The low employment relevance of science degrees

Back in February, Chief Scientist Ian Chubb used a report (pdf) on science enrolments to promote the view that we are producing too few science graduates. I disputed that claim.

The recently released Beyond Graduation 2011 report (pdf), of graduates three years out, provides further reason to be very cautious about science boosterism.

One question in the survey asks employed graduates whether their qualification was a formal requirement, important, somewhat important or not important for their job. The figure below shows that after three years those with science degrees are only just saved by the creative arts from having the qualifications least likely to be a formal requirement or important for their holder’s job.

As the text points out, many graduates who rate their degree as not important are in managerial or professional jobs. So the lack of direct relevance may not be a problem from their point of view. But that so many science graduates find employment where a science degree is not required hardly suggests general shortages of science qualifications.

  1. I know that my BSc(Hons) got me nine months of research work and that’s it. Not a great return on an investment of four years of my life. And that over a decade ago, I gave up trying. I suspect that having plenty of students studying science is beneficial for the science faculties and ensures that there is a lot of competition among graduates for relatively few jobs meaning the bargaining power is heavily in favour of the employers, such as research institutes and universities. It’s certainly not in your average science student’s favour.

  2. I think one of the problems that is related to TJW’s point is that there are really two perspectives — the student and the employer. TJW favors the former. From the other perspective, I would think that in some areas of science, you really need good and not average people, and it is probably very hard to a-priori choose people who are going to be good (universities of course don’t try and don’t necessarily even teach the right things for students to get into this latter category). Thus the only way to get enough good people is to train too many (sport is another good example of this if you want great players). The other problem now is that for the “smart” (i.e., good) positions, degrees have become so watered down that you need higher degrees to actually know enough (this of course is happening in many and perhaps most areas), and these areas are probably even more afflicted by distributional problems in terms of ability that is needed. It’s not clear to me what the solution to this is, although the big reseach labs in the US I know about simply solve this by getting well trained immigrants to do the “smart” jobs since there are not enough locals who are good enough to do them.

  3. The fact that many science graduates are in work not specifically related to their degree says nothing one way or the other about whether there is a lack of science graduates.

    It could, for example, be the case that science graduates are highly demanded by non-science employers because a science degree turns out to be excellent training for all sorts of non-science jobs.

  4. My point was in a sense similar to conrad’s. Ian Chubb is encouraging students to do what’s in his, but not their, best interest. I was just offering my experience that confirms that it’s sometimes not in a student’s best interest to study science.

    It is difficult to determine in advance what will make a good scientist – especially because creativity is difficult to measure and good scientists need to be creative. It just seems very inefficient, given the public funds a significant proportion of the cost, to train people is in specialised areas like microbiology and biochemistry when there are nowhere near enough jobs that require those skills.

    I wish all the people that gave me ‘careers advice’ as a secondary school student spent less time on ‘follow your heart’ type advice and more on finding a useful career. The people that left high school and did trades are the ones laughing now, even though hey were looked down upon at the time.

  5. “It just seems very inefficient, given the public funds a significant proportion of the cost, to train people is in specialised areas like microbiology and biochemistry”

    These latter two are the most exploitative of the areas I can think of at the postgraduate level. This is because there are big labs that need to churn through cheap labour (i.e., students) to keep going, so they produce vast amounts of PhD students (it’s true of the US also). There’s also a huge amount of money perpetuating it (NH&MRC) etc. since they are obviously considered important areas for Australia (funnily enough, Astrophysics falls into this area also if you’re worried about students not getting jobs, although at least they don’t train undergraduates and presumably the job prospects should be pretty obvious for any postgraduate).

    “The people that left high school and did trades are the ones laughing now”

    There are vast differences between jobs actually — I did Maths and Computing as my initial degree and most of the people I know have done very well for themselves (many better than me working in a university). I think people also often confuse “trades” with “small businesses”. The people doing really well in the trades are basically small business operators, which is easy to do with a trade, but is a risk they take (c.f., their employees). Many of the trades are also cyclical industries, and we’re just luckily in Australia. Look at the US or indeed most of the world to see what can happen to them overnight.

  6. Chubb may just be trying to convince us that we are not doing enough science – but of course that is not the same as not having enough trained scientists to do it!

  7. My heart goes out to Science grads – it really does. Some of the smartest guys in the land. And they have to go cap in hand every two years for some funding…some being the operative word. These guys get paid less than my PA !

    Interesting that you’re bringing Chubb into this. Word is that Chubb got himself just at the precipice. As ANU V-C, he spent far too much on pretty new building and not enough on what really counts…PEOPLE ! As a result, many ANU faculties are under big financial pressure and are bleeding staff. Morale is down, as everyone is looking for a seat in this game of musical chairs. ANU has already lost its position as Australia’s pre-eminent uni (to Melbourne) and looks to be going further South.
    Personally, I’m not surprised. Chubb was always pre-occupied with personal politics above university quality. He’s always rather schmooze the pollies (mostly left wing ones at that) rather than look after staff. If a measure of a good leader is the state of an organisation after you left, Chubby (literally true) has well and truly failed.

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