Monday, March 18, 2013

Hey, that's a very interesting increase in the number of BS/BA chemistry graduates!

Credit: C&EN
Also from this week's C&EN, an interesting look at the comeback of chemistry in the UK from Alex Scott:
In the decade leading up to 2005, about 30 of the U.K.’s 70 chemistry departments closed in the face of waning undergraduate enrollment in chemistry and a lack of funding to teach the subject. The situation has since turned around dramatically, with about 10 chemistry departments reopening in recent years. As well as recruiting more students, many U.K. university chemistry departments are also now recruiting staff.
I would really like to hear about this interesting little section about chemistry students in the UK and their job outlook:
An additional, and rather surprising, factor has encouraged more undergraduates to study chemistry in the U.K.: the economic recession that began in 2008. British students have been seeking out chemistry degrees in recent years because the subject provides relatively good job prospects, say a number of leading academics. This is in contrast to the situation in the U.S. where job prospects for chemistry graduates have been tougher of late. 
U.K. chemistry graduates commonly are taking up jobs in the pharmaceutical, fine chemicals, and banking sectors as well as in teaching, according to a 2008 study by the Institute for Employment Research and the Higher Education Careers Services Unit. For 2010 chemistry graduates, six months after graduation about 41% were employed with a further 44% in full-time graduate study or a combination of graduate study and work. According to Lancaster University, which reopened its department in October 2012 after closure in 1999, “students recognize the career value of a chemistry degree.”
I'll be honest, I am less than impressed by the IER numbers, especially compared to the US data for 2010 graduates (ACS 2010 ACS Starting Salary Survey (see first table): 33% full-time, 6% part-time, 46% graduate studies). They're a little better, but not by much.

Finally, I found this section on the increase in B.S./B.A. chemistry graduates to be very interesting (if not a little nervous-making):
As a result of outreach programs, HEFCE’s funding, and students going back to school during the recession, the number of chemistry departments across the U.K. has risen by about 10 since 2005 to 52 in 2013. Between the academic years 2004–05 and 2011–12, the total number of U.K. undergraduates studying chemistry rose 41%. For the academic year 2011–12, there were 15,660 full-time students studying chemistry in all years at the undergraduate level, according to the latest statistics available from the U.K. Higher Education Statistics Agency. The number of student undergraduates for other science subjects, including chemical engineering and physics, has also increased since 2005. 
A similar pattern occurred in Germany, where student numbers fell beginning in 2004, were then flat for 2007–08, and subsequently picked up again from 2009. 
The U.S., too, has seen a recovery in the number of students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in chemistry. According to the latest data published by the American Chemical Society, the number of chemistry graduates from ACS-approved schools has risen since 2002. That number increased 44% from 2005 to 2011, when there were 15,712 new graduates. The total number of chemical engineering students to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. also increased but to a lesser extent than chemistry. The number of ACS-approved chemistry graduate programs at U.S. schools remains somewhere between 600 and 700.
I wonder what is driving this increase? It's certainly not wages.

UPDATE: LabMonkey looks at the UK numbers, which show a rise in the total number of UK undergrads as well. 


  1. Could it be more people going into medical-related fields driving the increase? I'm sure some of it is the recession. It would be interesting to see what other majors curves look like. Are the increases just in sciences or in all majors?

  2. I believe that a factor is that university tuition fees have increased nine fold over the last ten years as government subsidies on grants have been cut. (I paid 1k (pounds) a year starting ten years ago, then it went to 3k a year, now up to 9k a year. There is little to no scholarship support for most people, except the truly poorly off, and the expectation that people will run up huge government loans during their degree (the repayment terms of which now effectively work like a graduate tax). From what I've read, this has made more students consider what they will study in terms of a future career. Apparently courses (and A levels) in numerical subjects like maths, chemistry, physics have become somewhat more popular. It's probably not for doing chemistry - most people on my chemistry course used their "good numerate degree from a good university" to get into banking, accountancy, management graduate schemes and so forth.

  3. Factors I would probably credit for this rise:
    1. recession = get a more job-worthy degree, not a Mickey Mouse one
    2. tuition fees = get a more job-worthy degree, not a Mickey Mouse one (see above)
    3. science communication has had a big rise in popularity in the UK in recent years; the 'cool factor' really does have an effect...

  4. As a UK chemistry academic, I have seen the rise in chemistry student number which have happened over the last 3 years. It has been a quite phenomenal change from the days when I was a new academic and it seemed chemistry departments were shutting or moving to deliver other degrees like forensic science. Nowadays we are getting more students than ever before, and having to run lab classes more than once as the cohort is so big. I would agree with Nessa's three factors (plenty of chemists become accountants but not vice versa), and throw in a couple more- first, lots of chemistry undergrads want to become chemistry school teachers from their first day at uni and there are very good govt rewards for this, and second, if you are paying a lot of money for a degree course you tend to opt for something you know from school classes. Colleagues teaching school subjects like geography are also seeing increased interest.

  5. I see it as three factors converging into the data that you have shown:

    1) More people are going to college for any major.
    Society has changed a bit from older days. The question of "Are you going to college?" for high school students has been transplanted with "Where are you going to college?" In addition to more traditional students, we're seeing more returning adults in classrooms. Either they put off education in the first place because starting a family was the first priority, or they changed their mind about career directions, or they got laid off their job that used to pay the bills. Whatever the reason, they're in school.

    2) College as Job training
    Colleges and Universities are less seen as a vehicle for self-betterment, or a way of teaching people how to learn, or a way of producing well-informed members of society but more as a vehicle for job training. You simply can't get a job in science anymore with some collegiate training as a scientist. Even for non-research positions. People see this, and instead of getting an art degree or political science degree, they go for the degree that has the largest potential to make a return on their investment, IE one that has a potential to get a job better than folding T-shirts at the GAP.

    3) Increased visibility of Science
    As a result of many a politician pounding their chests for more scientists (much to CJ's chagrin) more people assume that there are jobs in the field. They get the degree in the field, either unaware that a bachelors degree only gets you the booby prize in the career lottery, or knowing full well that bachelors only doesn't get you anywhere, where they plan on going to graduate school. Then you run into the problem of limited graduate funding, meaning that some people will not get admitted/funded through a graduate program. Hence the increase in undergrads, but no real increase in grads.

    1. It takes four years to move through the undergrad problem. That means an increase in grad students should start occurring right about now, unless you're right about the low funding.

  6. The above plots say it all, and explains why the salaries in the UK for chemistry graduates , doing chemistry, remains poor. This is especially compared to the debt now placed on students, and compared to the likes of Accountants getting paid 80k(pounds)+ 10 years after graduating. Even today the UK produces twice as many graduates as Germany, and slightly more than the US, which has 5x the population. Both the US and Germany have more of a science and technology industrial base than the UK, and both do fine.

  7. Also pay attention to the postgrad numbers, does the UK really need twice as many postgrads as the US? (US has 5x the population of course). This is why a PhD has no impact on UK salary, and will probably in fact be detrimental to your earning potential.

  8. Also you have to remember that U.S. number is just from schools that offer an ACS-certified degree (which is by no means all of them). The actual number of U.S. grads would be considerably higher I imagine, although finding numbers isn't as easy as one would think...