18 September 2013

Having a job outside STEM is not evidence of good STEM training

Despite continuing evidence of an oversupply of the high-end STEM trainees (that is, people with doctorates), people are still trying to push for students to take STEM degrees in higher education.

One argument that I am starting to see goes like this: “Yes, it’s true that most of the people who have STEM degrees don’t land STEM jobs, but that just shows how valuable all that STEM training is! STEM training must be in demand in all those other fields! STEM graduates are critical thinkers, problem solvers, and they contribute to the economy regardless of whether they’re in a STEM job or not.”

I saw an example of this claim a while ago that eludes me and I can’t find now, but Elizabeth Blackburn comes close to saying this in this interview (my emphasis):

I notice my trainees… and there is never enough jobs for all the trainees, we are training 'too many'…but, for example, management consultants love people like this because they are so well able to deal with certain things. And then of course they can get trained on-the-job in their specialties. So that's one way I'm thinking about how we would deal with this disconnect with… we keep training more people, and you say, well, partly we are training more people because they are the producers of science a lot, and so why don’t we acknowledge that that’s what we are doing during the PhD and post-doc. And there will be, we hope, people who will go on, but not to say the only reason for the training is to get a career.

In the US, 13% of PhDs go on to the kind of traditional academic science sorts of jobs that you might say they were trained for. So to put that another way, you could say it’s an 80% failure rate…87%, excuse my mathematics. So if you put it that way, it’s terrible…but the other fact is if you look at all the people who have…you know, what about these 87%? They are employed in all sorts of jobs, they are not unemployed, and they’re doing all sorts of things. And so the question is, well, did they feel, that 87%, that somehow they were cheated and it was disappointing because their expectations were, well, you are supposed to be trained for such and such.

Blackburn has done well for herself, and obviously knows what it takes to succeed in science. In fairness, she’s making a more nuanced argument than the one I want to link to but can’t find.

It smacks of desperation to say that the lack of people in a career is evidence of how good the training is.

If lots of people went to performing arts schools to learn how to play musical instruments at a professional level, nobody would claim with a straight face that the reason so many trained cellists were not employed in symphony orchestras or in the music field was due to the high demand for cellist-related skills. Nor would we say that for physicians, dentists, or other professions.

For one, what are the vaunted STEM skills that employers find so valuable? Can you only get those from STEM training? I doubt that. What I hear consistently from employers about what they want from people they want to hire – communication skills, problem solving, critical thinking, initiative, teamwork – are all talents you can get in a lot of different ways. I think my colleagues in philosophy, languages, and so on are often as committed to giving their students those skills as my colleagues in science.

Here, I’m reminded of a comment Ivan Oransky made when he visited our campus. He said he did not learn critical thinking during his STEM training to become a physician. He learned critical thinking when he got training as a journalist.

Plus, even if those STEM skills are things employers outside STEM want, how much training do you need to get those skills? Do you need to do two post-docs to be desired by employers? The six years of experience that a lot of American doctorate holders have? Why not just a master’s degree? Why not a bachelor’s? Because much of the emphasis from,say, funding agencies, is on creating people with “terminal degrees” (doctorates, usually). The master’s is disdained as a “consolation prize” for people who can’t hack a Ph.D., and the bachelor’s is just a stepping stone. But that terminal degree may be overkill for employers outside STEM. Indeed, that terminal degree might make someone “overqualified” and harder to hire.

The huge number of highly trained people with graduate STEM degrees not working in STEM is not an advertisement for the success of the training. It’s an indictment.

Related posts

PACE 2013 Bioethics conference, day 3

External links

Excessive supply, uncertain demand
The Aussie scientist who challenged George W Bush
Remember the “alternatives”

Cellist photo by Jonathan Dy on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.


Jim Austin said...

Here you go.

Two New Studies Address Jobs in STEM

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes! All of this.

A 13% placement rate in "traditional" careers doesn't indicate an 87% failure rate. Certainly some of those 87% are by choice. But definitely not all of them. Many would have been better served with different (or less) training.

davis said...

The assumption is that pursuit of knowledge without an attendant career and financial end product is an invalid pursuit? This seems like a view of education as a means rather than an end, which is a value judgement I wouldn't make for someone else. If you are just filling job buckets, and not worried about lighting fires--to paraphrase Yeats--I suppose the argument holds some water. But are academics really pushing PhD programs like an over prescribed pill, a career wonder drug? Or does a good teacher inspire a pupil to continue on a path of inquiry?

Ruthmarie said...

In response to Davis:

If you are among the idle rich, your view might be considered valid. However, the many years of training that a Ph.D. candidate and post-doc must undergo creates a monumental financial burden. True, most of us were on grants for our doctorates, but that's not the real problem here. That prolonged training period means years of delay in making a living and socking away money for a child, a home, college and retirement. The situation in science has created a class of serfs. It is unique to the current crop of scientists and those who graduated in a previous era may not understand the enormity of the problem, but they should TRY TO.

This situation has the capacity to ruin people's lives. Retraining for something else is also time-consuming and the doctoral candidate runs the risk of hitting the age discrimination threshold within 10 years of being truly gainfully employed. This is simply unacceptable.

Min said...

"He learned critical thinking when he got training as a journalist."

In apparent contradistinction to actual journalists. {sigh}