June 30, 2010

Yes, Virginia, there is a need for more science education

Today may be a lost day for me work-wise, thanks to a number of circumstances, including a raging thunderstorm overhead that threatens the power where I am. But I don't think I'm going to blame higher ed policy in Florida for all of that. I have a similar reaction to The Real Science Gap, which is an articulate explanation of the dissenting position on STEM education (hat tip). Beryl Lieff Benderly walks us through arguments about overcredentialing/overproduction of Ph.D.s, the abuse of H-1B visas, the STEM report equivalents of the old 1980s Mellon report on pending faculty shortages, the abusive treatment of graduate assistants and postdocs in many universities, the typical stereotypes about clueless faculty advisers, and so forth. She quotes Richard Freeman (who has been specializing in credentialing since the 1970s), and a number of current and former engineering students chimed in with comments echoing the article. And on one level, it is true that the usual cry for more doctorates is often based on misleading claims about national economic needs.

Nonetheless, there are a number of weaknesses in the article, generally of the okay, so STEM isn't immune from the troubles of the world, so what else is new? variety:

  • A significant part of the underemployment problem with graduates in general is the sum of broader economic woes of the world. That's as true for recent undergraduates as doctoral students. There are serious problems about the impoverishment of an entire cohort finishing formal schooling between 2008 and 2012, and I'm not going to pretend to have a great solution except that it has to address more than STEM graduate students.
  • Some of the policy issues can be addressed by institutional policies--for example, by universities' treating graduate students and postdocs better and by universities' agreeing to bargain with new grad-student unions. And that's more important for humanities students than in the sciences, which tend to have higher stipends.
  • Similarly, the "overproduction" of doctorates requires all disciplines to help students figure out career options that don't rely on tenure-track positions. In 1930, the two fields with the highest number of doctorates earned each year were fields where few doctoral students would have expected university jobs: chemistry and education. We need a little explicit "let's list and prepare for at least three options" planning. I'm not on the bleeding edge at all in this argument; some historians have been making this argument inside AHA for years, even if it's not as broad a practice as it needs to be. And I strongly suspect that STEM faculty advisers are among the most likely to have grad students head into industry. One physics doctoral student I know at USF was recently promised a job by Jabil Circuits, a local firm. Go, Jason, and go, Jason's major professor! One of my college classmates who was a physics grad student at Penn when I was a history doctorate student ended up in industry, spending some time on DNA computing and now working for a textile firm. Maybe the people I know are extreme outliers, but the idea of STEM doctorates having industry jobs doesn't strike me as either new or unknown.
  • If the "we need to double our output for economic competitiveness" argument is overblown, the arguments described by Benderly ignore the non-human-capital value of formal education. I am not sure that the type of (non-Clay Shirky-definition) educational surplus I've described before always justifies a huge social investment in postgraduate work, but it's not a horrid thing for society if an occasional chemistry doctorate ends up working in a computer company, and it's definitely a social good if she or he winds up teaching high school chemistry and inspires later generations. (Cue FSU physics professor Paul Cottle here on the need for better starting salaries for high school science teachers...)

And, speaking of high school, I'm in favor of policies that expand general science education. Yes, the "we need much larger programs for our economic future" argument is exaggerated and overpromises. Yes, the Benderly article is a good, thoughtful dissent. Maybe one of those alternate careers needs to be teaching...

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Posted in Education policy on June 30, 2010 4:10 PM | Submit