Too Many Scientists?


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.

8 Responses to Too Many Scientists?

  1. Randy Wedin says:

    Thanks for pointing out this interesting study. The downturn in high-performing students choosing STEM majors and careers is especially worrisome. The big bucks to be made in the financial sector (up until a year ago) has no doubt attracted some top students away from STEM careers. I wrote a blog article about this phenomenon a few months ago:
    http://alchemist.pro/2009/04/06/will-scientists-leave-hedge-funds-and-return-to-science/

    I especially like your comments in your final paragraph. With the many challenges facing our world, there are plenty of chances for STEM folks to make a positive difference in the world.

  2. Fenton Heirtzler says:

    As the current article alludes to, why should even more students -also higher performing ones- consider a career where the chances of finding a position to realize their dreams as science-based researchers are so low? The ratio of applicants to jobs in the sciences has been very, very high for the past 25 years – not just over the time frame mentioned in the study. The term “Ponzi scheme” has been used elsewhere on the Internet in that context.

    The DOE and NSF support more PhD students and more Post-doc salaries. But what does this do to the job market for those who are beyond that stage in their careers? The same organizations throw money at “shovel-ready” employment. So should a chemist trade in his/her lab glasses for a construction helmet and -boots?

    Instead of the ACS sending someone dressed up like a “Mole” to interest children in Chemistry, why not insist on government policies that support the employment of US chemists/scientists? It is more realistic to interest someone in the sciences when there is a carrot on the stick, and that stick is a JOB. That is reality, especially when you are an unemployed PhD chemist.

  3. Akash says:

    Some good suggestions and tinkers though, I beg to differ for most part! Will be posting my views later on the discussion going on at LinkedIn. Thanks. Akash

  4. balbes says:

    Can you share the location of the related discussion going on at LinkedIn? I’d like to read that as well. Thanks! Lisa

  5. […] forgot to mention here when this article appeared on the ACS Careers blog.  Are there Too Many Scientists being […]

  6. Will says:

    I recently completed a physics phd. During my 5 year phd, I won several competitive awards for research and teaching. I finished projects in a timely manner, attended conferences, etc.

    Being a theorist, I now have two choices- fight tooth and nail for a series of postdocs, and live with no job security and an axe constantly hanging over my head, or leave the field. I am choosing the latter.

    I LOVE my work, and love physics, but as a career physics cannot provide the basic level of stability I need to provide for a future for myself and my wife. Its not about more things, I don’t need to make $100,000. But I can’t thrive in a system where I have to reapply for a job every other year. I can’t gamble on my families future by risking everything on lucking into a tenured position. What happens to them if I am denied tenure at 45 and have to start over?

  7. Jim says:

    Fenton, your words of wisdom are pure truth. Unfortunately, education s a business that needs students. Whether or not the student ever gets a job for all the training is of little consequence to the education system. Science in the USA is on its way out as a stable well paid career field.

  8. Fenton says:

    Hi Jim, as a participant in the science-educational system, I heartily agree with your comments on the same.

    The other half of my original posting was on the role of the ACS in perpetrating the myth of ready employment in the sciences. The ACS choses to be a chatty bystander (vis a vis C&E News) when it comes to influencing employment-relevant policy at the governmental level. Instead of pointing out that employment policies in the US have lead to science becoming an endangered career field.

    Maybe the ACS is just a business, too, whose primary goal is to support the six-digit salaries of Madeline Jacob and Rudy Baum through new membership drives?

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