27 February 2010

How much education do you want?

This morning, I found yet another editorial (this in the Forth Worth Star Telegram) claiming that we need more science graduates. This is the same week as Scientific American published a lengthy and detailed article arguing that we have an oversupply of professionally trained scientists who cannot get jobs.

Part of the disconnect seems to be the level of education being discussed. The editorial talks about K-12 and undergrad reading levels. It’s not at all clear to me how much education she thinks is needed for these STEM careers. I am not all that convinced that major innovations across the board are going to come about from people with undergraduate degrees. In some areas, sure. But many key breakthroughs are going to come from people with graduate level training, and the dread “overqualified” label haunts those who have those more advanced degrees and specialized skills.

The editorial also paints the imminent retirement of many baby boomers as creating a talent vacuum. Unfortunately, I’ve heard this tune before. I remember distinctly being told as a finishing undergraduate in the 1980s that there was going to be a large number of career opportunities in academia because so many professors would be retiring.

That never happened. The job market has been, and remains, horribly competitive. Apparently, people looked at the retirements but forgot the backlog: all the people that had been trained as academics in the meantime.


Brad Walters said...

Actually, a lot of the safety assessment and pathology work of major pharmaceutical companies is carried out by people with bachelor's degrees in biology, chemistry, etc. Also there are numerous research tech positions that can be filled by people with only undergraduate training in the sciences both in academia and in other private sectors. As for K-12 education, all I can say is, wouldn't it be great to live in a country where the majority of people accepted the evidence for evolution and global warming?

Zen Faulkes said...

Yup. That's why I tried to qualify my statement about the source of innovation with "many," rather than "most" or something stronger. Maybe "some" would have been more appropriate.