The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Where Have All the Chemists Gone?

Via Meadia is and intends to remain a liberal arts-friendly site.  Proud holder of a BA in English lit, I continue to believe that the traditional western curriculum provides an extraordinarily rich and useful intellectual, political and moral basis for young people who want to understand and change our world.

But many colleges have organized themselves so that kind of education is almost impossible to find these days, and nobody ever said that the liberal arts were the high road to wealth.  It therefore makes sense that the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields have long been the holy grail of education policy. Fears that America is falling behind in these subjects have inspired president after president to focus on improving America’s performance. Yet progress is slow. A perceptive article in the New York Times examines the challenges of educating a generation of kids in these difficult fields:

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors. [...]

After studying nearly a decade of transcripts at one college, Kevin Rask, a professor at Wake Forest University, concluded last year that the grades in the introductory math and science classes were among the lowest on campus. The chemistry department gave the lowest grades over all, averaging 2.78 out of 4, followed by mathematics at 2.90. Education, language and English courses had the highest averages, ranging from 3.33 to 3.36.

Ben Ost, a doctoral student at Cornell, found in a similar study that STEM students are both “pulled away” by high grades in their courses in other fields and “pushed out” by lower grades in their majors. [...]

The National Science Board, a public advisory body, warned in the mid-1980s that students were losing sight of why they wanted to be scientists and engineers in the first place. Research confirmed in the 1990s that students learn more by grappling with open-ended problems, like creating a computer game or designing an alternative energy system, than listening to lectures. While the National Science Foundation went on to finance pilot courses that employed interactive projects, when the money dried up, so did most of the courses. Lecture classes are far cheaper to produce, and top professors are focused on bringing in research grants, not teaching undergraduates.

I’ve written before about the usefulness of a STEM degree, and it remains the case that many of the best job opportunities lie in the more left-brained fields. Yet even the mix of good opportunities and pressure from on high has not been enough to encourage a generation of kids to break out their calculators.

As usual there is plenty of blame to go around. For the students, it is important to remember that despite what you may think, college is not a four-year party of self-discovery with some side educational benefits. In an earlier post, I wrote:

Your competition is working hard, damned hard, and is deadly serious about learning.  There’s nothing written in the stars that guarantees Americans a higher standard of living than other people.  Those of you who spend your college years goofing off in the traditional American way are going to pay a much higher price for this than you think.

This holds just as true now as it did then. If you find yourself complaining that the hard work of a STEM major is distracting you from your “real” college experience and you don’t have a large trust fund, you have some major attitude adjustments to make.  Make them now, while it’s relatively easy, or make them later when you are mired in student loan debt and working at Starbucks.

But if many students today, like young people through the ages, would often rather have fun and hang out than do hard work that will only pay off in some distant future, the educational system has some rethinking to do.  It looks as if teaching STEM courses well, especially perhaps at the freshman and sophomore levels, requires different talents and skills than conducting professional research.  Back in Pundit High we had some pretty good teachers in science, math (shout out to Mssrs. Choate and Broyles) and the hard parts of the liberal arts curriculum (Latin and Greek, for example).  Hard courses need better teachers than easy ones; perhaps the country should be doing more to develop and reward a suitable cadre of effective teachers who know how to help their charges fall in love with a demanding subject.

Parents also need to pay much closer attention to the decisions their kids take about the courses they take.  Unless you want to remodel your garage so your adult children can live there for the next twenty years, you might want to provide some guidance about the courses they choose — especially in the first two years of college.

And for those of you still committed to the liberal arts, remember this: nobody gets a life exemption from hard work.  If you are shying away from hard subjects in the liberal arts — no foreign languages, no courses that meet early in the morning, no classes with demanding reading lists — the only person you are cheating is yourself.

Published on November 6, 2011 2:10 pm
  • vbounded

    This column is off base. The NY Times article is misguided propoganda.

    Harvard Prof Richard Freeman and others have researched extensively how there are poor opportunities in science and engineering in the US, which is why the fields have poor pay and opportunities for advancement.

    Most of the talented science, math and engineering people I know became managers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, bankers, or fund managers because of the bad pay and opportunities in engineering.

  • http://gregq.wordpress.com Greg Q

    If you want to do interesting work in the sciences, you pretty much need a Ph. D. That’s 4 – 5 years undergrad, 5 – 6 years grad, and then maybe a 2 – 3 year post-doc. Engineering fields are different, you can get a decent job with a BS, and a better job with an MS. So that’s one problem.

    Another problem is the poor quality of American high schools. That 40% is getting weeded out of STEM classes because they lack the brains, or the educational skills, to make it in STEM, where you actually have to be right, not merely enjoy great self esteem.

    The lack of brains is not the fault of the high schools, the lack of study skills, IS.

  • B Buckner

    I disagree. All three of my children were possitively influenced by a chemistry/biology teacher in high school. He demanded hard work and taught our children how to think. My daughter got into an Ivy League school, studied liberal arts and is thriving in an executive training program at a national retailer. My next son is a senior in college studying chemical engineering. As one recruiter noted, it is refreshing to see a top notch engineering sturdent who can communicate. Again, kudos to his high school chemistry teacher who set him off on this course. Our son currently has four job offers, and good choices to make. There are excellent opportunities for American students in STEM if they do the work and excell.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      I have a cousin and a niece who are teaching science to pre-college kids. Very proud of them both.

  • Luke Lea

    @ “Proud holder of a BA in English lit,”

    Hey, me too! Even if it was my weakest subject. I wanted a well-rounded education, having been a math-and-science jock in high school. I never read a real book until I got to college, sophomore year in fact, unless you count Lassie Come Home in 10th grade or speed-reading Moby Dick in less than an hour (it was about a whale). But mostly I just played outdoors, and don’t regret it a bit.

  • Anthony

    “Researched confirmed in the 1990s that students learn more by grappling with open-ended problems…than listening to lectures.” The aforementioned assumed strong preparation and content at elementary and secondary levels – project based inquiry can compliment but not substitute for direct instruction delivered by various instructional methods. The key WRM as you intimate is capable teachers (instructors) imbuing future chemists with the love (passion) and dedication required to challege the demanding subjects – assuming strong preparation. Rethinking…very important as well as introducing value of STEM at early levels – whether careers as chemists are end line or not.

  • Mark

    Proud holder of a BA in history with a year of physics, chemistry, biology, math and engineering in college.

    The best thing I learned to do with this degree is how to communicate with people at all levels in the business world. At the same time, with my basic STEM classes, I can understand what my engineers are telling me.

  • JBD

    The date was fall of 1962. I sat in a large auditorium way back in the room as I was one of the last in line to get in. At least I was seated. The place was standing room only. The dean of the college of engineering at the University of Michigan welcomed us to the school and warned us that it’s not easy. “Look at the person on your left. Look at the person on your right. One of you won’t be in the sophomore class.” In practice it seemed like 1 in 3 of those pursuing an engineering degree in electronics made it.

    Most of the the freshmen wandered to one of the other fine schools on campus.

    Engineering is difficult. And if you’re going to stay the course you really must want it in your gut with a passion not far from love. It helps if you were one of the kids who tinkered with radios or with automobiles or even blowing up “spare” stumps with strange concoctions. Experience made college easier. Those who got into it because daddy was an engineer and expected the son to be an engineer mostly didn’t make it. The fire in the belly was missing.

    So what’s new today? Manufacturing in the US is a faint shadow of what it used to be. And computer aided design is doing away with the need for large teams just to build a small subassembly for a product like an airliner. You don’t need several passes trying to determine the proper airfoil for a Dreamliner. The computer performs an awful lot of the preliminary testing neatly and cleanly. The final product is then built and tested to confirm performance with little more than some computer drafting needed to tweak performance to specification. A small team can do what many larger teams did in the past.

    Despite a long career in engineering I don’t recommend anybody get into engineering these days, particularly if they want to do it for the money. If you must get into engineering do it because you build things, love it, and want to understand how to build them better. Go into it because your hobby is engineering.
    Otherwise, don’t waste your time.

    {^_^}

  • Corporate Warrior

    “My daughter got into an Ivy League school, studied liberal arts and is thriving in an executive training program at a national retailer.”

    Groan. Another fresh-faced young trainnee, without a clue, thinking the new suit and Coach clutch makes the executive. In three years, she will apply for that MBA in marketing program. Then in her late 30s, when her salary is high, her productivity questionable, and the quarterly numbers low, she will get canned. The reason?

    Discrimination, of course. What else? It could not possible be that her liberal arts background is simply not all that useful. Right?

  • Don51

    Many of the original state colleges and universities started as Agricultural and Mechanical institutions. Practical knowledge that lent itself to the needs and uses of the people of the state. Then there arose 2 year teachers colleges. Again, a practical need. Somewhere along the line ‘practical need’ stop being the justification and prestige supplanted it. Maybe its time to serious return to the original concept of A&Ms, Application and Medical in today’s terminology. Leave the ‘Liberal’ education to the private institutions that can absorb the legions of applicants on their own dime.

  • Mike

    I can tell you where all the chemists here in Germany have gone: I work with a lot of them in IT. They write software, manage databases, and design networks. Lots more have been retrained as schoolteachers. There is very little chance of a career as a chemist here unless they’ve done post-doc work. But I can take a chemist or physicist and make a competent network techie out of him or her in a couple of months on the job. But I think this is one case where the German labor market is more flexible than America’s, at least in IT. A “Quereinsteiger” is somebody that changes careers…it was even necessary to have a special word!

  • Chester White

    There’s yet another reason not to major in a STEM field: women are less likely to sleep with “nerds.”

    30+ years later I clearly remember this as a contributing factor for some guys.

  • Haiku Guy

    Universities don’t teach. Universities sort.

    They try to bring in a freshman class of their best engineering and science prospects, and then spend the next few years weeding out the mistakes. There is no good way to tell who can work at a higher level until you make them work at that level.

    Perversely, the weeding out process is much more effective if the quality of teaching in the itroductory classes is poor. The idea is to throw the kids into the deep end and see who swims. If you have a lot of good instructors and helpful resources, everybody can swim, and what’s the point of that?

    I remember my freshman statics class. On the first day the professor stood in front of the class and said “forces balance in all frames of reference”, and handed out the final exam. About half the class did well and half the class failed. He proceeded to spend the next 12 weeks talking about gliders, aerodynamics and plate tectonics, and it was a really fun class. At the end of the semester, he handed out exactly the same exam, and the same half of the class did well, and the same half failed.

    The University wanted to pass the students who could derive the subject matter from those seven words. If you couldn’t do that, they didn’t want to waste their time with you.

    (I passed, both times)

  • http:/Olcountryboy.blogspot.com Old Country Boy, Oklahoma

    Being an engineer for over 50 years, I note the difference between the liberal arts and engineering grading systems. As was stated to me by Dr. R. F. Mehl, the engineering program does not grade on the curve. It uses real numbers. If you are driving cown the highway, you don’t want to cross a bridge built by an engineer that was graded on the curve. Grading an engineer on the curve can cause disasters later. However, grading a liberal arts student on the curve can only cause a social disaster like Obama. And the unintended result is that the liberal arts person feels so good about him/herself that they can’t be corrected.

  • changjin89

    In this family we are hopeful that our precious eldest son will reach critical mass for internal ignition pursuing M.E. at his first choice (CalPoly SLO) or similar where the emphasis is on TEACHING undergrads and “learning by doing”. Have seen examples of engineering careers that had quite their fair share of grief, but am myself an example of an excellent liberal arts and business education that simply went pfft. Man proposes, but Our Lord has His purposes.

  • Robert

    I have a strong hunch that the STEM fields of study grade more accurately and honestly (which of course means lower), and that alone would be sufficient to drive away kids from those fields.

  • Larry O

    Universities typically put their weakest instructors at the front of freshman math classes. These are mostly graduate students, often from foreign countries with poor English language skills.

    This was true when I got my engineering degree 25 years ago, and it was still the case when my son took calculus. Professors do not teach freshman math.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @ Larry O: we probably wouldn’t be much good at it. Once you’ve been working in a field for decades it is very hard to realize how that field looks to a beginner. What’s needed is to promote and reward people who can teach these subjects well enough to inspire a real love and commitment among students. Putting senior professors in Calculus 101 would likely have the opposite effect.

  • M. Report

    The Chinese are smarter than we are, more
    numerous, and better educated, in the sense
    of having heads full of facts.
    Despite this, their educators and government
    are looking to the West for a way to motivate
    their students, to get them to raise their
    hand in class and answer a question they are
    not sure of, to innovate, to take risks.
    Our true advantage is that our children grow up in a free society; Finding and training the 1/3 who are capable of learning to think by going to college, and the progressively smaller but more critical fractions who can
    become engineers, scientists, and paradigm smashing creative geniuses is just hard work.
    P.S. For the ‘ordinary’ college student, the
    most important course they will take is English Grammar; If one does not know how
    to operate that amazing symbol manipulating
    meta-machine, one is half blind to reality.

  • jaed

    Someone with the intelligence to succeed in an engineering, science, or mathematics degree, who has a fair amount of verbal flexibility, can also succeed in legal studies, finance, or business. For the last couple of generations, prospects for Americans who study engineering and math have been iffy to say the least, while prospects for a smart lawyer or finance quant have been excellent. (For a few years during the dotcom boom, it was possible to make serious coin as a programmer, but that was just a few years. And programming during the boom didn’t require a degree, just a copy of a Java manual and a sense of destiny.)

    Lawyers, executives, and officials of all sorts also have higher social status. And there’s only so high you can go in engineering, while if you have a legal or business degree (and are smart and well-connected), the sky is the limit.

    The renumeration is better, the status is better, the high-end prospects are more promising, and the work is less demanding. Is it really surprising that many students figure all this out and decide engineering, math, and science aren’t the best choice?

  • Gringo

    Walter Russell Mead re having senior professors teaching freshman:
    Once you’ve been working in a field for decades it is very hard to realize how that field looks to a beginner.

    This observation holds true at higher levels. I had an engineering prof for two junior level courses who knew his subject quite well. In fact, he wrote the textbook we used.

    But as he had forgotten what undergrads know and do not know and do not know, and what is necessary to explain something new to them- how to break something down into intelligible parts- he was an abominable lecturer.

    If you could come to his office with a very well prepared question, he was helpful.

  • Rivit

    I went to a ‘good’ high school and had good grades, but, to my life-long disappointment, was washed out by the freshman engineering curriculum, poor teaching, non-english speaking TA’s, and lack of ‘learning skills’. US students have to first survive the worst education system in the world to then compete with the best and brightest from around the world.

    WHY do STEM schools seem to take pride in their high attrition rates (66%?!) instead of their high retention and graduation rates???

  • Claude Hopper

    I live in Oregon where we use to have a vibrant wood products industry. But to save some owls, we have decimated the forestry industry. But the forestry college at Oregon State U. still has 800 undergrads in their program. Why? I worry that the only work they will find after graduation (1000 in 5 years) is working for the Feds in make work forest management. That is essentially landscape maintenance (gardeners) along with imposing more limitations on us to protect the rivers, fish and old growth timber. Most of this is make work for college grads. It’s like FDR’s Works Progress Administration, better known as Work [sPit] and Argue (heavy on the latter two)..

  • WG

    Today, we focus on degrees rather than on educations. Students, parents, and even the government all seem more interested in credentials than in content. And we’re paying a high price for this mistake.

    Graduate school, especially, has become a road to disappointment for the thousands of people who find themselves with advanced degrees that prove of little worth on the job market. Misery and frustration have given rise to blogs like “100 reasons NOT to go to grad school”: http://100rsns.blogspot.com/

    In virtually every field, even in the hard sciences, there are too many graduate degrees for the market to bear.

  • Luke Lea

    Great comments!

  • MikeP

    Chemist here. BA in Chemistry from Ivy, MS in ChemEngineering done part-time while employed.
    I work for a major Industrial Chemical company, and it is not accurate that there are limited jobs. Certainly less then there were a couple decades ago, but most companies I know are having difficulty finding employees. There is very little unemployment for chemists or chemical engineering. And if a younger chemist or engineer was willing to live in Asia for a few years in an overseas assignment, the opportunities are boundless.
    If you wish to be a serious researcher, than a PhD is required. If you are flexible, you can leverage a BA/BS or MS in a hard science into a very successful career on the commercial side of a ‘science’ company…you have to know the science to be able to develop a decent business plan.

    All this talk about lack-of-jobs for science majors in the US is simply exacerbating the problem. Kids are not taking these majors because they are being told there are no career opportunities. That’s hogwash…there are plenty. Getting a chemisty/engineering degree with some bio opens up huge doors in sustainable/renewable chemistry, bioreactors for pharma, etc, etc.

    On a side note from my own experience, a major issue in higher education is the prevalence of ‘intellectuals’ in professorships. They design their courses to educate and select students for grooming as future professors. They are of an ilk and philosophy that industrial is bad, a necessary evil, and their ‘best’ students can do better. It taints the majors at many schools and drives out the more practical, conservative thinking students to whom a traditional career in industry sound just dandy.

  • Mark of Xlance

    @Walt Russel Mead @9:09 am

    That’s a cop-out. The University I went to demanded (and still does) that ALL profs teach. Even their most prestigious professors teach undergrad courses. My Physics 110 (beginning physics for STEM students) class was taught by the Dean of the Physics department. Not one of my classes in the four years I was there were taught by TAs. Advanced students were reserved for grading papers and lab assistants. And they were true ‘assistants’. The profs presided over every one of the labs.

    Is it mere coincidence that my alma mater was highly recruited by a large number of top national technical firms who often bypassed more “big-name” schools? A number of them wanted our Bachelor candidates but only recruited post-doctrinal candidates elsewhere.

    Was it pure coincidence that while I was in school I was rather “middle of the pack”, but once I got out and began competing with grads from other “engineering schools” I shot to the top?

    I think not.

  • Lina Inverse

    Echoing vboundedm, jaed and others, prior to the Great Recession when other fields took a downturn the job prospects for STEM graduates have progressively gotten worse over the last 3 decades. In the ’80s the NSF and the like apparently decided they were paying too much for scientific work and started a big campaign about how there were too few science and math graduates and how that had to be fixed on the supply side, in among other ways by bringing in a lot more 3rd World foreign grad students, for whom a stay in the US at low wages by our standards is a fantastic deal.

    As for “technology” and engineering, a similar thing happened in the ’90s when it would appear a lot of companies got tired of paying large salaries for this sort of talent and the H-1B program took off, drastically driving down salaries and opportunities for citizen graduates of those fields as 100s of thousands were brought into the country to do this work.

    In my field of computer programming and system engineering and administration this was initially masked by our thinking the legions of “unemployable” mainframe programmers were “dinosaurs” who couldn’t learn new stuff, but in truth they were laid off because they were experienced and therefore expensive. The big Y2K effort plus the dot.com and telecom bubbles were also confounding factors. But when both ended and the market for programmers and systems types became impossible … well, the nation’s CS major enrollment dropped by half, even at schools like MIT.

    Even then, I know the MIT’s best EECS graduates tended to become quants in finance, they had the math to do it and the pay is much much better; a lot of them still follow this path.

    Bottom line, this is America: if the nation truly valued STEM talents it would be willing to pay for them. Can we blame students and their families for responding to these financial (dis-)incentives? These are careers you should pursue only if you have a calling and degrees you should major in only if they are a means to an end of a good career, which is not necessarily going to be in the field of the major.

  • Maureen

    What about the scholarship/GPA factor?

    Most STEM fields expect that a good student will often be carrying a B or C average; in some classes, a D is a victory. But most academic scholarships and honors programs demand that every participant maintain a high A average.

    So if you aren’t part of the monied class and have to keep your scholarship to stay in school, you may have to change your major to do it — even if your STEM teachers think you’re doing quite well at your studies.

  • DaveG

    “You don’t need several passes trying to determine the proper airfoil for a Dreamliner. The computer performs an awful lot of the preliminary testing neatly and cleanly. The final product is then built and tested to confirm performance with little more than some computer drafting needed to tweak performance to specification.”

    Well, yeah, but not only did someone need to develop the software (IOW, IT jobs are plentiful, and the work can be rewarding), but someone versed in airfoil design and validation had to tell the developer what to develop. The tool set may have changed and created a new type of demand, but the underlying need for engineers has not.

    – BS in Computer Science, Ohio State University, College of Engineering

  • Lina Inverse

    Mark of Xlance: Funny thing, MIT is much the same way. All classes are taught by tenured or tenure track professors (one MUST be an “adequate” teacher to get tenure … as well as being #1 or #2 in your field). And of course recruiting by good employers is healthy.

    There are universities that get it, even if they’re also top research institutions. In the field of CS, the top 4 are Stanford, UC Berkeley, CMU and MIT and they all have outstanding undergraduate programs as well.

  • http://olcountryboy.blogspot.com/ Old Country Boy, Oklahoma

    I apologize for the typos in my previous comment.
    I would like to note that years ago, when we sent our best and britest, the top 15% of the highschool students, to university, we didn’t have the drop out rate we have now. These students were identified by good teachers as being capable of university study. The teachers pointed the really really best and brightest to the very best Universities. You had to audition to get into those schools. The less best and britest were directed towards good, second tier, schools.

    Now, at least 50%, including the not-so-best and not-so-britest, are directed to university and they are often accepted for social engineering prposes, and there are plenty of courses that those can complete in the liberal arts and “studies” curicula. These students will end up with a credential and no usable skills or knowledge, and often no jobs.

  • coggieguy

    Back in the 70′s I was a double major in biology/chemistry. Senior year the dean calls and says you can only get one degree, which is it? Spoke to my advisors about this – biology advisor gave a lot of wonderful resaons to take a degree in biology, my chemistry advisor said one thing – “You can always get a job as a chemist” – truer words have never been spoken. After working as a professionaol chemist for several years, I went back to grad school, got degrees in agricultural chemistry and have been cranking since. BTW, I had <3.0 in chem, but boosted my gpa taking history, economics and psychology courses. Saved art 100, music 100 and film appreciation for last semester senior year, partied down with a 4.0! Sheesh!

  • Bowser

    Where have all the chemists gone? That’s easy — China. There has been an ongoing, massive retrenchment in the employment market for US-based chemists for many years, and it is not a career that I would recommend. Pharma companies have been laying off tens of thousands of employees per year, including chemistry staff, in the US for nearly a decade, while building gleaming, new research and manufacturing centers in Asia. Bulk chemicals manufacturers have been abandoning the US as well, aiming for sites more suited to commodity production. The petroleum industry still needs good chemists, but not a particularly large number of them, so the competition there is incredibly tough — not so different from how Walmart gets hundreds of applicants for every position when it opens a new location. At least half of the career chemists I’ve known no longer work as chemists. Many of them have become mid-level administrators of various description in academic/non-profit institutions (quite mistakenly, academics tend to view industrial scientists as being not as “smart” as academics, so there is minimal likelihood of getting an actual faculty position), or get jobs doing work they hate at the EPA, etc., while others leave science altogether.

    I agree that it is a great thing to have challenging STEM courses on a student’s transcript — it proves to an employer that yes, this person fears neither numbers nor hard work — but that does not necessarily translate to actually finding a job in a STEM field.

  • RonF

    The interesting thing here is that people seem to think that STEM != “Liberal Arts”. Look up the definition of the term “liberal arts”, folks. Math, biology and chemistry are all considered liberal arts. You can get a B.A. in all of them at just about any liberal arts school.

    How can you possibly understand history if you don’t understand math to at least a pre-calculus level (and don’t say “they learned that in high school”)? If you don’t know anything about biology how can you interpret the social factors leading to the genesis and spread of the Black Death in Europe? How can you possibly understand enough about economics to be a political leader if you don’t have any math? How can you make intelligent decisions about public policy if you don’t have a basic understanding of science in this technological age? I think we see the answer before us every day – you can’t. At least, not a good one. Sure, the STEM fields are suffering because college kids run away from math and science. But the dirty little secret is that EVERY field suffers if the students in it (and these days, the instructors and authors) don’t understand basic STEM concepts and subject matter. STEM subjects have this nasty habit of enforcing reality on people – and THAT’S why so many run away from them.

  • RonF

    Maureen, what academic scholarship programs are you talking about? All the schools my kids applied to didn’t have any. Both the private and public schools they applied to and got into have purely needs-based financial aid programs. Your grades had nothing to do with it as long as you didn’t flunk out.

  • M&M

    After 8 years working as a chemist I gave up and went to law school. Why? Without a PhD, positions in chemistry or biology don’t pay diddly. You could make more managing a McDonalds. Given the technical knowledge, diligence and ethics required to be a good analytical chemist (for example), I don’t know why the pay isn’t better but it’s not. 6-10 more years to get a PhD while working full time or gut it out for 3 years and get the law degree? Easy choice. Also, most (not all) undergrad chemistry professors are assh*les who do their very best to discourage anyone from enjoying the subject matter. Again, no explanation, just an observation.

  • Jamie Irons

    Dear Dr. Mead,

    You and I both went to Yale (I graduated in 1969 with a degree in Molecular Biology and Biophysics). In that era, when mastodons still roamed the earth, we were required to learn both our science and mathematics, and at least a smattering of real and demanding liberal arts (in my case German and English literature).

    The one thing I took away from my college experience was a love of learning for its own sake, which to this day keeps me reading Homer in the Greek and learning new fields in mathematics, at least at the upper undergraduate level (analytic number theory is my latest passion).

    My wife and I have four sons; all graduated from either one of the U.C.’s or Stanford. Unhappily, though they all did quite well and became either engineers or (in one case) a Russian scholar, none was really given a chance (it seemed to me) to learn as much in the (real) liberal arts as I would have preferred.

    But I’ve obviously become a crotchety old you-know-what!
    :-)

    I really enjoy your writing; I first discovered your work years ago, when I discovered I was a Jacksonian, thanks to you.

    Jamie Irons

  • Liz

    I’m always intrigued at the assumption that majoring in STEM subjects *will* give a greater long term payoff than majoring in other subjects.

    I maintain that the students changing majors are on to something. The way that the immigration system works means that it’s becoming impossible to make a career in STEM subjects.

    The H1-B visas, for instance, are the means by which software employers undercut native born computer scientists and engineers. They take in people from India who cannot challenge them, pay them a pittance and then turf them out before they start to get notions.

    College is still an important signifier of intelligence, culture and work ethic, regardless of what one thinks of what people actually learn there. It’s still necessary, although people are – thankfully – less willing to take out monumental loans to attend.

    But people are not willing to do the work in STEM fields, unless there is some possibility that they will gain some reward in the medium and long term. That is what is missing.

    Considering the realities, college students might as well study something they enjoy. The end result will almost certainly be the same.

    The supposed shortage of engineers, scientists etc., was a very clever way for Big Business and Big Govt (remember, the government loves cheap scientific labor as well) to justify bringing in cheaper workers.

    That became the reality once people realised that there was no payoff for studying STEM subjects.

  • Allison

    –t looks as if teaching STEM courses well, especially perhaps at the freshman and sophomore levels, requires different talents and skills than conducting professional research.

    It’s not a question of talent and skill but incentives. If a university rewards a prof for research and therefore penalizes time spent on teaching, there’s little incentive to spend time or talent coming up with better ways of teaching undergrads. Whether a lecture is or isn’t good is less relevant than the issue of economy of scale for the dept and for the prof. Improving his lectues by 50% would improve his research output by what? -10%? not worth it then.

  • sdb

    Employment trends for physics can be found here:
    http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/emptrends.html

    I suspect that the ACS has something similar for chemists.

    I teach at a land grant research university. Here, professors rotate through the freshman courses, however, we still rely heavily on lecturers (PhD and MS instructors who do not do any research). Graduate students are not allowed to be the instructor of record for any course – that was true at the institutions where I did my PhD and post-doc as well. Graduate students supervise lab and recitation sections but not lecture based courses. I don’t doubt that some research institutions allow graduate students to teach courses, but I suspect that it is less common than most people seem to think. Perhaps students don’t differentiate between their courses and recitation sections?

    The trade off between having faculty teach versus reliance on lecturers is class size. In our math department, we have made a commitment to keeping our intro math classes under 30 students/section. Every student on campus has to take at least one math class, and our STEM students have to take at least four. The math department offers several hundred sections of service classes every semester with a department of 40 faculty (one of the larger departments on campus). By shifting from large lecture hall classes led by faculty to small courses led by instructors, the failure rate has dropped considerably. It isn’t clear to me whether this is because students really learn better or because non-tenured lecturers are less likely to fail students.

    Work by Carrell and West provide some insight here (www.nber.org/papers/w14081). They studied teaching effectiveness at the Air Force Academy. They looked at course grades, teaching evaluations by students, and grades in follow-on courses. Because cadets didn’t get to pick their section and had a large common set of courses, the researchers where able to remove a number of potential biases from their work. They found that students who took courses from more senior faculty tended to earn lower grades and rate the course lower. However, they did better in the follow-on courses. The AirForce Academy is a special place in many ways, so the results may not translate directly to State U, but it is worth thinking carefully about.

  • pep

    For the last couple of generations, prospects for Americans who study engineering and math have been iffy to say the least, while prospects for a smart lawyer or finance quant have been excellent.

    That may once have been true, but Insty has lots of links that clearly show that the bloom is off the law school rose. I’d much rather have my science degrees now than a law degree.

  • craig

    To some extent, STEM has been infected by the same credentialism that plagues the liberal arts. Since the STEM body of knowledge is more empirical and mathematically rigorous than its liberal arts equivalents, the quality of a STEM education is measurable against testable results. Yet we see the posts above rationalizing grade curves and bad teaching in order to weed out applicants.

    The grade curve has had pernicious effects on the overall quality of instruction. When academic departments treat students as supplicants, they ignore their duty to provide an actual education in return for money spent. While it is true that interns and apprentices have been abused by their teachers for centuries, it is also true that interns and apprentices were not paying the price of a house for the privilege.

    The first time I took a job-related training course after graduating from college, I was astonished at how the course was designed to master a set of specific skills, and how the instructional time was devoted to making sure all the students ‘got it’ and not to speculative probing for students who could show mastery beyond what had actually been taught. The difference, of course, is that the training courses were expensive and under pressure to prove their worth to client companies. University professors are more interested in locating the likely future graduate students among the class.

  • Oscar de Leon

    Long time reader first time poster. I wanted to give some perspective from the 24-28 year old crowd. I’d say 30% of my college friends are currently in or just finished grad school. There are 6 in law school, 3 in Med and a 1 for a PhD in Chem. The rest, god bless ‘em, are earning their masters’ in Education or Public Policy and probably will not recoup their opportunity cost for 15 years.

    As a previous poster noted, the middle management roles business people my age will have in about 10 years are going be extremely competitive as private industry continues to tighten its belt and older employees stay in the workforce.

    I’m currently applying for an MBA but unless I get into a top 10 school, I’m just going to go part time because I can’t rationalize leaving a stable job (which I am eternally grateful for) and incurring 100k in debt.

  • http://www.asclab.org Bob McGrail

    Yes, yes, some areas of STEM lead to more lucrative/interesting careers than others. The problem, as the author makes perfectly clear, is that not enough of recent graduates are assigning much importance to such considerations in their choice of major. Bravo, Professor Mead. This RKC inhabitant is pleased to share this article.

  • M.

    Chemistry major here with a PhD in biochem. I’ve submitted easily over 200 resumes online looking for a research job since graduating in May. I’ve made it abundantly clear (online, in person, and at networking events) that I will happily take anything from a lab tech position on up, and working my way up would be ideal. I have great references in industry and academia. I’ve offered to be the subject of informal working interviews so potential employers can see firsthand how I work. There’s nothing out there. Everyone can afford to wait, and no one wants to train anyone. Telling people that STEM is this magic way out of ever being unemployed is completely false. I worked my ass off in undergrad, grad school was possibly the most unpleasant dysfunctional situation I’ve ever been in, but I successfully defended my thesis and graduated despite my adviser’s best efforts to prevent that from happening. But none of that matters. I have no idea what else I can do to make myself more employable. And as for Starbucks? Give me a break; I’m not spending $3 for a stupid cup of coffee. I sit at my kitchen table, and I’m writing a business plan to try to get an idea I have for cancer treatment off the ground, despite knowing that I’m incredibly unprepared to head up a company.

    Because there’s literally nothing else I can do. I’ve hustled, I’ve worked my network the farthest extent possible, and.. nothing.

    There’s no point in pushing STEM education when there aren’t enough jobs in the field. The market’s flooded. This isn’t relevant anymore. You want a relevant topic? How to make it so people who don’t belong in college don’t get there. How to attach genuine value to a bachelor’s degree. How to make a PhD once again meaningful. How to get creative people into the sciences and how to foster the creativity to solve problems, instead of turning out a bunch of good little bureaucrat drones. How broken the scientific academic milieu really is (example; how genuinely new ideas are received). There will be no advancement in the sciences without a major paradigm shift in how the subjects are taught.

  • Georgiaboy61

    Re: “Where have all the Chemists Gone”
    In a nutshell, they’ve switched into fields that reward their hard work and promise a better prospect of employment. I should know, I am an advanced-degree holder in biochemistry. The typical scientist must undergo years of rigorous training in order to acquire an undergraduate degree, let alone an MS or Ph.D. Once trained, said scientist may go into academia or perhaps work for a pharmaceutical or medical products company. There, he will be relegated to the basement or out-of-the-way lab to do the work of discovering and developing the company’s products, without which no one else in the firm or its stockholders can make money. Our hypothetical scientist, having discovered a drug that makes his company millions (perhaps billions) gets a nice pat on the back and a modest 10K bonus, while some finance major who has never seen the inside of a lab in his life, gets promoted to CEO and pockets a seven-figure salary and bonuses. The above is a true story, it happened to a former colleage of mine at a Fortune 500 company.

    When the business cycle takes a downturn, who gets let go first? All those MBAs, finance types, and related – or the scientists, engineers, etc. upon whom actual discoveries depend? Logic would dictate that non-scientists suffer equally in bad times, but that isn’t the way it happens. R&D is among the first things cut in a down economy. As noted above, even when times are good, scientists and engineers get typecast as not having what it takes to be managers and executives, being the “impractical intellectuals” that they are, unaccustomed to working in the “real world.”

    In short, we aren’t producing scientists and engineers because our society does not reward them commensurate with their contributions to our way of life and society. Tech talent is viewed as just another commodity to be off-shored to India or China. Students inclined to pursue STEM fields are already among the brighest and most-motivated of their cohort. They aren’t dumb, you know – they can read the writing on the wall. They see that being a scientist or engineer isn’t what it used to be and they are making their career choices accordingly. Why choose a life of backbreaking labor and unrelenting intellectual effort to become a scientist, when you can be that scientist’s boss with less effort, and get paid more for the privilege?

    Incentives matter, and we have disincentivized entry and employment in many of the STEM fields.

  • Dave Eaton

    “If you must get into engineering do it because you build things, love it, and want to understand how to build them better. Go into it because your hobby is engineering.
    Otherwise, don’t waste your time.”

    Ph.D. Chemist here, and I would say the same to prospective scientists. I make a good living and am very happy at my job as a research scientist. I make a lot less than an MBA, JD or executive-level engineer does at my company and at most others. But what I do gets to the bottom, nitty-gritty of why things work or do not, which motivates me.

    I get to do something unusual and interesting every day- stuff that sometimes gets integrated into automobiles or jet planes, which is why they pay me to do interesting things. I understand that I am not being paid to have fun. I also know that nobody cares if I have fun if I produce, so it’s all good. This is one of the things a STEM education can do.

    I never once thought about what my job prospects were. I worried more about whether I could find a place that would let me do what I am good at doing. And I wondered “What the hell else could I stand to do?” and not much came to mind. I am not a dummy, but college and grad school was hard work. It happened to be interesting, too, so it was OK.

    There may be a lot of fluctuations in the market for any given profession. STEM careers have the advantage, I think, that there is almost always some reason to look closely at things and do them better. One company may forget that the road to profit is paved with wrestling things away from mother nature. This is an opportunity for anyone who is not similarly blind. The world is still full of limitless amounts useful stuff to be discovered, developed, and made into something that helps someone enough for them to pay for it. But the only reason to go down this road, which involves a lot of direct kicks to the teeth, is out of love.

  • M&M

    From a PhD Chemist (above): “I make a lot less than an MBA, JD or executive-level engineer does at my company and at most others. But what I do gets to the bottom, nitty-gritty of why things work or do not, which motivates me.”

    Read well prospective Chem (or Bio) majors. You’d better enjoy the work because you’ll be making less than the business majors who coasted and got A’s just for showing up in class.

  • http://www.tempeteaparty.org Lee Reynolds

    There are only so many nerds to go around.

    A good analogy might be competitive sports. The best coaches in the world can’t make Danny Devito into a star basketball player, or Pee-Wee Herman into a linebacker. The best teacher in the world can’t make a future insurance salesman into a scientist.

    The people who want to go into science, and who have the intellectual prowess to do so successfully, are already there. There is no vast untapped reservoir of would-be Einsteins waiting for the right kind of teacher to come along.

    You can’t teach dumb kids to be smart. The most you can do is identify those who are smart and put them on an academic track that will lead them to a career where their talents will not be wasted. This is precisely what we used to do. Then somewhere along the way people started pretending that the reason why smart kids were smart had something to do with the education they received, as opposed to raw genetics. They saw correlation and pretended it was causation.

    The result has been an educational system in America that pretends all kids should go to college, when in truth only about 25% are college material. The second result has been the watering down of the curriculum at our colleges and universities to make space for all the people who in generations past would have found gainful employment through trade schools or apprenticeships.

    It is often said that in today’s world a college degree is a fundamental requirement for a good job. Well that isn’t precisely true. It appears to be true because most of the people who have good jobs have degrees. But the real truth is that those who have good jobs are more intelligent than those who do not. Having a college degree is signalling device that demonstrates to employers that the person who holds it is more capable than someone who does not. When this degree is in a difficult field it demonstrates that this person has the capacity to master that field. It is also a tacit conspiracy among those who have degrees to exclude those who do not, similar to licensing and certifications among blue-collar workers

    But what happens when someone goes to school and gets a degree in a field that does not require intellectual firepower? The holder of such a degree is no better off than someone with no degree at all the moment the market realizes that the degree does not indicate anything positive about that person.

    This is precisely what has happened. The holders of such degrees can be found in spades among the members of the “Occupy” movement. They thought that going off to school and borrowing 50k or more for a degree in “Peace Studies” or some other equally irrelevant gobbledygook would secure them a position as a credentialled professional. The fact that they believed something so ridiculous should tell anyone paying attention everything they need to know about how dim their bulbs are.

    America is no longer a place where someone of average intelligence can rise to the top of the sand heap. The highest paying jobs require the highest intellectual ability. This is not going to change. The best those of middling intellect can hope for is to secure a middle class existence.

  • Eric

    An interesting bias in industry is towards chemical engineers. Chemist positions pay badly, but here in Australia a graduate chemical engineer can easily land US$100k/a first year out of university.

    I’ve come to think it is a branding issue, since effectively in entry level jobs the chemists and chemical engineers were about the same.

    The chemists tended to have a better attitude because they were on the bottom of the prestige pile therefore didn’t think that life owed them any favours. Chemical engineers quite often have a degree of inflexibility because they had higher university entrance scores (not far off medicine) and sometimes thought they knew what chemical engineering was supposed to be better than the people paying them did.

    Yes I’m a chemist (PhD), but I do chemical engineering as it pays much better. : )

  • Vader

    “Universities don’t teach. Universities sort.”

    Only half true of STEM, which I think is the heart of hte issue. Sure, STEM get sorted ruthlessly. That part is true. But the notion that a STEM graduate knows little more than the incoming STEM freshman is risible.

    Above all else, STEM field require ability in mathematics. It doesn’t come naturally; it really has to be taught. And there’s no fudging around it; you either can solve the equation or prove the theorem, or you can’t.

    Back when liberal arts meant learning Latin and Greek, there was similar rigor in those fields. You could either give a plausible translation of the Latin or Greek text placed in front of you, or you couldn’t. There really wasn’t any fudging around it. But with the demise of languages as the core of the liberal arts curriculum, the rigor went out of those fields.

  • http://academicvc.com Stephen Fleming

    Engineering is the new liberal arts degree.

    http://academicvc.com/2010/10/11/engineering-education-in-georgia/

    A classic liberal arts education used to be the foundation of a free citizenry. I no longer believe that. The liberal arts have been hijacked by post-colonial post-rational trans-national elites who are increasingly out of touch with the real world. At the same time, the problems facing the citizenry — from trace pollutants to bioterrorism to human cloning to sustainable energy — demand a higher level of technical knowledge than you can get from a modern “liberal arts” curriculum.

    (It shouldn’t be possible to graduate from Harvard without taking calculus. But it is. You can get a degree from Harvard with your sole “quantitative reasoning” class being “Practical Math,” which appears to be a review of basic arithmetic plus tips for using Microsoft Excel.)

    If you’re 18 years old and have no idea what you want to do with your life… major in engineering! I don’t really care what branch of engineering. The interesting stuff happens at the edges, anyhow (merging electrical engineering with biomedical engineering leads to implantable heart monitors, etc.). But, engineering remains rigorous, engineering remains grounded in reality, and you can’t gobbledygook your way to an engineering degree. If you get the design wrong, or flub the calculations, the bridge will fall down, and not all the neo-Marxist deconstructionist twaddle in the world will change that.

    Engineering will kick your butt, but you will learn something… and you’ll learn how to learn. (Something that cannot be said for the earnest young undergraduate who can regurgitate the entire works of Jacques Derrida, but whom I wouldn’t hire as night watchman in a cement factory.) And that will set you up for a lifetime of fulfilling and successful work, whether you choose to continue in engineering, or switch to medicine, or law, or farming, or building electric guitars.

  • Uncle Dan

    All this talk about needing inspiring teachers and exciting projects misses the point. If a student intends to have a career in science or math or engineering, he or she must master the subject. If the student is bored or finds it too hard, he or she does not belong in this field. The high dropout rate is a feature, not a bug.
    As for uninspiring teachers, please note that all those Asian students who are doing just fine attend the same lectures, read the same textbooks, are potentially distracted by the same campus temptations. What’s difference is the will to succeed, and the seriousness of purpose.
    When I was a STEM major, my classmates and I all knew that the real learning took place not with the lectures or textbook, but in solving the problems sets. These were problems deliberately posed so as to be solvable only by someone who had mastered the current lesson. Typically, after reading the text, and attentively listening to the lecture (no matter how good it was), we confronted the problems in the homework and realized we understood nothing. The thumbing through our notes and text to find clues to help us solve the problem is where the real learning took place. And of course, this is hard and frustrating, another good lesson.

  • Jmb

    Reagarding tech vs CEO, Steve Jobs and Dennis Ritchie died within a week.

  • b

    #36 RonF, But of course your anecdote is just that. Let me counter with one of my own. I went to university on a full academic scholarship and had to maintain a 3.0 minimum average to keep it, although really they wanted to see a 3.5+.

    Now one from industry. There *are* STEM jobs out there, and many of them pay very well.

    My view is if you are in college and are capable and the least bit inclined, go ahead and go for the STEM major. Your degree will differentiate you from the hordes with make work majors.

  • Devilbunny

    Got a BS in chemistry. Realized during my senior year (late ’90s) that although I liked studying chemistry, I didn’t actually like doing it at all. Took the MCAT, took some bio, went to med school, and am a happy anesthesiologist. Great gig if you can get in.

    Med school gets a bad reputation from science profs who only see the grade-grubbing premed undergrads, but if you’re actually interested in the science the med school professors are usually very happy to oblige, and there’s a lot more income and vastly more job security. Once you count the now-standard postdocs, it’s not even a longer course of training.

  • FormerChemist

    I am obviously late to the party here, but feel compelled to comment in that I was an assistant chemistry professor at university, and quit after 5 years to go to law school. Teaching and doing research was enjoyable, but the pay was poor and I could not see myself doing it for the rest of my life.

    My experience as a chemist made law school pretty easy. The only stretch is learning to write better. Being a chemist with its third person, past tense style does not prepare one for any real world writing.

    Being lawyer has been fun, remunerative and allowed me to be independent through self employment. I don’t regret being a chemist or a professor.

    In my opinion the skill of manipulating complex abstract concepts within a logical framework has universal applicability. It served me well in chemistry, and I use this same skill as an attorney. Classes that develop this skill like math, physics and chemistry are going to help a student in whatever field he or she choose to pursue.

  • MSChemist

    To the poster who says that the lack of jobs for American chemistry graduates is a lie you are the one lying!

    I hold an MS and BS in Chemistry and finding a decent job has been a nightmare. Getting a job with a chemistry degree makes quantum mechanics and organic chemistry seem easy by comparison. I have been searching for 3 years straight. I am looking to either get a civil service job or go back to college for an accounting degree. The only jobs available are no benefits temp jobs that pay janitor wages, offer no possibility of advancement or development, and have no security.

    I will never let anyone in my family study science again and I sure as heck wish I never did. Becoming addicted to narcotics would have been less damaging to my life than getting a science degree.

    I went to a large lab for my MS. Everyone who graduated with a PhD is stuck in post docs even 5 years later. 3/4 of my colleagues decided to leave with the MS and they are barely making enough to live jumping from temp job to temp job through Kelly, Aerotek, Manpower or one of the other agencies having no benefits, no job security, and really no future.

    The PhD program I was in was a total nightmare. The PI made no attempt to mentor anyone. He let anyone join and if you did well he kept you there for 7-8 years (one of my colleagues had to get the provost involved to finally graduate)and if not he let you languish used you as a technician and teacher, and claimed survival of the fittest when you quit.

    American companies have absolutely no respect for American scientists. They treat accountant, HR people, even blue collar workers far better.

    It is clear that Americans are not too stupid for science they are too smart for it. They recognize the calls for more science grads for what it is: a call for suckers.