17 April 2013

“It’s the STEM jobs, stupid”

Anne Glover, Europe’s chief scientist, thinks that science has an “image problem” (video below).

Europe's chief Scientist Anne Glover is spearheading a drive to attract more people into science. First, we need to change the image of scientists, she says.

She tells a story that will be familiar, because it’s been repeated many times: kids think scientists are old bald men. “How many people would be attracted to that as a career?” she asks.

Has anyone done the same experiment with medical physicians? Here is a web page that gives kids instructions on how to draw a doctor: male, bespectacled, white. And yet there is no shortage of students who want to be physicians.

Later, she notes that the thing most kids want to be is a celebrity. But what young kids think about a career may not matter all that much, because they are a long way from making meaningful career decisions. They’ll change their mind multiple times before entering the workforce in a serious way.

Getting more people into science is easy to say: give them a clear pathway to jobs.

People on the ground know this. Last week, I saw a recruiter for graduate program from University of Texas San Antonio. What did she emphasize as a reason why someone should go to graduate school? Increased lifetime earnings was number one. I think low unemployment was second.

Let’s say that again. Recruiters are telling prospective students that you should go into grad school not for the intellectual joy of problem solving, not helping society, not creating the future. They’re telling people to do it for the money.

While this is easy to say, this is hard to do right now. Those lifetime earnings statistics are not enough to give people a lot of confidence. Sure, you may make more money over the course of your lifetime, but you’re still left with career prospects that are incredibly cloudy. You get a doctorate. What job are you going to do after that? Look at the last graph from this article:

It used to be that more than half of biology doctorates got tenure track jobs in universities. Now that figure is closer to 15%. In general, most people who get doctoral degrees are using them in ways related to their work, but a doctoral degree looks less like a pathway to a career and more like a spin of the roulette wheel.

Meanwhile, law schools are freaking out “just” 56% of law school graduates have “stable jobs in law.”

Can you imagine the howls if only 15% of students who went into medical school became practising physicians? I went looking for how many medical school graduates ended up not being physicians, but couldn’t find any data.

This suggests that other professional programs are doing a better job of delivering on putting students in their profession than science is. The data I present are from the US, not the EU, but I haven’t seen much evidence the situations are all that different in the two.

Glover, like many high level types, talks like there is a scientist shortage. Instead, there is significant evidence that there is a scientist oversupply.

(Aside: Remember, when people talk about the “need” for STEM students, they mostly mean computing. With a little bit of engineering.)

Now, that said, Glover is not alone in saying that science’s image isn’t as good as it could be. This is why people create “Rock stars of science” and “Science cheerleaders” and “Science: it’s a girl thing” and “This is what a scientist looks like” and “50 sexy scientists” projects. Some of these work; some don’t. Almost all are controversial.

Me, I think science’s image has never been better. The geeks have inherited the earth.

But image, while possibly solvable, is trivial. If there are well paying science jobs, and people know how to get them, you won’t be able to beat people off with a stick.

Glover herself seems to have an idyllic scientific experience. At 20:30 in the video above, she talks about “a morning in the life of a scientist.”

If I’m a laboratory scientist, I go into my lab, I go into my lab with my head full of ideas, and I have in front of me every possible facility to allow me to test those ideas, to look at the output of ideas, talk about those ideas. It’s the most amazing thing to do, and every day is different.

If Glover has always had everything she’s every need to answer any question she’s ever wanted to ask, and has never done the same thing over and over (What are her samples sizes? Has the woman never replicated experiments?), then her experience is unusual.

At about 32 minutes in, she talks about how to improve science recruitment for no money. “Just train young scientists to communicate better.” While I’m all for communicating (blogging for a decade here), it’s astonishing to hear someone to underplay how important a role funding plays in science, including science recruitment. Make it easy for people to get jobs, and they’ll study science.

Update, 18 April 2013: Rxnm has a post up on training doctoral students. His suggestion – let people pay for their own doctorates – is aimed at the American funding structure, but might be transferable to other countries. I think there is a larger problem that needs to be addressed, which I may do in another post later: Why do high level officials keep insisting there are scientist shortages?

Anne Glover pic from here.

Related posts

Science cheerleaders
Good idea, bad idea: Rock Stars of Science

External links

Let’s drop the caricature to close the skills gap
The Ph.D Bust: America's Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts
Once more, with feeling: computer science job growth dwarfs all others
“Science: It’s a Girl Thing”: Lab Barbie, Extra Lipstick
So crazy it just might work

1 comment:

Pascale Hammond Lane said...

This year 1100 medical college graduates failed to match in residency programs, preventing or delaying the major requirement for licensure. About 18,000 graduated, so about 6% thwarted at this stage.