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Stemming the Tide

Ambitious students take heed: a math major may be a better choice than a law degree. Georgetown’s latest education report names Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) the safest bets for high wages and consistent demand. It reads:

High and rising wage premiums are being paid to STEM workers in spite of the increasing global supply […]

Demand for the [STEM] core competencies is far greater than the 5 percent traditional STEM employment share suggests, and stretches across the entire U.S. job market, touching virtually every industry. Since 1980, the number of workers with high levels of core STEM competencies has increased by almost 60 percent.

The deeper you dig into the report the better it gets for STEM graduates. Both undergraduate and graduate STEMS earn roughly 50% more than their non-STEM counterparts. Longtime guild-industries like academia, medicine and law will stick around, and at the top these fields will still offer good pay, but those top slots are going to get harder to find.

Stem students face better odds.  Rather than be replaced by robots, STEM graduates may design or work with them.

STEMS are going places, but don’t think the classic liberal arts have lost their importance. Via Media has long prescribed the classics to cover the basics: reading, writing, clear-communicating and incisive thinking. Ms. Rich of the NYT agrees:

In surveys of employers, one of the biggest complaints about technical workers is that they “can’t talk and can’t write a memo and have horrible interpersonal skills.” So maybe the best course of study is a double major. Physics and poetry, anyone?

Actually, Via Meadia would prefer physics and classics or biology and history.  “Poetry” is a little too vague and one feels that contemporary poetry and, worse, poetry criticism, is poor preparation for communicating effectively in the workplace.

What the STEM classes and the classic humanities have in common is this: they require students to master a coherent body of knowledge and learn clear thinking and accurate expression.  There are many ‘disciplines’ that don’t do any of that; they encourage mushy thinking about mushy fields.

But something else emerges from this important study that students and parents need to keep in mind.  What you study is more important than where you study it; students who take solid courses at solid schools will often learn more and do better than students who take empty classes as flashy name schools.

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  • Anthony

    Educationally and professionally STEM students/graduates as well as students/graduates seeking classic education benefit by mastering coherent body of knowledge; which leads to both clear thinking and accurate expression (assuming solid preparation, schools, and instructors).
    You provide premise WRM to successful university/college start and a way to stem the tide.

  • J R Yankovic

    ” ‘In surveys of employers, one of the biggest complaints about technical workers is that they “can’t talk and can’t write a memo and have horrible interpersonal skills.” So maybe the best course of study is a double major. Physics and poetry, anyone?’

    “Actually, Via Meadia would prefer physics and classics or biology and history. ‘Poetry’ is a little too vague and one feels that contemporary poetry and, worse, poetry criticism, is poor preparation for communicating effectively in the workplace.”

    What a masterstroke of honest insight – even for those fools, like me, who still entertain hope of combining physics and poetry (just so long as it’s not the contemporary garbage).

  • class factotum

    My husband was Phi Beta Kappa at Rice, majoring in electrical engineering and minoring in French. My college boyfriend, who majored in physics and EE, took some English classes with me (alas, I changed my major from EE to English after three semesters) and did very well. Almost all the science and engineering majors I knew at Rice also did very well in their liberal arts classes.

    It wasn’t until I got to grad school (UT, business) that I found people with poor communications skills. It was good for me – I had it easy on group projects because all I did was write the final paper and writing a paper, especially a technical paper as opposed to an analysis of “Titus Andronicus,” is a piece of cake.

  • J B

    As a graduate with a philosophy / economics degree, I can attest to the virtues of combining skill sets. I have been trained to write in English, unlike many of my solely economics-focused peers, and I was more practically employable than my fellow philosophy nerds by an order of magnitude.

    It’s great to excel at one thing, but it’s far better to excel at multiple things. You do not want your employer (or the graduate schools you may later apply to) to think of you as a one-trick pony.

  • elpenor

    It may be that this article says less about trends in society and the market than it does about those in academia. Your takeaway — take solid courses – says it all.

    The liberal arts melody is like the piano playing in a whorehouse; such sweetness and light has precious little to do with the business at hand. For every Paul Kennedy, there are a hundred hacks doing second-rate imitations of some third-rate disciple of Nietzsche. What you say about poetry and poetry criticism is true across the board for most of the humanities.

    It used to be that liberal arts education was supposed to be an encounter with greatness. Now it is the greats — and along with them, the clarity and elegance of thought and style that might have followed from such an education — who are schooled for their failure to adhere to the passing political fads of the day. All this intellectual open-field running leaves little time or taste for drilling in the fundamentals of blocking and tackling, such as writing something that might be pleasing, or at least not a pain, to read. Unable to write well, students cannot read or think with any level of sophistication or clarity. They are abjectly unable to articulate all the yelping and thrashing their teachers have instigated.

    This of course has turned off students, and in doing so blunted their innocent felt need for an education and the challenge to raising themselves in a manner that would facilitate the flourishing of their talents.

    Employers, needless to say, have noticed it too.

    Academia seems not to have noticed, or to care. Indeed, it’s questionable how much this sort of education ever mattered. Many of those who can profit from it will get it anyway; Abe Lincoln did pretty well without a liberal arts degree. Many of those who do get it have little aptitude or true interest in it.

  • Brock

    So, in other words, the quadrivium pays well and the trivium allows you to manage others and work in teams well.

    I guess Medievel educators knew what they were doing after all.

  • Nate

    It seems, both from personal interaction as well as through media, that STEM and the humanities are somehow in conflict with each other. As if all STEM students are robots or misanthropes and that all humanities students are mushy headed fools.

    Perhaps contemporary employment needs direct us to specialize, but I don’t think that the undergraduate curriculum is so tight that exposure to multiple disciplines must be shunned.

    Professors of the humanities (especially, in my opinion: classics, english, history, etc.) hold a special role in that they *can* facilitate that exposure to greatness as well as help their students experience (if even only a little and that through the proxy of text and art) a fuller range of what it is to be human and the great and varied experiences that we all have.

    Today, those oriented towards the humanities can hardly lay claim to “critical thinking” without having a sound exposure to the contemporary body of math, physics, chemistry, biology, and the practice of analysis and engineering.

    The pursuit of STEM knowledge, from the initial position of the humanities, shouldn’t be foreign. Natural philosophy is the root of modern science and humanities students should feel some familiarity, as such.

    A well rounded education is possible, even while specializing, and has the potential to bring perspective and insight to the practice and application of both the humanities and STEM disciplines.

  • Nate

    Does STEM include the study of statistics?

  • CGood


    I would think that STEM *can* include the study of statistics as it is a branch of mathematics.

    But if someone specializes in statistics, they would especially need a good grounding in the classics, especially topics such as analytical thinking & ethics, even more than most math majors.

    I say this because statistics is a field where the results can be easily made to look one way or another based on methods & underlying assumptions.

    When statistics is done well, by someone who understands what they are trying to find out & also understands the underlying assumptions of the equations, sampling method, and experimental setup they are using, it can be a beautiful thing.

    But when statistics *isn’t* done well or the statistician doesn’t fully understand and correct for the ways errors can creep in, you wind up with the situation expressed in the saying “there are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics.”

    I have an engineering degree which required a course in engineering statistics — and I enjoyed the course very much. But most of my classmates referred to that course as “sadistics” because there are so many hidden ways the results can be skewed.

    Just as an example, when I worked as an engineer part of my job was running occasional product tests. Trying to find out what an appropriate sample size was and what degree of confidence I could get from various different sample sizes (and, for that matter, were the samples all pulled from manufacturing at the same time, or with a multitude of date stamps? but when I was looking for a particular problem that had only shown up in recently made products, then I *wanted* samples that were within a narrow range of date stamps) was a challenge in and of itself. Fortunately, the 3rd party lab I dealt with for renting temperature chamber time had a lab supervisor with MilSpec testing experience and he helped me quite a bit with suggestions of established standards to look at and giving me feedback on whether my sample sizes would be adequate to find anything meaningful.

    But as you can see just from that one description of one project, while statistics can (and probably should be) considered part of STEM education, both teachers and students need to be extra diligent in not falling into the trap of “mushy thinking about mushy fields.”

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