Labor Day and the STEM Job Market

I thought today would be a good day to discuss the topic of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs in today’s economy. Wildly different views have been reported- ‘We have a STEM crisis and we need more STEM trainees’… ‘We have plenty of STEM trainees and they can’t find jobs’… ‘There is no STEM crisis’… ‘STEM trainees just aren’t trying hard enough to find jobs’… ‘It’s all the sequester’s fault.’ Obviously each of these storylines has an element of truth, but individually they do not represent the whole truth.

Calls have been made for an increase in STEM graduates to prevent an epic shortfall of workers to fill STEM jobs in the coming years. While most predictions do concur on an increase in STEM jobs, the numbers are less clear about the workforce. Check out this article for a more thorough analysis.

“Another surprise was the apparent mismatch between earning a STEM degree and having a STEM job. Of the 7.6 million STEM workers counted by the Commerce Department, only 3.3 million possess STEM degrees. Viewed another way, about 15 million U.S. residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a STEM discipline, but three-fourths of them—11.4 million—work outside of STEM.” Robert M. Charette in The STEM Crisis is a Myth


“The takeaway? At least in the United States, you don’t need a STEM degree to get a STEM job, and if you do get a degree, you won’t necessarily work in that field after you graduate. If there is in fact a STEM worker shortage, wouldn’t you expect more people with STEM degrees to be filling those jobs? And if many STEM jobs can be filled by people who don’t have STEM degrees, then why the big push to get more students to pursue STEM?” Robert M. Charette in The STEM Crisis is a Myth

Some disturbing numbers have also surfaced this week in a report from ASBMB (American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) entitled Unlimited Potential Vanishing Opportunity, which compiled the results of the 2013 survey of scientists. 67% of scientists said they were receiving less grant money than in 2010. About that same number said that they didn’t have grant funds to expand their research operations. 55% had a colleague that lost a job or expects to soon and 20% were considering leaving the country for better scientific pastures. All of these numbers are tied to federal funding trends which have not increased proportionally to support the number of scientists the system produces. Yes, the sequester has hit the sciences hard. If the available federal funding is the pie we all share, there have been more scientists trying to dine at the same table recently resulting in smaller pieces for everyone after fierce competition for a slice. I found some of the readers’ comments from the Huffington Post reporting of this survey even more telling…

From MassWG

“The drying up of resources has had a damaging effect on the research being conducted”

The drying up of resources? NIH budget:

1980’s, $5 -10 billion
1990’s, $10-15 billion
2001-02, $20 billion
2003-07, $28 billion
2008-09, $30 billion
2010-12, $31 billion
2013 $29 billion
2014 (est) $31 billion

The well doesn’t seem that dry.

Think of it this way: your dealer went on vacation. Relax. You WILL survive a short time without your fix, regardless of how big that fix has grown in recent years.

Now, when your dealer gets totally busted down the road, after not paying his suppliers? THEN you can start worrying.”

From libstakealeap:

“So it is about the money after all, huh scientists? Don’t let the door hit ya.”

From bradw343:

“Who cares, these “Scientists” have been bilking the government and promising cures for everything for 60 years,”

From Typp:

“Instead of waiting for the next scheduled government handout in the form of a pay check, why not use that brain to create a successful business, or build a company that puts people to work?

There’s a concept!”

I have to say comments like these make me wonder why I chose this career. Nevertheless, I feel like the basic research I do is for everyone, even these people, semi-anonymous commenters happy to be using technology every day with roots in basic scientific research. The problem with funding isn’t just absolute numbers, it’s about driving the system forward to support the new trainees. Unfortunately, basic scientists aren’t like junkies. We can’t just wait it out. Sobering up means leaving science. It means that everyone is losing out on innovations while funding stagnates. No doubt our Federal Budget needs a makeover, but I’ve written before about the numbers for research funding. As a percentage of our total budget, the U.S. just doesn’t spend that much on research compared to other items. Scientists are just arguing for a steady pace of funding to fuel the basic research enterprise in the United States.

We are working as a community to deal with our growing pains and find creative and meaningful ways to accommodate all those we’ve taken the time to train. We’re trying to identify new ways to fund our endeavors. No, many of us cannot just turn our research into a self-sustaining business. We lack the training and capital to do so, and much of our modern research requires a larger community of scientists working on the same problem to yield something marketable. Financial relationships with the private sector can be ideologically problematic; academia is about sharing knowledge while industry relies on proprietary intellectual property.

Finally, it isn’t about a paycheck. Most research dollars go towards equipment, consumables, and overhead for the research infrastructure with surprisingly little going toward salaries for students, technicians and postdocs*. Is it wrong for me to think that after so many years of training working toward uncovering useful new knowledge about the our world that I should strive toward the audacious goal of making more than $40k someday? It’s a good thing those ideals are so delicious or many of us wouldn’t have stuck it out this long.

Regardless of your background or political leaning, I would recommend reading the ASBMB report to get the numbers on the most recent trends in our scientific research enterprise. You can decide for yourselves if this is the direction you’d really like to continue going as a nation.

A personal perspective article in Science Careers magazine last week had an even more bleak perspective on the job market for PhDs, specifically the Life Scientist Bubble.

“I have seen a comparison of a postdoc with a piece of equipment that is replaced whenever there is a new model on the market—and nobody buys a second-hand Polymerase Chain Reaction machine.” Victoria Doronina in The Life Scientist Bubble

Did she just call me a used piece of lab equipment? Maybe so, but she’s in the same boat… or maybe it’s garage sale. This was not the pep talk I needed as I am preparing to start sending out job applications.

This brings up a more sinister reason for calls for additional STEM trainees, which was also explored in the article by Robert N. Charette. An oversupply of STEM workers at all levels means they are cheaper for the market and suppresses STEM wages. Governments laud the need for more STEM trainees because they provide the innovation for the future (and national defense). This justifies certain policy shifts in subsidies for higher education, another winner of the not-enough-STEM-trainees ideology. Still, you won’t find me arguing for fewer STEM trainees because they do find employment and become productive in the fields where they land. Also, I think that many training programs (at least at the graduate level) are beginning to emphasize career preparation for diverse fields and not just the implicit academic track that has been the default model for decades.

So, what’s a girl with a PhD to do? Of course I have to be realistic about the potential job markets to which I am applying (academia, industry, government, non-profit), just not to the point of throwing a giant pity party with a casino theme (the-deck-is-stacked-against-me!). Yes, I’m highly trained in a very specific research field, and I am enamored with the possibility of making it a career-long pursuit. However, I was first and foremost trained to be a tenacious problem solver by whatever means necessary. I feel like I could be a productive contributor in just about any setting. Whether or not it actually benefits my career, I still feel compelled to advocate for change in our current scientific training and support system. Since the rest of the American public is also a stakeholder, I’d encourage you to do so as well.


*Professors’ salaries are covered by University budgets.

References and Further Reading:


One thought on “Labor Day and the STEM Job Market

  1. Pingback: Employment in Science | New Under The Sun Blog

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