Monday, September 16, 2013

I like this study on the 'S' in STEM

Via Beryl Benderly at Science Careers, a very interesting report from College Measures, an organization affiliated with the American Institutes for Research (an organization that I can't really put my finger on, in terms of where they're coming from...):
Politicians, policy makers, governors, and many others trumpet the need for STEM education to feed the STEM workforce. Despite such rhetoric and clamoring, the labor market is far more discriminating in the kinds of degrees it rewards. Data from College Measures show that employers are paying more—often far more—for degrees in the fields of technology, engineering, and mathematics (TEM). Evidence does not suggest that graduates with degrees in Biology earn a wage premium—in fact, they often earn less than English majors. Graduates with degrees in Chemistry earn somewhat more than Biology majors, but they do not command the wage premium typically sought by those who major in engineering, computer/information science, or mathematics. 
...Because three states—Texas, Virginia, and Colorado—have sufficient numbers of students in large STEM fields, this study was able to explore the link between STEM education and first-year earnings. 
Overall, data show that graduates with degrees in the fields of technology, engineering, and mathematics (or TEM) experience greater labor market success than graduates in other fields and that graduates with degrees in science-related fields (or S) do not generate any greater labor market returns than, for example, the non-STEM field of English Language and Literature....
Obviously, I believe these numbers are true, but I would like a little more confirmation (not just 3 states' worth of data.) Nevertheless, I think this represents a core challenge to both academics and those concerned about the chemical enterprise as a whole. If young chemists are earning consistently less than young professionals in other fields, why should young chemists stay chemists? (Love of the field, I guess.) 


  1. I realize that I am blind to the larger view of this study. All I see is that my first two years as a postdoc makes me 20% poorer than a masters degree going to industry. Yeah, yeah postdocs are supposed to be underpaid so that way we have incentive to be extremely productive and get out on our own. Am I wallowing in self-pity, most likely yes. Give me a minute, it's Monday morning and I'm writing instead of doing bench-work.

    1. Before a post-doc was fine if you were guaranteed a great-paying job once your done with your post-doc. If the guarantee is gone, than the PhD can be a trap to keep individuals in very low paying positions (like me), where you would have made more money with a masters.

  2. This figure/study is missing an important data set...PhD degrees. A PhD in Chemistry may have a significant increase in first year earnings compared to English and maybe Biology due to the ability to apply our field to a wide range of problems. Also one needs to look at the difference between each degree level. Chemistry has major differences in first year earnings among the 3 degree levels. Compare this to English, Mechanical Engineering, and Computer and Information Sciences, you will notice a decrease in the difference between Bachelor's and Master's Degree first year earnings.

  3. I wonder where physics falls in this graph. Interesting that biology majors get the same pay as English majors.

  4. It is no wonder that chemistry is getting less paid and being closer to biology. That is because chemistry is getting closer to being a biological science and not a physical science.

    In the past, chemistry students had a firm foundation in advanced mathematics and high level experimental techniques requiring extensive experience with electronics, statistics, electrochemistry and spectroscopy. There was a stronger focus on the analytical and physical side of chemistry.

    Today, the majority of effort is spent on the less mathematical organic/biological side. In the past 10 years, 7 Nobel prizes in chemistry have been given for biology, rather than actual chemistry (organic synthesis of non-biological materials, inorganic synthesis and catalysis, materials and polymer science, physical chemistry, spectroscopy, condensed matter physics, etc). Because of the changing research focus, more emphasis has been placed on making chemists as machines to carry out PI's organic syntheses, rather than in the past where they were expected to use their knowledge of thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, separations, electrochemistry, spectroscopy, and yes, organic reactions, to design new products and processes that chemical engineers will later refine.

    As long as chemistry is looked on as a life science instead of a physical science, with the associated percieved lack of advanced mathematics, wages will still be depressed.

  5. There is an easy way to remedy the problem: making the chemistry degree as rigorous as all other physical science and engineering degrees.

    Currently, most chemistry programs only require about 6 required semester length core upper division courses for a BS chemistry degree (2 physical chemistry, 1 analytical chemistry based on obsolete wet testing, 1 instrumental analysis, 1 biochemistry, 1 advanced inorganic) plus 2-5 advanced electives. There are usually 11 required semester length core upper division classes for a BS mechanical engineering degree with equal number of electives (2 classes in fluids, 2 thermo, 1 heat/mass transfer, 1 in mechanics, 1 in solid mechanics, 1 in vibrations, 1 in controls, 2 in advanced mathematics). It is the same situation for physics where there are 10 required upper divsion core classes: 1 in optics and modern physics, 2 in electromagnetics, 2 in mechanics, 1 in thermodynamics, 2 in quantum mechanics, 1 in advanced mathematics and 1 in electronics.

    Why not have chemistry be like this:

    delete the useless obsolete wet chemistry analytical class. delete the entire physical chemistry sequence. delete biochemistry as a core and have it as an elective.

    Instead, have:

    2 semesters of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and kinetics.
    2 semesters of quantum mechanics and spectroscopy.

    There's no way you can learn physical chemistry properly in 2 semesters. Just as physics students don't have one big book called "classical physics", why should chemistry students have 1 big book called "physical chemistry"?

    2 semesters of instrumental analysis, statistics and experimental design.

    Wet chemistry analysis is obsolete. Put it in general chemistry if that's so important, there's alot of fluff in general chemistry that can be cut anyways. Many industry jobs ask for expertise in statistical experimental design, many graduate students need this, why are schools not teaching this? They need the depth provided by a year long class.

    1 in advanced inorganic chemistry

    This should stay.

    1 in polymer chemistry and physics.

    Something like 30% of all chemists will work with polymers at some point in their careers. The rest of the chemists who are not part of the 30% also benefit, as the physics and chemistry of synthetic polymers offers key insights into the physics and chemistry of natural polymers i.e. proteins. Many students know only qualitative things about proteins. Even organic chemists benefit, as polymer synthesis is a widely applicable area of chemistry.

    1 in solid state materials chemistry and physics.

    Another large area of chemistry completely neglected in the undergraduate curriculum is solid state materials. By neglecting this, students are put at a huge disservice when they are in grad school and asked to do research. Again, synthetic chemists are also served by such a class.

    1 in electrochemistry and chemistry electronics

    No brainer. Most test equipment these days is electronic. Any analytical chemist (and ~20% of chemists in industry are analytical) should be very familiar with basic electronics, sensor design and signal analysis.

    1 in advanced mathematics for analytical and physical chemistry.

    This is to remedy the weak mathematical background of most chemistry students. Mathematics is key to all physical sciences. All chemistry students need a solid foundation not only in basic calculus but also vector calculus, linear algebra, ordinary and partial differential equations and mathematical statistics, not only for the job, but also to learn quantum mechanics, thermodynamics and analytical chemistry at a deeper level.

    As for chemical biology and the like, those can be electives. They are not the core of chemistry, but rather of biology and biochemistry. Those more interested in those subjects should choose biochemistry as a major instead.

    Only by differentiating itself from biology could chemistry be once again thought of as a physical science.

    1. The Canadian system already works basically how you just described (except for the mandatory polymer, solid-state materials, and electrochemistry classes), and it sure hasn't made chemistry a high-paying field here.

    2. You do have a good point in that a lot of the chemistry preparation in undergraduate courses don't necessarily prepare students for industry for the reasons you provide. I think if there is a program that is set up as you describe, a student in that program would be more likely to gain employment in industry.


      1) Very few institutions/programs have a mission to educate students to go out and get jobs. The mission of institutions/programs is (usually) to create informed citizenry. The misalignment of university purposes and the majority of people's reason for going to college creates a disconnect, meaning that people not only aren't getting what they want out of college, but never will get what they want out of college.

      2) ACS standards, while I'm sure are not immovable, are set up in a way to align with how things are now. Changing the standards is a possibility, but not bloody likely to happen any time soon as the ACS would basically be decreeing that all ACS accredited programs needed to drastically change cirriculum. Not. Going. To. Happen.

      On an aside: While we're making a coursework wishlist, the only thing that I would add to your list would be a documentation course. Documentation is *KEY* AFAIK in industry, no matter which functional group you join. Teaching students the basics of GDP/GLP/GMP should also be a requirement. An idea - instead of having students take a year long writing course as a part of general education coursework, have students take a year long specific writing course that emphasizes scientific writing. Yes, lab courses especially try to guide this, however they miss out on some of the rationale behind the specifics of these requirements usually, and completely ignore some of the other industrial documentation styles that are used (EG submissions to regulatory bodies, documentation for characterization reports, risk evaluations, etc).

  6. I dont think having chemists trained less in biochemistry and more in math/physics will improve their salaries that much. What its going to take is more jobs being formed in chemistry than the rate of formation of chemistry graduates, such that companies are competing for chemists using higher salaries.

  7. Yes it does help that much because having chemists less trained in biology are less likely to be premeds, which will thus lower the number of chemistry graduates there are SUBSTANTIALLY. Only those people who want to be CHEMISTS as a career will join a chemistry degree as the effort required will be substantially higher.

    Lets not kid ourselves with the term biochemistry, the chemistry content of alot of the courses AND research in biochemistry is near zero. Chemistry is about reaction mechanisms, thermodynamics, quantum chemistry, kinetics and spectroscopy, not memorizing metabolic paths. I don't see much electron pushing, thermo, quantum, or spectroscopy in the typical biochemistry class, just memorization and maybe a tiny bit of calculus in enzyme kinetics.

    Remember, even if your institution distinguishes between the BA level premed chemistry, and the BS level professional chemistry, employers don't know the differences.

  8. Shortage!

  9. Not that there isn't some value to be gained here, but first year salaries tell very little of the story. Typically people find the most value from their degrees from their ceiling rather than their floor. Comparing the starting salaries only tells part of the story. This is particularly true comparing associates to bachelors.