Thursday, November 10, 2011

No, a science major does not guarantee you a job...


Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy is someone I respect a great deal, and I love his blog. But in this post, he tells one of the most blatant whoppers I've seen on the web in recent memory. The title of the post is "Want a job? Study science." The idea is that if you had just gone into a scientific career, you wouldn't be unemployed:

I heard of a database of college majors compiled by the Wall Street Journal based on the 2010 Census. Looking at people who took those majors in college, it lists...the employment rate for that major. 
I took a look, and listed the jobs by the lowest unemployment rate, asking, essentially, "Which jobs had the best chance of getting you a job after college?"...I highlighted one in particular: Astronomy and Astrophysics. Note that it has a 0% unemployment rate; in other words, last year everyone who majored in these fields got a job!...But look at the list more carefully...four of these ten majors are science-based (pharmacology, astronomy, atmospheric sciences, and geological engineering — yes, that last is not technically a science, but is science-based). If we broaden our look to science and technology, the list grows longer (especially if you go beyond the top ten)... 
[L]earning science trains you in a way that makes you employable. I have friends who left astronomy after grad school and got jobs doing climate modeling, computer game server programming, economic forecasting, and more. Once you learn the methods of science, you’re better prepared for working in other fields as well... 
But here’s the irony: a lot of folks in the government claim they are all about making sure Americans have job opportunities...If you want Americans to have good prospects out of college, find good jobs, and contribute to society, it seems to me that teaching science and technology are the very things you should be supporting most. 
First, let me say: I absolutely support teaching science and technology, a lot better and a lot more than we are doing right now. This is absolutely 100% right.

BUT, the story Phil is telling is just not right. Not right at all. It implies the same thing that many conservatives are saying openly - that the root of unemployment is on the supply side. That our high unemployment rate is simply due to the fact that we're not teaching kids the right stuff, or maybe that kids are choosing wimpy majors. And that story is just wrong wrong-ity wrong. This has been remarked upon by Matt Yglesias and Ryan Avent already, but just to drive the point home, I went through the Wall Street Journal database that Phil cites, and found the following unemployment rates:

  • Genetics: 7.4% unemployed
  • Biochemical Sciences: 7.1% unemployed
  • Neuroscience: 7.2% unemployed
  • Materials Engineering and Materials Science: 7.5% unemployed
  • Computer Engineering: 7.0% unemployed
  • Biomedical Engineering: 5.9% unemployed
  • General Engineering: 5.9% unemployed
  • Engineering Mechanics Physics and Science: 6.5% unemployed
  • Chemistry: 5.1% unemployed
  • Electrical Engineering: 5.0% unemployed
  • Molecular Biology: 5.3% unemployed
  • Mechanical Engineering and Related Technologies: 6.6% unemployed

Compare these with a 5.0% unemployment rate for all bachelor's degree holders in 2010.

Earth to Bad Astronomy: your short-list of fully-employed science majors is totally cherry-picked. (Note: the previous sentence is overly cheeky. I didn't think it was intentionally unrepresentative.) Overall, science and engineering majors are suffering right along with everyone else in the country, because that is what happens when we are in an economic depression. And all those astronomers who have plenty of jobs? Guess what: they're employed because they work for the government. Yep, that's right, the same government whose ability to provide employment Phil laughs at. (Note: I was counting universities as part of the government, which is of course not precisely true. So, government or nonprofit. But the point stands: education, along with health, is the best field to go into right now if you want to be guaranteed a job.)

In other words, Macroeconomics: 1, Get-a-Haircut-and-Get-a-Real-Job-ism: 0.

If you want a job, consider not voting for politicians who think fiscal austerity is a smart move. And in the longer term, if you want a job, consider voting for politicians who will regulate the finance industry.


Update: Phil Plait responds. Yes, I definitely did get colorful with the phrase "cherry-picking"...I'm sure Phil didn't intentionally ignore all the science majors with high unemployment. And yes, universities are not entirely government-funded. He and I both agree, of course, that better science (and math) education would be a really good thing, and that conservative ideologues who want to take science out of school curricula are threatening the future of the nation.

Also, I'd like to point out that Phil's immediate acknowledgment of his oversight stands in stark contrast to how most bloggers, especially econ bloggers, usually respond when they make errors. I feel like there really is something special about the culture of scientists. I think economics could use a lot of that skeptcism and intellectual honesty.

21 comments:

  1. A lot of the lobby for more technical training comes from companies who want to be able to get better employees for lower prices.

    I remember in Canada around 2000, Nortel was lobbying for more technical training because they wanted to hire more engineers. Guess what happened to all the engineers who went to work for Nortel?

    If companies want more technically trained people they need to pay more so fewer of the brightest go into banking and law.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Noah, you still don't get it. I'm perfectly fine with the argument that public funds should be spent on hiring people...but you still haven't explained why you would prefer the government's allocation decisions rather than taxpayers' allocation decisions.

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  3. Raw employment/unemployment numbers don't tell the whole atory.

    In the Detroit area lots of engineers work for contract houses, not as on-roll employees at major corporations. This has been going on for the last several years - it is NOT a result of the current depression.

    Engineering used to be a career. Now, it's just a job.

    Sadly,
    JzB

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  4. We send 40% of our teen aged kids to college -- about a million and a half new students per. We have STEM jobs for about 3% of the workforce -- call it 4.5 million people, of whom say 100,000 will retire in any given year, I.e., we need one kid in fifteen to become a scientist, engineeer, mathematician, programmer, etc. Note that R&D spending as a proportion of GNP hasn't grown in about 50 years. Note also that engineers and scientists entering the country on HI-B visas substitute nicely for American-reared STEM students. So the one in fifteen estimate is sctually too high, but wotthehell...

    So what do we do with the 14 college kids out of 15 who can't find employment in STEM? Send them off to gas chambers?

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  5. I used to advocate that all of my students who were gifted and passionate pursue science, but watching the results has been heartbreaking.

    Students are encouraged to go into STEM fields because America supposedly needs a scientific workforce, but when they get out with their undergraduate degrees they find out they can't get a job in science, not without a phd.

    So then they get a phd, spending 6 or 7 years in grad schools while their classmates pass them by. They finish, and guess what, there aren't any jobs in science, even for phds! So what happens now? They take a job in finance or insurance, only now they are frustrated because they know all of this high level science that they'll literally never get to use.

    If we REALLY wanted to train more scientists, we'd make job prospects in science actually appealing. Science is an awful career.

    ReplyDelete
  6. My nephew, a physics graduate student at Brookhaven, asked me if I knew how physics Ph.D's made their cars go faster?

    How?

    They take the pizza delivery sign off the roof.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous4:29 PM

    thanks for pointing out the obvious; this whole STEM thing is another one of those right wing myths, like removal of strangling regs will increase employment.
    part of this myth is racism: it assumes that people in(insert fav erd world foreign country here) are not as smart as Americans.
    As it happens, Chinese and Indians are just as smart, and hard working, and now that they have good infrastructure and near world class universitys, a lot of cutting edge STEM jobs are gonna go.
    I work in Boston biotech, and you can already see the insanely labor intensive work done by PhDs in chemistry and molecular biology going to china as afast as you can say, setup a beijing office.

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  8. @Will, my dad would agree with you. He's a biochem PI who has produced probably 60+ PhDs in the last 30 years, and more than half of them aren't actually "doing" science in any way any more. Many go straight into other fields, mostly thanks to a severe lack of faculty or research opportunities. It doesn't help that decades of NIH budget cutting have made it almost impossible to get research grants any more, either.

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  9. While we're posting anecdotes on how awful science is as a career, I'll chime in. I'm just finishing up at Stanford, and the job market is absolutely empty for those of us in Biosciences. Furthermore, it's been this way for the better part of a decade (since the end of the NIH's budget expansion). I've worked at or attended several universities in the last 8 or 9 years for undergraduate/graduate school, and my observation has been that only about 30% of PhDs, even from top schools, ever find employment in science.

    Btw, I'm going into an MBA program in the Fall...

    ReplyDelete
  10. Xerographica said...

    " Noah, you still don't get it. I'm perfectly fine with the argument that public funds should be spent on hiring people...but you still haven't explained why you would prefer the government's allocation decisions rather than taxpayers' allocation decisions."

    Please look around you.

    To all - if we really needed more STEM majors, we'd see the salaries, benefits, working conditions improve. We'd see employers recruiting them eagerly, and recruiting those who are trainable, not just the top students in the top few programs.

    We'd see employers hanging on to 50-year old engineers, and paying for training as needed. If one of them were laid off, he'd get another engineering job within a few weeks.

    We see none of that.

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  11. One advantage of a science education is that you usually can drop down to something. I have a friend who screwed up his undergrad bio degree (drugs, bad grades, but graduated) but he did learn to run several kinds of computerized lab equipment and he's making $40,000-$50,000. Being a tech was not his original goal, but he's not in fast food.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous8:44 PM

      Drugs are fun.

      Delete
  12. "One advantage of a science education is that you usually can drop down to something."

    Sure and when I concluded that I was not smart enough to be an academic physicist/mathematics/computer science guy I dropped down and went to law school instead of grad school. The fact that really smart people who train in the sciences are able to mitigate their position is not a reason for training more engineers and scientists than we need.

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  13. hey noah, it definitely sucks that stemmers apparently have elevated unemployment rates. it also throws a wrench in the 'miseducation' hypothesis which fareed zakaria has been pushing. however, perhaps fareed is not too misguided; have you considered that we are suffering from a coordination conflict? like, something similar to a large-scale prisoner's dilemma? everyone faces the incentive to pick a 'fluff' major, even though we'd all be better off with a society full of engineers and scientists. as a result, the ones who *do* pursue tough majors face lower payoffs (like the non-confessing prisoners). any thoughts?

    ReplyDelete
  14. Daniel, or simply that we have as many engineers and scientists as we need, even in a normal economy.

    ReplyDelete
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    ReplyDelete
  16. Another said:
    "One advantage of a science education is that you usually can drop down to something."

    Absalon: " Sure and when I concluded that I was not smart enough to be an academic physicist/mathematics/computer science guy I dropped down and went to law school instead of grad school. The fact that really smart people who train in the sciences are able to mitigate their position is not a reason for training more engineers and scientists than we need."

    And this goes quadruple if getting this education means $20-60k in student debt. Or up to $100k.

    Nondischargable.

    ReplyDelete
  17. daniel j molitor said...

    " hey noah, it definitely sucks that stemmers apparently have elevated unemployment rates. it also throws a wrench in the 'miseducation' hypothesis which fareed zakaria has been pushing. however, perhaps fareed is not too misguided;"

    Fareed is a tool; he's the guy who was rooting for the Iraq War, and kept rooting until *after* the majority of Americans had figured out what's going on. Which say something about his brains or honesty.

    I'd use him as an example of a young Friedman.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Anonymous8:14 PM

    Those WSJ stats are bunk. The labor market stats that are being produced right now are complete bullsh as they can church the numbers up so easily by only counting certain groups of people looking for work. I would also argue that students getting an engineering degree now are in a lot higher demand than a 45 year old who has been in a niche engineering field for the past 15-20 years and probably isn't that ready to be molded into building and designing new things. If anyone actually believes engineers from a 4 year university are having problems getting jobs right now, then you obviously don't know any engineers, as them and all there friends are employed.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Anonymous7:31 PM

    I remember about 15 years ago, when the oil companies were crying to the WSJ that they were desperate! desperate! for geoscientists, and that jobs were going begging and that they were in a "hiring frenzy". And the WSJ published it all breathlessly, as though they had any actual data to back up the corporate bs. I happened to be teaching geosciences at a university at that time. I heard from one major oil company recruiter that he had 1800 applicants. Then I heard from one of the people who was hired by that oil company that he was in a group of 35. That's right: 1800 applicants, 35 hires. As a consequence of the PR, the number of people majoring in geology quadrupled the next year. Too bad for them: the "hiring frenzy" was over.

    My experiences as a geoscientist and teacher of geoscientists parallels those of @Will and @Jolly Green's father. There are very few jobs in science. I also note that the best are often not of much interest to companies who don't want employees who think for themselves. One of my colleagues supervised a master's student who was a geologist's geologist - fearless in fieldwork, and insightful in analysis. His master's degree would have been a doctorate in most places. He graduated and went to work running the computer network for a local school district. That big oil company with its "hiring frenzy" wasn't interested in him. The most brilliant of my fellow students in graduate school founded a new subfield with her research, looked for a job for five years, and then went to medical school.

    I'm glad you called Phil Plait for being a patsy for the universities and the corporations. Science is an important subject of study; like civics and history, everyone should understand it. But if you want a job, major in engineering.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Anonymous8:52 PM

    Here's what will happen if you get a science degree:
    1. You will never find a job let alone have a career in science.
    2. You will work in fast food.
    3. You will get hooked on heroin.
    4. You will never have sex (with an attractive girl).
    5. You will live in your Mother's basement with the lifestyle of a
    Puerto Rican.
    6. You will eventually "Go Postal".

    ReplyDelete