A recent report has been causing a lot of controversy in the blogosphere. “Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline” looked at three issues – the attrition of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students from high school to career, how this attention rate has changed over time, and changes in quality in the students who remain in the STEM pathways. They evaluated several longitudinal data sets, and determined that retention rates have been constant (or even increasing) from the 1970s through the late 1990s overall, but retention of the highest performing students declined steeply starting in the late 1990s. The authors suggest the reason for this is that high-performing students are “being recruited into non-STEM jobs that pay better, offer more a more stable professional career, and/or are perceived as less exposed to competition from low-wage economies”. They argue that encouraging more students to go into STEM disciplines may end up hurting the US, since more potential employees mean lower wages, which drives the best students into other fields.
This report is generating some discussion on ScienceCareers.org, in the thread entitled Study Agues US Needs Fewer, Not More, Science Students . This thread also points back to the National Academies’ publication Rising Above the Gathering Storm report (2006) which said the nation should “enlarge the pipeline of students who are prepared to enter college and graduate with a degree in science, engineering, or mathematics” in order to remain competitive. Many others have echoed this idea, and the idea of expanding the science pipeline has been guiding policy for awhile – just the opposite of what the newer study suggests.
Part of the reasons these two reports seem to oppose each other is that it is difficult to get actual numbers and hard data on why people choose the career paths they do. I can think of a number of things that influenced my personal career choices…..a family background in science and engineering, a great high school chemistry teacher who made science interesting and fun, a new class that I just happened to be in the right place to take, personal and family circumstances, and a whole lot of luck. While I may have considered (briefly) law or business for the financial rewards, I was always encouraged to do something I loved, and not worry about the money (within reason).
In my own travels, I think lately I’m meeting more people who want to do something they are passionate about, and care more about that than making as much money as possible. They want to make a difference in the world, and as long as they can make a reasonable living they are fine. Some of them are even choosing to work for less money, if it means more flexible work time and more time with their family, or taking extended time off to be with their families, and planning to go back to work at some point in the future. I’m hoping this means people are realizing that they can be happy with fewer “things”, as long as they spend their days doing things that interest, excite and engage them. Hopefully for many of us, that includes STEM careers.
This article was written by freelance scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007). She blogs on Career Development for Scientists.