Friday, April 26, 2013

No, Prospects are Not Golden for Science Graduates

A long-asserted position, that there are not enough American graduates in what has lately been referred to as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), got new press time this week.  This is not an old viewpoint, coming from the vocational versus mind-furnishing university debates of the late 1970s, the 1950s competition with the Soviets, and even before. 

It makes intuitive sense.  There is always intense work on science and engineering in companies and government agencies across the country, which require know-how most people, regardless of intelligence or even aptitude, simply don’t have.  From iPods to bridges, we can see the effects scientific work has on our lives, and we know lots of money is being spent and earned.  The liberal arts fields have little to match that, as Americans have known for a long time that jobs which directly use knowledge in the likes of sociology or foreign literature are much less common.  At the same time, when we learn the names of the highest STEM achievers, they are often Chinese, Indian, or Near Eastern, making it even more logical to think we don’t have enough qualified people here otherwise.  College undergraduates will consistently tell you that scientific coursework is usually more difficult than that in the humanities.  If we need yet another explanation, hard science graduates are often seen as being smarter, more diligent, and clearer at thinking than others. 

There is only one problem with that viewpoint.  It is false.  As I wrote in Choosing a Lasting Career: 

Another disagreement I have with other things you may read is on science-related opportunities. Some score high in the chapters to come, but the field is hardly the wide-open hiring area implied by those who say American universities do not produce enough science graduates.  Many want to work in academia, but as of 2009, only 14% of new degree holders in the life sciences were able to get university positions teaching or researching within five years, a share shrinking steadily since 1979, and reports published in 2010 and 2011 show that private industry has not hired enough science doctorates to make the degrees financially worthwhile.  For one example, between 2000 and 2012, American drug companies cut 300,000 jobs, many formerly providing work for Ph.D.’s in chemistry.  As a result of poor opportunities, many scientists with doctoral degrees in various disciplines have now been working as low-paid postdoctoral fellows, customarily one- to two-year apprenticeships of sorts, for as long as ten.

A new Economic Policy Institute study, mentioned Wednesday in Slate and The Washington Post, confirmed the true situation.  It said that although there were relatively few American STEM graduates, they often had poor career prospects, with about half not finding jobs anywhere in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.  The findings implied that foreigners with these credentials were given temporary work visas because of this perceived shortage.  Such workers are paid an average of 20% less than native Americans, which could explain, even before considering real or imagined differences in their work, their popularity. 

Another long-standing issue with vocational scientific positions has been cyclical supply and demand.  For decades, engineering and information technology have gone through a predictable, easily understandable pattern.  To start it, news stories appear about worker shortages in one of these fields.  Next, high school and college career offices, along with the students themselves, spread the word, and more and more people major in these subjects.  As a result, years later, more graduates in these fields reach the job market than can be hired.  From there, word spreads that opportunities are poor, so fewer people start studying these subjects.  With the reduced number of new graduates, and technological progress marching on, there is a scarcity of qualified people again.  Then, back to the beginning.  Former students from years before who did not find work in their specialty do not help much, as they often have moved on to other fields, and their knowledge sets have suffered from disuse and obsolescence. 

Two facts are clear from this misunderstanding.  First, completing a scientific or technical major has never been a guarantee of top job prospects.  Second, such graduates are not rare.  So can we do away with the idea that Americans are somehow deficient for choosing less demanding fields of study?  We all choose the paths life makes available to us, and even if others “should” be better, we are entitled to know when they are not.

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