Another look at science graduates

Sarah Blackford is Head of Education & Public Affairs, Society for Experimental Biology

With my professional careers adviser hat on, I would like to add to CaSE Director Imran Khan’s commentary on the ‘Is there a shortage of scientists?’ paper which was published in the British Journal of Educational Studies and picked up by the press recently on the basis of a press release issued by the British Educational Research Association.

Believe me, the majority of HE careers advisers would tell you that the HESA figures on which the paper is based should be taken with a large pinch of salt. The data are derived from surveys (known as the ‘The Destination of Leavers from Higher Education’, DHLE, survey) conducted by university careers services who are required by government to find out what at least 80% of their graduates are doing within 6 months of graduating. I repeat, within 6 months of graduating. And this is where I think the weakness of this paper lies.

The context

Since ‘planning ahead’ and ‘students’ are, in the main, an oxymoron, we are almost bound to find that around 30% (or more) of graduates (of any degree discipline) have gone back to their vacation/temp jobs while they look for a ‘proper job’ and that others (about 10%) are unemployed (some take a ‘ breather’ or gap year before they embark on their career and it is during this time they receive the survey form).

The 2010 figures (taken from “What do Graduates do?” – a publication which reports on the UK-wide figures for all degree subjects – ) show that for the sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering) over 50% of those graduates who are employed within 6 months of graduating go into a ‘graduate job’ with different proportions of these going into scientific/technical jobs.

In terms of graduates entering a profession connected to their degree discipline these figures are much higher than for the social sciences, arts and humanities. The figures also show that large proportions (30 – 40%) of science and engineering graduates continue their studies including, higher degrees, which suggests that are specialising further in order to increase their chances of gaining employment in a career related to their discipline.

Why don’t science graduates get science jobs?

There are probably a variety of reasons why science graduates don’t get into a scientific/technical job immediately after graduation (apart from the reason which affects all graduates, i.e. they just aren’t very good at career planning): (1) there are very few (if any) graduate training schemes for scientists; (2) scientific/technical employers generally don’t visit campuses; (3) many of the jobs are in SMEs which are hard to locate.

In addition, sandwich placements and other work experience previously offered by companies are now few and far between, which means that graduates can’t demonstrate the relevant skills required by employers. On top of this, some universities offer undergraduates library projects instead of lab-based projects during their final year, which leaves them with very little to ‘sell’ on their CV to prospective scientific/technical companies. Organisations such as learned societies and funding bodies are trying to redress this situation to some extent by offering placements and studentships to undergraduates – for example, for the biosciences see here.

Caution over figures

So, although this paper is true in its factual content (and is based on official HESA figures which are actually used to rate universities against each other) I believe the data have been mis- or over-interpreted.  The 6-month nature of the data means they should be regarded with caution and, as Imran rightly points out, the longitudinal data are probably far more accurate once students have found their feet three years after graduating and post-further or higher degree.

However, it seems that the press have picked up the scent of a great story from a press release which has focussed on one assumption made in the paper: “It is more likely, however, that  … there are no jobs waiting for them, or … they do not enjoy their subject areas”, and published a shock-horror scenario to make science look unappealing to our young people as they attempt to choose subjects on the basis of whether they will get a job at the end of their degree course.

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