Dr Ismail Aby Jamal

Dr Ismail Aby Jamal
Born in Batu 10, Kg Lubok Bandan, Jementah, Segamat, Johor

Friday, July 22, 2011

Yes, we need more science graduates. Definitely. All agreed then? Except... ……….

Yes, we need more science graduates. Definitely. All agreed then? Except... ……….

Do we really need more science graduates?

16:38 20 July 2011

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that we need more science graduates (and here I mean science, technology, engineering and maths graduates, a group usually abbreviated to STEM). There are not enough people taking science degrees and something must be done.

The excellent people at Teach First, an organisation that places graduates in challenging UK schools, are the latest to wade into the debate with their new report, Addressing the STEM Challenge. This calls for more science teachers so we can better teach young people science so more choose to study the subjects at university.

The CBI, the business lobbying organisation, recently issued their 2011 Education and Skills survey (PDF). Of CBI members questioned, 84 per cent felt the number and quality of STEM graduates should be a priority for universities. The UK government even has a STEM strategy, which commits us to increasing the number of young people studying science subjects post-16 "to meet employer needs".

Yes, we need more science graduates. Definitely. All agreed then?


At the start of July, new data on what students who graduated in 2010 are doing now was released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. First, it shows us that initiative after initiative to try to get more young people into science don't yet seem to be having much impact. There are some minor changes in graduate numbers, but with the exception of a rise of 5.5 per cent in the number of maths graduates this year, there's nothing of great significance.

Second, we seem to have an awfully high unemployment rate for science graduates for a nation that apparently doesn't have enough of them. And, actually, the same goes for PhDs as well.

To give an example, last summer 12,000 psychology students and 10,000 history students graduated (I chose these subjects because they are two of the most popular - psychology is actually the fastest growing in the UK). In the same year, only 2200 physics students and 2400 chemistry students graduated (what's more, I'm a chemistry graduate and my wife a history graduate so it's a comparison that's close to my heart). But it was the physics graduates and chemistry graduates who were most likely to be out of work 6 months later.

From the cohort of graduates whose whereabouts were known about, 11 per cent of those physics graduates were still out of work 6 months after graduating, and only 3 per cent were in a job in science. (History and psychology did slightly better, at 8.5 per cent and 8 per cent of graduates unemployed respectively).

This is an issue because these are the figures that will be going onto the websites that the A-level students of the future will be using to check the employment prospects of the courses they're going to be paying a lot of money for. When they see the outcomes for science courses compared to other subject that aren't suffering a "shortage", some of them are going to wonder what on earth the fuss is about.

So, let's get it out there: Do we really have a shortage of science graduates?

There is an obvious answer, of course: we have a shortage of good science graduates. So, what exactly is the problem with the ones we do have? The CBI members tell us that they are short of "employability skills". Not technical skills. So, are they suggesting that our science students are spending too much time learning science and not enough time learning business?

Or maybe graduates are not as good as they used to be. Except here are the Association of Graduate Recruiters two weeks ago issuing survey findings that showed that their members (many of whom are also CBI members) think that the quality of graduates has gone up this year, a finding that, oddly, failed to be reported in the press. Take a look at PhD student Penny Sarchet's take on the survey here.

At the heart of this lack of clarity are a series of questions that never really get properly addressed, or when they do, don't get well disseminated. When we say we need more science graduates, what subjects do we mean? Is it all BScs? Do we mean biologists? If we need more chemistry graduates, is that all disciplines and specialities within chemistry? What other skills do they need?

Are we using the graduates we do produce properly? Are we telling them that they might need to do PhDs? Are some people trying to avoid asking or answering these questions because they fear that the next generation of scientists might be put off if they find out they might need to do lots of maths or take a PhD?

Now, does anyone know a group of people who like detail, wrangling complex problems and coming up with practical solutions, who don't take statements uncritically at face value, who are unafraid of hard work and who would really, really like UK science to thrive, to tackle these questions? Hmm, maybe we do need more scientists after all....

Do you agree with Charlie? Have you been unable to fill vacancies because there aren't enough candidates out there or because the candidates haven't been good enough? What skills are in short supply in UK science?

Graduates and students, what could universities do differently to prepare you for the world of work?


All comments should respect the New Scientist House Rules. If you think a particular comment breaks these rules then please let us know, quoting the comment in question.

kulaishi munyakayanza on July 20, 2011 5:18 PM

i think that scientific couses have been increasingly diffficulty that many student are not garanteered to graduate if they take them.maybe they should be made more easy and available

Victoria Hunter on July 20, 2011 5:29 PM

I'm doing chemistry at a very good university and I have literally no idea what job I'm going to get. My university has not been very constructive in advising us what we can go into as they see it as "you're here doing chemistry, therefore, you must go into industry or onto phd etc"

Universities should make other careers more advertised within sciences. I know myself that chemistry can lead to a lot of things, such as law and accountancy, but if I didn't already know this I certainly wouldn't hear it from my uni!

Although, I do think we need more science graduates, I think it's a case of where you graduate from though. There are too many people at poor universities expecting to get a job when they come out, but of course those employed are from the better universities.

Jed on July 20, 2011 5:33 PM

I think it takes longer for STEM graduates to find their niche. I think it's pretty usual for these types of graduates to spend a fair few years considering further options, be that more academia, government/private research, or whatever. The floods of psychology/history graduates will likely relatively quickly fall into graduate jobs somewhat unrelated to their degrees. This might explain the statistics up to a point.

Vicki M on July 20, 2011 5:39 PM

I agree with Victoria. I graduated from a molecular biology degree in 2009 with little idea of what to do next, found a job in biology for a year, and then decided to pursue my interest in stem cell research to PhD level. I still don't know what will come next. Universities seem very keen on funnelling people on into higher degrees, but most PhD scientists don't become group leaders. What happens to them? Friends who graduated at the same time as me have struggled to find anything relevant to their degrees (although this seems to be related to the region of the UK in which they live). There is little careers support at school or at university for those who don't already know what they want to do after graduation, except to take more degrees to increase you employability.

Bethan on July 20, 2011 5:51 PM

Internships and work experience can really help you get into a place of work. It shows future employers that you have the motivation to work 9-5 or shifts and have tried a range of work places before coming to work fresh from University.

Students often leave University with no real idea of what they want to do even after three years of studying. They should be taught to not worry and to just try something.

Some students are only driven by money and with over £10,000 worth of debt to their name, who can blame them. This burden over their heads means that they will only look for jobs within a certain pay grade often beyond their reach because of the experience they have.

There are jobs out there you just need to be innovative with your approach in order to get that interview. I found asking local businesses if they needed a Graduate worked well.

Students think that sending of CVs, letters and emails will get them a job. Some businesses will get so many applications that many good graduates will be overlooked.

Pro tip - find a local business that specialises in something you are interested in, knock on their door (maybe ring for an appointment first) and ask if they a Graduate for 2 months on minimum wage/free! You'll be surprised how many places would say yes. This work experience can then be a platform to go onto to a better position either in the local company or elsewhere.

Problem is after three years plus at University some Graduates would not have the communication skills to do this....
Bod on July 20, 2011 5:59 PM

Do we really need more science graduates?

Who is "we". This magazine is pitched globally and other economies don't seem to be having this angst.

I would suggest that graduates realise that their degree (higher?) is not the end of their learning and that they complement their skills with business.

They also need to get out of the world view that science is state subsidised and the tax payer owes them a living because they are just so wonderful and science really matters.

At this level you should be taking on leadership AND creating wealth that your knowledge and skills has potentially equipped you. Then with more entrepreneurs, opportunities AND flexibility (NO JOBS FOR LIFE mentality) there really will be a need for more science grads.

Dr Louise Hughes on July 20, 2011 6:13 PM

I graduated from my biology degree with first class honours (2000), did a masters (2002) and a PhD (2005) and 6 years later with significant experience STILL find that the job market is limited and the career path for science is practically non-existent. It is extremely difficult to get a faculty/lecturing position in academia, industry positions are very restrictive and as a post-doc you only have a certain amount of time before you have to do either of the above.

Additionally, following the academic route means that you cannot settle down in any one area of the country, if you even stay in your country of origin. It is the nature of doing post-doc that you have to relocate frequently (in my experience relocation costs are not covered), so settling down, starting a family and buying a house are out of the question. Academic wages are very poor considering the level of study and debt incurred to be able to get these positions. It may be different in other disciplines, but for biology I have encountered many many obstacles and several times have had to chose career over personal life. I would no longer recommend people take science as a degree, the career path and limitations on personal life are too much and you are not given this information ahead of time. Most of my PhD contemporaries have actually studied to enter other fields, such as nursing, dentistry and sales, among others, precisely because making a career out of science is difficult and as women in science they find having a family and continuing to do post-doc research with the excessive hours, stress and very few employee rights takes too much of a toll.

Neil on July 20, 2011 6:28 PM

how much can these employment statistics be attributed to decreased investment in science from the government?

Andrew on July 20, 2011 6:37 PM

I'm guessing the author chose psychology as an example of a non-science subject, but even in those universities where the psychology department is not situated within the faculty of science, it's usually practiced and taught as a science (i.e. not as a "social science").

Bianca on July 20, 2011 6:39 PM

I'm Brazilian and it's pretty much the same here. Graduated students are not recognized and valued as good employees. Specially those who go to the public universities, the one and only option is the mastership, the PhD and then you become a professor.

I graduated 3 years ago in Biological Sciences and I'm still unemployed. I've worked as a pedagogical assistant and as a receptionist but I couldn't find a job in my field. My diploma is worthless and I don't have the amount of experience they demand - even if you've just graduated, they expected you to have at least 1 year of experience in a factory/company/business, not an internship during your graduation period.

Now my next step is to get a master's degree and expect that by the time I finish it, I'll have a good job opportunity in my hands.

Charlie Ball on July 20, 2011 8:28 PM

Hello all,

Will try to get through comments today as I will be away for a couple of days.


It can be an issue for advisers who do not feel equipped to deal with science students who don't want to follow the 'obvious' career path. I had exactly the same issues when I graduated from my chemistry degree. There are a good many options for science graduates and it would be nice if more were more widely publicised.

However, I do think your comment about 'poor universities' is a little wide of the mark. First, most universities - and certainly most with the funds to still offer a good physical science degree - are actually pretty good. Second, the stats show that graduates from 'worse' universities (depending on what you consider 'bad') still get jobs. It's perfectly possible for a Russell Group physics graduate to struggle to find work

Charlie Ball on July 20, 2011 8:32 PM

Jed, naturally, the non-vocational courses don't do jobs as historians or psychologists in general. Is a flexible qualification of that kind bad? Your hypothesis that STEM graduates take longer to find their niche is interesting, but I'm not sure there's much data to support it - and we'd need to know why.

A simple answer *could* be 'of course they take longer - we don't actually need that many scientists', and thus the question is answered.

Charlie Ball on July 20, 2011 8:36 PM

Vicki, there's a lot to what you say there. Universities have got better at supporting scientists and researchers in careers, though, especially through Vitae (www.vitae.ac.uk - interest declared as I have done work for them). But if you've been unable to access that support, it's not a lot of help.

If you're somewhere doing a PhD, it might be worth bothering the careers service about whether they have a PG adviser - you might be pleasantly surprised.

Charlie Ball on July 20, 2011 8:38 PM

Bod, point taken - this is a largely UK issue. But not completely - the US has its own graduate issues as anyone there will know.

But I've been asked to look at UK grads, so UK grads it is for the time being, I'm afraid. We have the best data and research on graduate careers, anyway (no matter what anyone else says).

Ryan A on July 20, 2011 8:41 PM

Do those (un)employment figures take into account the number of students with a given degree who go on to work on something related to their major? Science graduates might not be willing to take certain jobs because they feel that they HAVE to work in science, whereas non-science majors may not have that bias.

So we might need to teach some employable skills, which doesn't mean that we have to teach less science to these students. Computer programming, for example, is extremely useful in all areas of science and yet is very employable. I Know there are some physics programs which require their graduate students to take a computational physics class. Similar steps should probably be taken at other

Charlie Ball on July 20, 2011 8:57 PM

Louise, whilst I wouldn't go as far as not to recommend people go into science (do science! It's great!), the issues for women in particular get too little attention.

I talk to a lot of talented doctoral graduates who leave research, and I would say my experience is that the sector loses a disproportionate number of excellent women scientists for the very family and housing reasons you describe. It worries me.

Charlie Ball on July 20, 2011 9:00 PM

Neil, very, very hard to say. This isn't, though, a new phenomenon and so the roots are possibly deeper than that.

Charlie Ball on July 20, 2011 9:15 PM

Andrew, that's an annoyingly shrewd observation. I'll do my best to answer it properly.

Psychology is interesting to labour market data nerds like me for a range of reasons - because of it's rapid expansion, because it's changed from a vocational to a non-vocational degree in a generation, because of the counter-intuitive employability of psychology graduates, and also because of the behaviour of undergrads and PhD graduates.

Bear with me here.

At PhD level, psychology is commonly taken as a clinical discipline, and the outcomes for psychology PhDs reflect that - it unequivocally 'acts like a science'. Down the degree levels to undergraduate, though, and the outcomes look very much more like a social science. *But* it seems that psychologists are at their most employable if they don't flee from the stats and take decent maths modules.

Anyway, that's why I chose it. At this level it bears more in common with social sciences. If you think that's not a good answer, you can do a global search and replace in the piece and sub in 'geography' for 'psychology' and the point still pretty much holds. SOCIAL AND HUMAN GEOGRAPHY before anyone gets any funny pedantic ideas.

Anyway, the whole choice of subjects is really illustrative. It's not 'science should be more like degree X', it's more 'if we need science more than subject X, how come subject X graduates do better than scientists'?

We need a better argument about science, essentially.

And now you know why my pieces get edited.

Charlie Ball on July 20, 2011 9:18 PM


Psychology is interesting for a number of reasons, but the brief answer (the Internets ate my longer one), is that at PhD level the outcomes for psychology grads have a lot in common with science grads in general because so many PhD psychologists are studying clinical psychology. But at first degree level, the outcomes look very much more like a social science because the students are mixing qualitative and quantitative techniques and not doing (and not really able to access) the clinical stuff.

Good spot, though.

bsand on July 20, 2011 10:11 PM

So what career do you recommend? What is the pay rate for history and psychology vs. the sciences, is it higher, lower or the same?

John on July 20, 2011 10:23 PM

The situation is the same in Canada. I have a Ph.D. in geology/geophysics. I have been employed ever since graduation fortunately and I am paid well. I started out working in geology but over time and moving around from job to job I changed the field of science I worked in several times. I am now working in a scientific field I had no background in and less interest in. It was very interesting at the start of my career but as I gradually moved away from geology/geophysics it got less and less interesting. I am now stuck in a field of expertise I have lost interest in and I am about ready to retire early or call it quits and try something completely different.

From my observations there is an oversupply of science graduates in Canada and many end up doing something else. I think going to university and getting a degree in arts or science or even some branches of engineering is a tired old mantra that worked well in the 50's, 60's and 70's but not longer works very well today. My advice to young people steer clear for the time being and find something else with more lateral mobility and in higher demand. When one is weary of the city one lives in it is nice to be in a profession that is in high demand anywhere.

Also forget academia unless you plan to spend the rest of your life stuck at the same university (boooring). My colleagues and relatives in academia tell me it is extremely difficult to find work in another university if you want to move.

John on July 20, 2011 10:41 PM

I read Dr Louise Hughes (July 20, 2011) comments with interest and I can sympathize completely with her situation. I have heard time and time again of Ph.D. graduates doing endless postdocs before eventually realizing the career options are really very limited and moving on to something else. It is sad and unscrupulous to waste a talented persons time when the possibility of work at the end is unlikely. Yes it is better to select nursing or dentistry or something else more gainfully employable in the first place. The bottom line is you have to feed yourself and your family and supply and demand rules the employment market for science graduates just like the financial world.

Don't trust universities to steer you in the right direction for a career path. They want more students and they want you to stay as long as possible as it brings in money from government contributions and tuition fees. The more students and the longer they stay the more money they get. The bottom line with them is money - not your best interests at heart.

Charlie Ball on July 21, 2011 8:45 AM

Ryan, I think there's a feeling that perhaps science students need to be taught to be better able to articulate their softer skills (they have them, but they're not well emphasised - hence the myth that all scientists are tongue-tied geeks who can't communicate).

Charlie Ball on July 21, 2011 8:48 AM

bsand - I recommend people do what they think works for them. This piece is more about the question of whether we can really carry on making a relatively broad claim about a need for science graduates, when the young people making their choices will see data that apparently contradicts the messages they're getting.

And consequently, whether we scientists have been a bit too uncritical in the face of an ostensibly attractive message. After all, I really like the idea of there being more science graduates. What's not to like?

Pete on July 21, 2011 9:53 AM

I believe a lot of companies are being too picky and are unwilling to train new employee's. Instead they put adds on Seek.com asking for minimum of 3 to 5 yrs experience in similar organisation.

It is becoming so difficult to even get the experience required, unless you still live with your parents and can donate your time to do free work for the company. This is too difficult for many who require a decent wage straight up in order to survive.

hmpws on July 21, 2011 10:24 AM

I have a Masters in Engineering. Now I am in the dilemma of finding a job or doing a PhD. This article/comments are steering me away from PhD pretty fast. At the same time, it will be very difficult to find a job, maybe I should consider a MBA instead?

Soren on July 21, 2011 1:48 PM

I'm a Swedish physicist turned engineer, and after after about 20 years of experience of industry and academia, I think what has happened is that the pace to meet time-to-market requirements has come to the point where it's much more important to be able to know the right tools, rather than being creative. Thd majority of engineers spend their time with redy-made tools and processes, and a minority developing new ideas. Companies are so slimmed these days that they rarely spend time and money on courses and education; you are supposed to pick up most of the work skills yourself. This is a sad trend and will lead to less people wanting to move into science and technology. I think also we need much larger moblity between academia and industry like in the US, this will improve the understanding of the needs of industry, as well as helping academia to teach courses with more modern tools.

Glen on July 21, 2011 1:50 PM

I'm in Chemistry (one year left) and the job prospects are pretty good actually. There are always job postings asking for entry level chemists or technicians making around 20$/hour which isn't bad at all.

Chemistry is needed in so many industries because companies need to know exact concentrations of certain things in their products for labelling purposes, legal purposes and other reasons.

Material science is also a big chemistry field

J on July 21, 2011 3:18 PM

It seems to me that industry, not academia, is saying "We need more STEM graduates", while it's academia where STEM graduates can't find jobs. The divide is striking -- so many specialties mentioned in the comments (chemistry, geology, biology) are crucial to so many companies, and they do hire new graduates (my spouse commented: "we did just the other day"). And companies are doing "real" science.

Stephen on July 21, 2011 4:11 PM

The problem here is the people you are asking to fill in the Surveys. Why are business leaders, whose sole function is to make as much money as possible, being asked any questions about the direction of education, and ultimately the direction of Society?

Asking a factory owner what skills his workforce is lacking or is too abundant in, and taking their advice on future Education policy is the most dangerous idea I've ever heard. Already our children are taught to perform functions, rather than to think and this is going to be a massive drain on innovation in this country. Luckily for us, the rest of the World seem to be following down this dead end.

We need to allow everybody that wants to earn a good degree the opportunity and support to do so. From Graduation it is up to the individual to make their own way. A free degree for everybody, with limits to the free courses available i.e. no Wind-Surfing/Football/David Beckham studies, and we will see new innovators and business leaders emerge, rather than the millions of Robots mass produced in state schools today, that follow procedure after procedure in order to perform the most redundant of tasks.

In whichever direction our society is headed, the most influential factor will be Education. The greater it's depth and variety, the more progressive our Society (sorry, that wasn't meant to rhyme). People like to talk about economics, crime, religion, politics, race and endless other social concerns, but Education is the Key to it all.
biogirl on July 21, 2011 7:37 PM

I found it particularly useful a series of professional development seminars and courses provided by the university where I did a postdoc. It gave me the opportunity to listen and talk to scientists from all different sectors beyond the obvious academia and industry dichotomy. It can be extremely helpful, as pointed by Charlie, to talk to advisers and counselors on that matter. Every Grad school should have a program like that. Regarding internships, even though some employees may not consider those if you apply for a job, they can be very helpful assessment of the options out there. Also, it is fine to change your goals and interests as you advance in your (professional) life. My interests switched completely from academia to industry and I'm very happy where I am now. Lastly, regarding women in science, I'm mother of two toddlers so I can speak a bit about it. In spite of all the challenges and hardships, I find it worthwhile and rewarding to do science. However, there are so many factors that compose into the big picture (supportive & flexible partner, supporting network of family and friends, supporting conditions - eg, daycare for the kids close/at work place, comprehensive benefits, supporting mentor, life style... just to name a few!) and of course, each one own's personality. What works for one may not work for other. There simply is no single answer/scenario for the women in science issue. It is very sad though that it is so hard and, because of that, many women chose to leave science due to the lack of appropriate support. Just my two cents...

Collin Burton on July 21, 2011 8:42 PM

As a molecular biology graduate in the US, I can say that I feel a little lied to when I heard all of the propaganda about STEM programs as a high schooler and undergrad. Now that I've been in the workforce for 4 years at a diagnostics company, my impressions is that there is an oversupply in the technical areas of our company. There are always between 10-30 sales jobs open, but maybe only 5 or so technical jobs. For the technical jobs, we get gobs or resumes from all over, including PhDs applying to be entry level lab technicians. US grad schools are distorting supply by offering graduate student stipends, when there is no demand for people that complete the program.

Roger on July 22, 2011 5:35 AM

As a master's student in health sciences right now, one of the most common things I hear is that it is a "wasteland" for jobs for science graduates. But I think this is far from the truth. Its likely from the way scientists are trained: there is a "formula" or "method" for everything and we just have to figure it out for finding jobs. This is one of the most common mistakes/approach to finding jobs I'm seeing from unemployed recent graduates. The approach goes: meet requirements, then get job rather than sell yourself as THE ONE. Reality is, even if your resume is perfect for a job, its not going to guarantee you a job. Think about it - if you were looking to hire someone, would you rather hire a trusted friend that is not necessarily perfect for your job, or gamble on someone who looks good on paper (be honest).

Maybe I'm just naive, but I certainly see value in my would be degree and I believe I can find a related job after. But I also know that I have to learn a lot that is not taught (and probably will never be taught) in the classrooms.

Roger on July 22, 2011 5:35 AM

As a master's student in health sciences right now, one of the most common things I hear is that it is a "wasteland" for jobs for science graduates. But I think this is far from the truth. Its likely from the way scientists are trained: there is a "formula" or "method" for everything and we just have to figure it out for finding jobs. This is one of the most common mistakes/approach to finding jobs I'm seeing from unemployed recent graduates. The approach goes: meet requirements, then get job rather than sell yourself as THE ONE. Reality is, even if your resume is perfect for a job, its not going to guarantee you a job. Think about it - if you were looking to hire someone, would you rather hire a trusted friend that is not necessarily perfect for your job, or gamble on someone who looks good on paper (be honest).

Maybe I'm just naive, but I certainly see value in my would be degree and I believe I can find a related job after. But I also know that I have to learn a lot that is not taught (and probably will never be taught) in the classrooms.

Tom on July 22, 2011 9:38 AM

I suspect 'we need more science graduates' sometimes really means 'we ought to get more sciencey people in non-science positions of power', which I'm all for but which requires teaching and careers advice to be open to the likelihood that science students won't go on to practice science as a career. Or it means 'we need more science-based industry', which again is very true but isn't going to spontaneously happen just because there's a greater supply of scientists - though that might be an argument for teaching scientists more business and entrepreneurship skills.

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