The Landscape of Optimism

I’m a PhD candidate hoping to graduate within the year, and as a result my radar is on full alert for what comes next. Unfortunately, the landscape for careers in academia looks bleak:

The pattern reaching back to 2001 is clear — fewer jobs, more unemployment, and more post-doc work — especially in the sciences. A post doc essentially translates into toiling as a low-paid lab hand (emphasis on low-paid as shown below. Once it was just a one or two year rite of passage where budding scientists honed their research skills. Now it can stretch on for half a decade . (The Atlantic)

Of course, the article that I’m linking to refers primarily to our American counterparts, but the story for Canadian PhDs is worse:

However, economic returns and employment situation of higher educated persons in Canada — as compared to U.S. and other OECD countries — are disturbing. PhDs, even after five to six more years of schooling, earn only 8 per cent more than Masters. In U.S., they earn 43 per cent more. In Canada, PhDs unemployment rate is even worse: 50 per cent more than Masters (6 per cent as compared to 4 per cent).

In U.S., their unemployment rate is only 1.9 per cent. Although U.S. has nine times higher population than Canada, it produces 14 times more PhDs. After adjusting the difference in population and number of doctoral graduates of the two countries, unemployment rate of PhDs in U.S. in Canadian terms should have been 8.4 per cent, not 1.9 per cent. Also, a government report shows that a good number of PhDs are driving taxies in Canada. (The Huffington Post)

The full Statistics Canada report from 2011 that this article is based off of is here: Expectations and Labour Market Outcomes of Doctoral Graduates from Canadian Universities.

So if the world of academia is shrinking, what options do graduates have? According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail:

Just one of four PhD graduates becomes a professor, which begs the question of how to capitalize on the talents of those not headed for academia.

One answer, many believe, is internships at the master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral level. Such programs give young scholars an early taste of working in industry and help Canadian companies boost research and development activities.

However, matching companies and researchers is a challenge. Canada lags the United States in the proportion of PhDs in industry, research shows, and newly-minted PhDs, with theoretical expertise, typically lack job-ready experience. (The Globe and Mail)

So great, maybe there will be some impetus to incentivize PhDs to take positions in industry? The National Science and Engineering Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship looks like the ideal vehicle to give recent PhDs the leg up they need to enter the industry, only NSERC has been cutting back their fellowship awards for 5 years:

I always knew that bad news was released on Fridays in the summer… but last Friday was pretty ridiculous.  NSERC has just announced that in order to improve its success rate (just clocked at 7.8% in the most recent competition) it will now reduce the number of times an individual can apply for a postdoctoral award from two to one.

…  now that your jaw is back in place,  let’s look at what really matters.  The absolute number of fellowships awarded by NSERC represents how many scholars it supports each year through its program, and no matter how many people are applying, this is the most important number.

Sadly, the last five years have seen NSERC’s funded fellowships drop dramatically (awards / applicants):

  • 250 / 1169 (2008)
  • 254 / 1220 (2009)
  • 286 / 1341 (2010)
  • 133 / 1431 (2011)
  • 98 / 1254 (2012)

This is unbelievable and it cannot be sugar coated with a letter about streamlining or complaints about increased applicants (just a 7% increase in applicants from 2008 to 2012).

The sad facts are that NSERC is awarding 66% fewer fellowships.  As you can imagine, this has had an effect on success rates, but NSERC’s solution is to try and reduce the number of applicants in an effort to bring up the rate so that they can rid themselves of their sub-10% success rates. (University Affairs)

What does this mean for you and me? It means that we need to explore the options that are off the beaten path, because the way that our professors wended their way to academia are almost all dried up.

Factoid Friday – Time Flies

This morning, I awoke to a tweet from astronaut and commander of the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield, saying:

Good Morning, Earth! How did it get to be Friday so soon? Time sure flies at 5 miles per second! (link)

And while I’m sure time does fly while orbiting the Earth 15.7 times a day, there is actually a physical explanation, albeit small, that causes the time on the ISS to slow down: time dilation. So, in my semi-concious stupor, I set about calculating the actual difference in time that Chris Hadfield experiences for his trip on the ISS, and tweeted him back:

@Cmdr_Hadfield At 5 miles per second, your 147 day flight is about 4.5 milliseconds shorter than the time that passes on Earth. (link)


1. The ISS travels at about 5 miles per second (as per Chris’ tweet, the actual value averages 4.7886 miles per second). (cite)

2. Time is dilated when travelling by the gamma factor:

t = \frac{t_0}{\sqrt{1-v^2/c^2}}.

Here, t represents the time passes on Earth, for t_0, the corresponding time that passes on the ISS. So the quantity we are interested in is t - t_0.(cite)

3. Chris Hadfield’s mission on Expedition 35 will last 147 days. (cite)

4. So, plugging in 5 miles per second for ‘v’ (appropriately changed to the same units as ‘c’), and using 147 days for ‘t_0‘ (appropriately changed to seconds), we get:

t = 1.27008000045751×10^7 seconds, or 147 days 0.0045751 seconds. (WolframAlpha)

5. Subtract 147 days, and you’re left with 0.0045751 seconds, or about 4.5 milliseconds. To interpret this as 4.5 milliseconds shorter, we need to remember that the resolution of the Twin Paradox applies the time dilation to the twin that was accelerated, in this case, Chris Hadfield.

This post will invariably attract controversy, so in the interest of staunching the flow of criticisms, please refer to this worked example of time dilation.


Factoid Fridays are tweet sized factoids with appropriate, but sometimes not peer reviewed, citations. For simplicity, I’ve left out unit conversions (i.e. miles per second to meters per second), so those calculations can be considered an exercise to the reader. If you think there is an error in an assumption or calculation, please contact me.

Hacking Life with Andrew Hessel

Andrew Hessel visited the University of Alberta to give a talk about synthetic biology, entitled “Hacking Life”. I live tweeted the references he put up on slides using the hashtag #hackinglife, and I’ve complied the list and some of my notes. I don’t presume to summarize his whole talk, but most of the relevant links are here.

Hessel’s works for AutoDesk with the title of Distinguished Researcher, and one of the first things he discussed was an AutoDesk initiative known as the Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter group. The group’s aim is to identify the implications that nanotech and programmable matter have on industries that use AutoDesk tools.

Hessel was also one of the co-chairs of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology for Singularity University, what he refers to as the first start-up university. SingularityU is one of the few institutions that teaches concepts of accelerating technological growth as one of their core concepts.

To tie the idea of synthetic biology into everyday life, Andrew mentioned the use of 3D printers in emerging co-operative “hacker-spaces”, and one such 3D printer he featured was the MakerBot. While the MakerBot doesn’t yet print using the cells that Hessel described, there are a a number of groups, like BioCurious who presume to do just that.

Some of the artwork that Hessel used in his presentation comes from Dr. Goodsell’s book, The Machinery of Life, and from his website.

Hessel’s own career was changed when he left his PhD to go and work on synthetic hormones, like the red blood cell growth stimulating protein, Erythropoeitin.

Many of the companies that Hessel mentioned in his talk were biotech firms, both large and small, that are making leaps and bounds in lowering the cost of generating custom gene and protein sequences. The world’s largest gene sequencing shop, BGI Genomics was compared to smaller startups like DNA20 and Cambrian Genomics.

Hessel’s main push was that there are enormous opportunities for small biotech firms to grow and thrive on new technology, especially in applications like personalized medicine. To that end, he used examples like Craig Venter’s synthetic bacterium, Eckhard Wimmer‘s synthetic poliovirus to show how companies like GingkoBioWorks and SyntheticYeast are creating markets for synthetic biological applications.

In his concluding remarks, Hessel shows us some concrete examples of how new biotechnology is changing our lives: modified HIV-viruses being used to treat leukemia and the possibility that these new technologies could be abused in the form of personalized bio-weapons. One of his intiatives resulted in the iGEM Synthetic Biology competition, which now has High School, Collegiate and Entrepreneurship divisions.

He left the audience with a solid lesson, “You are the most empowered generation of individuals. Don’t squander it.”

Lytro gets an underwater housing

Recently, Eric took one, in a custom Nauticam housing with Light & Motion SOLA 2000 lights, with him on the Wetpixel Ultimate Indonesia expedition, and has just published the results. Light field cameras potentially represent a completely different approach to photography, in which the viewer has creative control, rather than the photographer only.

I’ve been eyeing the Lytro camera since its release in October 2011. The camera works on the principle that it captures the full light-field of a particular scene; meaning every point in the finished image can be brought into focus. The reason I think this underwater housing is so exciting is that underwater photography makes it very difficult to see what your capturing. With the Lytro, you take a picture, and focus when you’re back on dry land!

Make sure you click through to see some of Eric’s images.