Friday, September 13, 2013

Ask CJ: Why are we telling people that we need more scientists?

Someone who happened on the blog via Google writes in:
I found your blog while doing some research into careers in the sciences for my [child.] My [child] is a senior in high school, and has really enjoyed and excelled at biology, chemistry and physics. 
[They] wants to major in college in some sort of science, and is leaning towards chemistry or  biochemistry. But what I keep finding in my research is how difficult the job market is for scientists. We keep hearing in the media, from the government and from our schools that the US needs more kids to major in STEM fields. Our school district just opened our third high school, specifically for STEM students.  
I wonder if you could address in your blog why it is that we are encouraging more kids to go into STEM majors, while the reality of the job market seems to indicate not enough jobs for our current scientists?
Here was my partial response:
...The answer to your question is that there's quite a difference between the need for more STEM training for K-12 students, and a need for more scientists/engineers/mathematicians. My standard answer is that we do not need more scientists; what we really need is more computer types, because that's where the projected job growth is supposed to be. (And, deep down, that's where everyone knows the jobs of the future are. If you look at your district's new high school, I suspect that it will be IT heavy.)  
(There is also the "we need more people to think like scientists" idea, which is usually what scientists mean when they agree with "more STEM training.") 
I think that no one (i.e. no politician) wants to say "We need more computer programmers, and more petroleum engineers", because it's not very sexy nor exciting. But if you say, "we need more cancer and Alzheimer's researchers", it gets people excited and it gets juices flowing in a way that no one can accomplish with the more complex truth.  
Also, the parent wanted to know how to get their child involved in academic or industrial internships. There are a variety of sources for these positions:
  • Look online for local area companies/universities -- sometimes, they'll post listings. 
  • Talk to your high schooler's science teachers; they may know of openings or organizations that look for summer students annually. (It's how I got my first two science internships.) Ask them to look, or ask their contacts. 
  • Talk to science-related organizations (local American Chemical Society chapter, science museum, etc.)
  • It's a shot in the dark, but you could always cold call/cold e-mail local universities to see if there are professors who might be willing to take on a summer student. 
Readers, any more ideas? This parent is in the Philadelphia area -- are there any good organizations around there that coordinate STEM (ugh, that phrase) internships? 


  1. I think it is helpful to maybe be an undergraduate at a very rigorous science and engineering school (Purdue and GA Tech come to mind). I know at GA Tech pretty much part the undergrad curicullum is to do an internship while a student. If you can get in there as an undergrad and manage to get good grades you may have a good outcome (as long as you don't go to a second or third tier graduate school).

    I'm not sure if doing a work internship while your in HS is a good idea. But many university labs allow HS students to come and work for a summer (the university I work at does) so I think one should contact their local R1 university to see if a summer HS internship program is available.

  2. I think that the differing job markets for B.A./B.S.-level scientists and Ph.D.-level scientists needs to be considered as well. In general, good technical training in what I like to call "scientific thinking" is valuable and can open doors in many areas, not just in science.

  3. To be considered for / get an internship, contact industrial scientists via LinkedIn.

  4. In support of your last point RE internships in university labs, my former boss (a famous chemist at an R1 university) would take random high schoolers if they ever worked up the guts to email him. Give it a shot!

  5. Doesn't have to be a university for internship - my first two internships were in industry. I learned more about experimental chemistry in a R&D lab than in my labs at college. Also, I learned about food chemistry, something my college didn't offer, through my other internship. My mom had cold called the local companies asking if they would be willing to have me as a paid intern. It worked really well for me and the companies.

  6. STEM graduates still average much higher salaries than humanities graduates. It's easy to forget that many others have it much worse when we scientists are struggling.

    1. Oh really.