A college degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subject has increasingly been lauded as a one-stop shop to a sizeable salary and endless career prospects. This hype has led to an explosion of students in recent years pursuing degrees in STEM subjects. With so many students determining their futures on the idea that earning a STEM degree ensures a high-paying job, we decided to look at the facts.
The STEM Paradox
Repeatedly, we hear there are shortages in the STEM workforce. In 2012, the US government pledged to increase the number of awarded undergraduate STEM degrees by at least 1 million over the next decade in a bid to match the expected growth of these industries. Globally, governments push and promote prospective students to opt for a degree in the STEM subjects. This glorification is driven by economic competition with other countries – particularly India and China, who churn out STEM graduates by the million every year. There is tremendous support for STEM education in schools, particularly focused on drawing more women into the STEM sector, as widespread male dominance remains a major issue in the STEM-related workforce, where women make up less than 30% of the world’s researchers, and less than 25% of STEM employees in Ireland are female. It is also in the best interest of industry bodies to posit a STEM skill shortage; the more STEM graduates there are, the more these companies will be able to pick from the cream of the crop.
However, this deficit may be a work of fiction or at the very least greatly exaggerated. Students are electing to obtain a degree in STEM under the illusion that there will be a job waiting for them upon graduation should be aware that this simply isn’t the case. Statistics show that every year there are far more STEM graduates than there are available job openings, with a 2015 report from the European Commission concluded that there were ‘no overall quantitative shortages of STEM skills at the aggregate EU level’. In the US 11.4 million, or three-quarters, of those with a bachelor’s STEM degree worked outside of traditional STEM occupations, reported in the 2014 Census Bureau survey.
The long hours, the lack of support from your supervisor, and the extremely humble salary has led to Ph.D.s becoming an increasingly unattractive route for students after graduation. Ph.D. students in Ireland earn, on average, a mere €16,306 a year, for work that can often entail 12-hour days and 7-day work weeks, with programmes lasting up to 5 years. Doctoral students are more than 6 times more likely to experience anxiety and/or depression than the general population. It is no wonder that doctorate programmes have a drop-out rate of almost 50%.
If one desires a career in academia and research and if they manage to endure the cruel slog of a Ph.D., they are expected to jump from postdoc to postdoc, the no-man’s land between a graduate degree and a faculty position (becoming a so-called ‘perma-doc’). Postdocs earn a meagre salary and keep their fingers tightly crossed that they land a tenure-track position, upon which they will then be forced on jump on the ‘publish or perish’ treadmill that plagues academics. The competition for tenure-track teaching positions in universities is far too fierce for research to be considered a safe or stable job prospect. The Royal Society in London published a 2010 study that found that a mere o.45% of science Ph.D. graduates go on to become professors. As a result, many STEM graduates are now opting for the industry route, working for pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, Boston Scientific and Bristol-Myers Squibb, to avail of better pay, work/life balance and job security.
But should you do a Ph.D. even if you see yourself in an industry career? The answer, it seems, is no. Those with a doctorate degree are often seen as over-qualified for jobs outside of academia; employers report that doctoral degree holders display a lack of important attributes that employers are seeking in a job applicant. STEM Ph.D. holders are seen by employers as missing the so-called ‘soft’ skills that the humanities provide such as communication, critical thinking and teamwork. They instead hold expert knowledge in an extremely niche area of research, but graduate ill-equipped for a ‘real’ occupation.
Not All STEM Degrees Are Created Equal
A common misconception is that any degree that falls under the STEM umbrella is a sure-fire pathway to securing a quality job. It is a mistake to group all STEM graduates as being equally as employable. It seems that the S of the STEM acronym, those in the sciences, do not enjoy the same employment advantages as rest of the STEM tracks. A biologist will earn, on average, much less than a data analyst. The Bureau of Labour Statistics forecasted that by 2024, 73% of STEM job growth will be in computer occupations, with only 3% will be in the physical sciences and 3% in the life sciences in the US. Engineers top the list in salary rankings. They are followed closely behind by computer science graduates. These differences can be attributed to the increase in power and performance of the five multinational tech giants: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. Data analytics, artificial intelligence and cloud computing are all areas that are currently experiencing massive growth.
While STEM majors are still the least likely of all college majors to experience unemployment, it does a disservice to prospective students to glorify all STEM degrees as a golden ticket to a top-earning job. Rather than blindly promoting STEM degrees, government and policymakers should prioritise creating more job opportunities for those that do graduate in STEM; for example, incentivizing companies to invest in research and innovation.
By Grace Browne – Science Writer