nearly half (44%) of the larger foundations, say they had made changes in their operations to enable them to weather the current storm.  One of those strategies is a shift to non-grant activity. More than half (54%) of the respondents say they are engaging in more non-grant projects as a result of the economic crisis, such as partnerships and collaborations, and advocacy.

Another survival strategy, as one would expect, is cutting costs. Nearly 1 in 10 foundations say they cut staff and other administrative expenses.

Eve Tahmincioglu, MSNBC's career columnist, has a decidedly downbeat story today about job fairs. She reports that many professional and technical attendees at these events find themselves waiting in long lines only to discover that few employers are really hiring.

Just the words "job fair" or "career fair" suggest an abundance of potential employers and potential jobs, and that idea seems to attract huge numbers of job seekers. One job fair at Rancho Cucamonga, California, earlier this month attracted four times the expected number of attendees, forcing police to turn away others who wanted to attend the event.

Tahmincioglu says that in today's brutal job market few companies have jobs to offer, including the ones that set up at a job fair. She notes that many employers participate in job fairs today for promotional purposes or as a form of community outreach--not necessarily to fill job openings. Other employers use job fairs to get information on future job applicants, to have candidates in the pipeline when the economy improves and hiring starts.

None of that, of course, helps unemployed workers immediately needing a job. Tahmincioglu tells of job fair attendees who were surprised to discover the companies would not even take their resumes when offered. She found that many companies prefer receiving resumes online so that they can be managed electronically.

(Memo to employers at job fairs: If you don't want to sort through a pile of paper, why not take electronic resumes at a job fair on flash-memory drives, or from laptops and smart-phones over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth?)

As Dave Jensen points out in his February Tooling Up column, in today's tough job market, you have to do much more than attend job fairs. You need to combine job fairs with the other job-search tools: informational interviewing, networking, responding to employment ads, and headhunters. "You've got to have all the bases covered," says Jensen.

Tahmincioglu quotes recruiter Jay Meschke who says you need to do your homework before going to a job fair: "Find out who's attending the fair, whether those employers are really looking to fill positions and what type of jobs they are looking to fill." For scientists and engineers, there are some career fairs, such as the European Career Fair at MIT, that are regular annual events and include seminars and sessions with employers arranged in advance. These events will likely have better opportunities than the general job fairs hastily arranged in suburban hotel ballrooms.

And if you attend a career fair, know what to do before, during, and after the event. Even if you do not find employers hiring right away, you can still make good contacts in the companies and learn about their future plans. You may not get a job at the job fair, but it can still be worth your time.

Eurodoc, the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers, is conducting an online survey of the working conditions of doctoral researchers in Europe.

A collaboration with the International Centre for Higher Education Research at the University of Kassel in Germany, the survey aims to gather the testimony of 100,000 doctoral researchers all over Europe. Answering the survey will take about half an hour of your time, and you may do so until 31 May 2009 (the original 30 April deadline has now be extended).

Set up in 2002 with the mission of representing doctoral researchers in Europe, Eurodoc aims to use these data to further improve the training and research conditions of doctoral researchers in Europe.

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a bill yesterday that would create a Science Envoy program in the U.S. State Department. If the bill comes law, Science Envoys would be established scientists who receive grants for short-term visits abroad to help build links between U.S. academic and scientific institutions and their international counterparts.

Science Envoys, says Lugar in a statement released by his office, "will be recognized world leaders in their fields of expertise and will demonstrate that the United States is serious about engaging other nations in issues of mutual benefit and concern in science and research."  Lugar adds, "Science and technology provide non-controversial avenues through which we can build relationships that will strengthen not only our institutions, but foster greater understanding between our nation and the rest of the world."

According to a draft of the legislation (S.838), scientists in the program would be selected by the Secretary of State, but the program itself would be run by the Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

UPDATE, 6 May 2009: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Science Envoys legislation that now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

April 21, 2009

Difficult Accents

In the Society for Science & the Public's ScienceNews blog, Janet Raloff puts her finger on an issue that may at first seem minor and not politically correct, but is nonetheless important.

Raloff refers to how strong foreign accents can make it difficult for talented and actually articulate scientists to communicate effectively. At a recent international conference, "while I could understand most of what was spoken during the majority of presentations, there were a few that I just couldn't fathom, no matter how hard I tried," she writes. "The presenters I'm referring to are smart. They've done clever work. And now they're trying to share their findings with the world. Except that their non-native inflections erase any chance of the audience following more than what's on their PowerPoint pages." This can advance neither science nor their reputation, she adds.

That's a tricky issue. As a non-native English speaker pointed out in a feedback comment, foreign speakers are already making a significant effort to speak in another language. So in return "it will be very reasonable that native English speaking people shall be wider in their interpretation of our language mistakes," the reader says. As a non-native English speaker myself, I agree that sometimes a greater comprehension and exposure of native speakers to foreign accents would help. But you cannot count only on that.  

Raloff sees getting someone else to talk for you while you are perfecting your accent as a possible solution. "Sometimes it might be as simple as handing a typed paper to another person to read or asking a colleague to describe what you've done," she wrote in reply. "The goal should be to minimize confusion and mistakes -- and to help people get appropriate credit for their research accomplishments."

In my view, it might be a short-term solution, but it's unlikely that one will be able to progress that way. If you live in an English-speaking country, after a while your accent should start improving. But if you are based in another country, international conferences will often be the only setting you have to speak in English yourself.

Raloff also suggested giving a written hand-out of your talk to the audience, and this seems a better option to me. In another feedback comment, a native English speaker who often gives talks in foreign languages also recommended paying greater attention to preparing slides.

Perhaps another solution, provided you have some native English-speaking colleagues or friends, would be to ask them for their honest feedback and a little bit of help with the pronunciation.  

On Sunday (19 April), Fortune magazine unveiled this year's list of the 500 largest corporations in the United States. While most news headlines talked of Exxon-Mobil edging out Wal-Mart for the top spot, Fortune did identify which companies among the top 100 on the list are still hiring, including some enterprises looking for engineers and scientists.

Many of the technology companies, according to Fortune, are hiring engineers; among them are Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Motorola. A few defense and aerospace contractors are also hiring engineers: Boeing, Northrop-Grumman, and General Dynamics. Johnson Controls, a manufacturer of components for automotive, construction, and power systems says it has 750 openings, most of which are related to energy efficiency.

For scientific jobs, the pharmaceutical company Abbot Laboratories has openings in clinical research and hospital operator HCA is hiring clinical technicians. Even the job market for "quants" in the financial services industry, once a leading alternative career for scientists, may be picking up again. The Fortune list of hiring companies includes Prudential Financial seeking help in market research and analysis, and auto/home lender GMAC with openings in "finance, compliance, risk and treasury."

Following a recent meeting in the Czech Republic, the European University Association (EUA) has released a new strategy to successfully face global challenges. Out of the 10 measures outlined in the new EUA Prague Declaration, 4 are directly relevant to students and young researchers.  


In particular, the EUA pledges to widen opportunities for higher education; to provide study programmes that are innovative and relevant in today's rapidly-changing job market; to improve research careers by giving postdocs more independence and making recruitment and promotion procedures more transparent; and to provide students and university staff with more and better opportunities for mobility between sectors and institutions.


The EUA is also holding out for a major investment in Europe similar to the recent U.S. economic stimulus package, which supports research, students, and families struggling to pay for higher education. "Europe must not sacrifice a generation of young researchers: a Europe-wide stimulus programme is needed to create opportunities and incentives to maintain young researchers across the continent in research careers," the EUA Prague Declaration also states.


It seems young researchers would have everything to gain from it. "In return, as universities, we commit to enhancing career opportunities for young researchers and to ensuring implementation of the issues addressed by the European Commission's Charter for Researchers and Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers."


If, that is, the measures become concrete ones. The declaration will be presented to 46 education ministers at the Bologna Process Ministerial Summit on 29 April.

Ric Weibl, director of the Center for Careers in Science and Technology in AAAS (publisher of Science Careers), tells us of SACNAS's Summer Leadership Institute, which will be held 28 July - 1 August at AAAS's offices in Washington DC.

SACNAS, an organization devoted to advancing opportunities for Hispanic and Native American scientsts, offers this training to underrepresented minority scientists interested in building their leadership skills. The institute also intends to establish and support a network of leadership-minded scientists and provide participants with take-away tools and individual planning to put their skills into practice at their home institutions. SACNAS designed this intensive 5-day course together with AAAS and includes topics such as team building, decision-making, delegation, conflict management and resolution, and building a personal leadership-development plan.   
SACNAS has funding to support registration, travel, lodging, and meals for some participants. Postdocs and professionals are encouraged to apply by the 15 May deadline. Additional information and application materials are available on the SACNAS Web site.
The Scientist this week has an article about private foundations as a source of research funding. With all the recent talk science depending on government largess, and the consequences of that funding, this piece shows that there are other ways of getting your research funded, particularly in the life sciences.

Author Carol Milano tells about foundations that fund research focusing on particular illnesses or classes of illnesses. While some foundations have familiar names like Lance Armstrong and Michael J. Fox, many smaller family foundations were also formed to fund research, often in commemoration of family members afflicted with those diseases. Milano talks about one such foundation, Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer, which has given some $19 million for 80 projects in pediatric oncology over the past 10 years.  

Founded by Jay and Liz Scott of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, this foundation was named for their daughter Alexandra (Alex), who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer. At age 4, Alex set up a lemonade stand and raised $2,000 for the hospital where she received her treatments, a practice she continued every year until her death 4 years later.

Like many funders, some small family foundations have suffered the ravages of the recession and, in some cases, fallout from the Bernie Madoff scandal. But Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, according to Milano, has seen an increase in both its resources and applications.

Milano also tells how to find these foundations on the Web, including a list of grant aggregators with our very own GrantsNet among them.

This week, Sheril Kirshenbaum over at The Intersection published a great list of science policy fellowships she assembled with the help of AAAS staff and interns. We wrote about getting into science policy this time last year in the article, "A Matter of Policy," where you can read about several scientists who did policy fellowships. Factoring heavily in both our article and Sheril's summary are the AAAS science and technology policy fellowships. Applications have closed for this year, but definitely bookmark that link and that of any of your professional societies that also offer policy fellowships.

Here in the U.K., I just got an announcement that the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Wellcome Trust are offering 3-month policy internships to Wellcome Trust-funded Ph.D. students. They're offering four internships, one at a time, between September 2009 and September 2010 to basic biomedical students in their third or fourth year of their Ph.D. The deadline is April 27, and there's more info here.

The Los Angeles Times reported today that the demand this year for H-1B visas has dropped to such an extent that the U.S. government has extended the deadline for applications through the end of September or until the annual quota is filled. Every year 65,000 temporary visas are available for skilled workers from outside the U.S., but so far employers have applied for only about half (32,500) of them.

In previous years, as reported on this blog, temporary worker visas have been snapped up quickly, particularly by employers in technology-based industries. So, as in previous years, authorities planned a 5-day window during which applications would be accepted, but that period ended on Tuesday with the quota about half full. The L.A. Times says last year American companies filed some 160,000 such applications.

An additional set of H-1B visas, reserved for graduates of American universities with masters degrees or higher, has been largely matched by applications, however. A spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security told the Times that the bureau received nearly 20,000 applications for these visas, almost meeting the annual number allotted.

The severe economic downturn, accompanied by extensive layoffs in companies that would normally apply for H-1B visas, has dampened the demand, says the L.A. Times. Microsoft, for example, told the Times that it planned "substantially fewer H-1B applications" this year. Microsoft announced some 5,000 layoffs in January.

Beryl Benderly reported on Science Careers in January on the controversy surrounding temporary worker visas. She noted that many technology and life-sciences companies say they need high-skilled workers from overseas to make up for the lack of this talent in the U.S. Benderly found several experts who have studied the American science and technology workforce that dispute the companies' argument.

The Science Careers Blog reported last month that recent reports of fraud in the H-1B program, along with most visas last year going to Indian outsourcing companies, have also caused a cooling of Congressional support for raising or eliminating the caps on these visas, as advocated by some companies. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California, who represents the district that includes Silicon Valley, told a press conference at that time that any action on H-1B visas would have to be part of comprehensive immigration reform. The New York Times reports today that President Obama plans to address that issue, as early as next month.

Over the years, many European countries have put in place funding programs that allow early career scientists to do Ph.D.s jointly in academia and industry in an effort to bridge the two worlds. A survey carried out in France suggests that these programs have been effective in helping Ph.D. scientists enter industry. But the survey shows that doing a Ph.D. in partnership with a company may also make it more difficult to find a job in academia.

The survey, which was released by the French National Association for Research and Technology (ANRT), looked at the CIFRE (Convention Industrielle de Formation par la Recherche) program (also run by the ANRT). Since its launch in 1981, the CIFRE program has allowed more than 12,700 students to complete Ph.D.s under the joint supervision of an academic and an industrial supervisor in France, with a completion rate of 87%. 

The survey drew a response rate of 22% and the vast majority (86%) of the responding CIFRE graduates said they had fulfilled their career ambitions.

Ninety-six per cent of the responding CIFRE graduates reported obtaining a job within a year of their graduation. Almost half of them (42%) were recruited by their host company, while 16% continued working in their academic Ph.D. labs. Altogether, about one fifth of them (22%) continued with a postdoc, most often in France.  

At the time of the survey, the majority of the responding graduates worked in a large company (38%) or in a public higher education and research institution (27%). Almost a quarter of them (23%) worked in a small or medium-size company and another 5% were employed in a non-research public institution.

Three quarters of those who obtained their Ph.D.s in the 1980's reported having some managerial responsibilities, and between 20 and 30% of the respondents with most experience reported salaries higher than 60k€. 

Altogether, 40% of the responding graduates had either taken a new position or left for a new employer at least once in their career. In the majority of the cases, this career change occurred in the year following graduation.

"It seems that the doctorate, supported by the CIFRE program, has served the respondents' careers well, significantly at the beginning of their professional careers, with the rapid and relatively durable stabilization of their employment and sector of activity," the ANRT report concludes.

Seventy per cent of the responding graduates felt that doing a Ph.D. under the CIFRE program indeed helped them overcome the misconceptions that industrial employers traditionally have in France. Yet the study also shows that those who chose to come back to academia had a harder time: 40% of the respondents felt their CIFRE Ph.D. closed university doors. Thirty per cent of those who eventually found a job in academia felt it had been a handicap, a feeling that was shared by almost half of the respondents working in industry at the time of the survey.

The data indicate wariness among academic science toward research projects done in partnership with companies, the report says. Consequently some CIFRE graduates may also have been thwarted in their hopes to one day join academia, the report adds. Ultimatelty, if your career goal is to eventually work in academia, a CIFRE Ph.D. may not be the best preparation.  

You can download the full report from the ANRT Web site (in French)

Despite today's dismal employment report, the Wall Street Journal today tells how a few employers are using the current recession as a way to bolster their workforces or get an edge on competitors. Some the companies mentioned in the article are hiring staff with science and engineering backgrounds. They are making sure that those hired during this slump will still be around when the job market improves.

As a result of the current weak market, applicants are flooding the few employers that are still hiring.The pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk A/S, based in Denmark, has seen its revenues jump from sales of a new diabetes drug, which in turn has enabled the company to staff its research facility in Seattle, Washington, which opened in October. Novo Nordisk employs some 27,000 people worldwide including 3,000 in the U.S. The company received 4,000 applications for 80 openings in Seattle. Quoted in the article, a company human-resources manager says that the applicants include former research directors laid off from other companies. Many were highly qualified and willing to work in lower-level jobs.

Some companies fortunate enough to keep hiring are using the opportunity to become better positioned to deal with larger competitors.  Silicon Valley-based software maker Model N told the Journal it plans to add 30-40 employees to its 275 person staff in 2009. The company is focusing its hiring particularly on former workers at larger competitors such as Oracle and SAP AG--companies that have either frozen hiring or are shedding professionals.

Mistakes in hiring are no less costly in a recession than at other times--and making good choices can be hard with so many applicants to choose from. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin expects 1.5 million applications for  20,000 positions anticipated this year. Ken Disken, the company's V.P. for human resources, told the Journal, "We want to make sure they want to come to Lockheed Martin to pursue a career, not a job."

Still, in a companion article Disken noted that Lockheed Martin is still trying to be flexible--to remain able to accommodate what he calls "pop-ups," last-minute applications from recently laid-off workers or graduating seniors who have had their original job offers rescinded.

A study by an Australian management professor suggests that those who surf the Web for fun during working hours--a practice dubbed WILBing (for "Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing")--are on average 9% more productive than those who don't.

Why? The study's author, Brent Coker, of the University of Melbourne, speculates that "Short and unobtrusive breaks, such as a quick surf of the internet, enables the mind to rest itself, leading to a higher total net concentration for a day's work, and as a result, increased productivity." He warns, however, that Web browsing can become an obsession and a great waster of time; his conclusion--that 9% productivity bump--was for workers who spend 20% of less of their time WILBing.

Those who are interested in the idea that leisure improves productivity should also investigate Slack, a book by management consultant Tom DeMarco. "Organizations sometimes become obsessed with efficiency and make themselves so busy that responsiveness and net effectiveness suffer," DeMarco writes. "Tom DeMarco goes after one of the most pervasive and pernicious myths of business -- that humans are efficient the same way machines are. This book will change the way you manage and understand your business," adds ClueTrain Manifesto author David Weinberger.

Hat Tip: Slashdot

April 2, 2009

Mathematical Anxiety

Most first-year students are wary of mathematics and this hurts their career options, a recent study by the Spanish University of Granada suggests.
The study, which looked at 885 first-year students in the health sciences, experimental sciences, technical education, and social sciences at the University of Granada, found that 6 out of 10 students reported symptoms of anxiety when confronted with a mathematical problem. Symptoms were similar to those many people feel during a dentist appointment: tension, nervousness, concern, worry, edginess, impatience, confusion, fear, and mental block.  
The study noted differences across disciplines--health science students displayed the highest level of anxiety while technical students seemed more comfortable with the discipline. Gender made a difference as well: fewer than half (47%) of the male students suffered anxiety towards maths, compared to nearly two thirds (62%) of the female students.

One concern for the researchers who carried out the study is that some students unduly restrict their career opportunities for their fear of maths. "An indirect effect of mathematical anxiety is that of avoiding studies related to mathematics, which later conditions the type of degree they can choose," they state in a
press release.
I would go even further. Nowadays it's pretty much impossible to have a career in any field of scientific research without a solid grounding in mathematics. It's difficult to assess how effective a drug is if you can't do stats for example, and with research becoming increasingly interdisciplinary you may need to collaborate with mathematicians, computer scientists, physicists, and engineers even if you are a biologist.  

So if you destine yourself for a career in research, get yourself comfortable with maths. Get extra classes, ask questions to your professor, get a friend to help you, get some books... Do whatever you need for maths to become an ally in your career rather than an impediment. 


A mathematics whiz serving with Harvard's financial management arm claims she was dismissed back in 2002, for trying to alert Harvard's leadership about the university's risky strategy in trading in exotic financial instruments. Iris Mack, whom Science Careers profiled in 2004 after she left Harvard, is the subject of a story appearing Tuesday in Harvard's Crimson newspaper.

Mack, who earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard in 1986, joined Harvard Management Company (HMC), the division of Harvard University that manages its endowment, in 2002. Before then she worked as an investment analyst for Banque BNP Paribas in London, in the United Kingdom, and Enron Corp. in Houston, Texas. According to the Crimson, on 30 May 2002 Mack sent an e-mail to the chief of staff in the office of Harvard's president, at the time Lawrence Summers, warning about HMC's use of exotic financial instruments like derivatives, a practice she called "frightening". She also criticized HMC's lack of a portfolio management system, its high staff turnover rate, and lack of productivity among its managers.

Mack told the Crimson  she was assured by Summers's chief of staff that her e-mail would remain confidential, but on 1 July, she was called into the office of HMC's chief Jack Meyer and confronted with the e-mail message. The next day, says Mack, she was fired. Mack later took legal action and all parties agreed to an out-of-court settlement. Lawrence Summers has since become a chief economic adviser to President Obama.

HMC's ability to manage Harvard's endowment is a hot topic on the Harvard campus because of the recent large drop in the endowment's value, a condition faced by many American colleges and universities as a result of the slumping stock market. Since July 2008, the value of Harvard's endowment has dropped 22%, with a 30% decline expected for the entire year. The Crimson says HMC enjoyed double-digit returns in the years leading up to 2008, but since then the use of derivatives seems to have dearly cost the university. The Crimson, using a report from the rating agency Standard and Poors, says the value of one type of derivative alone--interest-rate swaps--used by HMC would have cost the university some $571 million to terminate as of October 2008.

Recent stories in the media have tried to pin the current banking and investment troubles on the quants, as the mathematics experts who devise the complex models used in finance are called. Mack's story suggests that Wall Street's management should at least share that responsibility.

Mack told the Crimson, "I have mixed feelings, on the one hand, I wasn't crazy, I knew what I was talking about. But maybe if more and more people had spoken up, the economy wouldn't be the way it is now."
Science Careers's writer Clinton Parks caught up with Mack in August 2004, after she had left Harvard and started her own company, called Phat Math, and written a book that combines entertainment with education to teach about mathematics and finance. Mack's background includes not only the Ph.D. from Harvard, but an MBA from the London Business School. In addition, she was a semifinalist to become an astronaut for NASA.

Science Careers has also written about employment opportunities for science, engineering, and mathematics graduates in the world of finance as recently as November 2008, when the current economic slump had begun to accelerate.

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