Bucking the STEM trend

If you’re doing a science degree (or maybe you’re just bored on a Friday night), remove your nose from its standard in-textbook position and stick it instead into the Mapping Australian higher education 2016 report.

The key points for you are probably these:

“Only 51 per cent of the science graduates looking for full-time work had found it four months after completing their course, 17 percentage points below the national average.”

“For science coursework graduates, 55 per cent reported a well-matched job, only slightly above the undergraduate rate.”

If you haven’t started looking for work yet, then congratulations on your pre-emptive ignorance. It sucks. There are few things in this world that are worse than seeing the position of your dreams advertised, then labouring over an application for days on end (including writing a cover letter that the literary greats would be proud of and shaping your CV so that it’s clear that you are so suited for the job that you probably created the company but forgot about it until now) only to have a robot send you an automated turd along the lines of “we thought you were great but the competition was greater”.

Yes, I get it: it’s the weekend and you want unbridled bliss and not sobering reality. But I’m actually here to help! First, let’s give the above a little bit of context:

Hooray! You’re an average student and you have just graduated from your gruelling degree in, um, biochemipsycholuminescence, and now you’re looking forward to getting a job and exchanging money for things (things = food, a place to live,  insurance, beer, etc.). Well, you have a coin-flip chance of getting a job in the next four months, my friend. And if you are lucky enough to get one, there’s only a coin-flip chance that it’s going to be matched to your degree.

Nice. A 25% chance of getting a relevant job. Indeed, this is bad news and it is certainly tough times for science graduates, even though every time you open a newspaper some bigwig is crying about a lack of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) graduates, and all you can do is cry back because you are a STEM (Suitable Tired of Evading Money) graduate and your unemployment is uncomfortably lucid to the point that the fabric sorter position at Aunt Molly’s haberdashery is looking great guns.

But here’s the good news. You’ve done a science degree. You’re a scientist. Australia, nay, the world needs you! They just don’t know it yet. But with a lot of hard work you can show them.

There’s lots of advice I can give. For example, the report states that doing postgraduate study significantly improves your chances:

“Postgraduate study in science significantly improves job prospects. In 2014, 69 per cent of recent coursework masters graduates and 78 per cent of research masters or PhD science graduates who wanted full-time work had found it.”

That’s a huge difference. However, numbers like these are often self-depressing, for by acting on these statistics and having more people do postgraduate study, the success rates will likely reduce. You would probably still be more successful on average than an undergraduate student.

Anyway, I want to draw on my own experience to give you some advice. I’m a mathematician with a job and I wouldn’t be a very good one if I didn’t snobbishly rub your noses in it (I mean to help!). First of all, here’s a graph from the report:

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 8.54.37 AM

Let me sum (get it?) it up for you. The more maths you have done in your degree, the more likely you are to have a job. Given that the modern world is all about apps, androids and automation, it makes perfect sense. But this doesn’t mean that you have to run to the dean in tears begging him to let you change your degree. Hopefully, you’re studying the subjects that you enjoy and this is the way it should be, though there you may have to compromise on a couple of them.

I got lucky. I loved (and still do, baby) maths and that’s why I studied it. I landed a job immediately after graduation. But here’s the important thing: most of the actual maths I use in my job is just first year statistics and calculus (coupled with some programming), and such courses are generally available to all science students. I certainly have never applied theorems from courses such as Algebraic Topology and Rings, Fields and Matrix Algebras, though presumably somebody with a good deal of gumption could do this. In my experience, a mastery of fundamentals is supremely better than a slippery notion of the advanced topics.

So, that’s step one. Pump some calculus and statistics into your degree. Then, not only can you still do all the sciencey things you love, but you can bring a new level of rigour and analysis to your field. This could be a challenge, especially if you have a fear of maths.

Step two is that you should learn some programming. Seriously. The world is changing and this is going to help you position yourself toward the future. There are free courses online at places like Coursera. Can you rope a friend into giving you some help getting started?

Finally, you should combine your efforts in step one and step two with the subject you’re actually studying. For example, maybe you have a lab report due for a chemistry course. You could use some new type of statistical test to infer your results, or write a program that fits a mathematical model to your results. This is what people in industry are doing: they are using the latest and greatest technological and quantitative know-how to produce high-calibre irrefutable results. Get started early!

If you’re unsure how to proceed, go and talk to your lecturers. Ask them how you can inject some juicy maths and programming into the material. If they have no advice for you then thank them with a shot to the chops.

Like everything, it’s easier said than done. But you’re a scientist. You’re driven by your passion for science. Opening up your subject to maths is only going to make it better. Good luck.

2 thoughts on “Bucking the STEM trend

  1. Thanks Adrian. It’s really encouraging to hear you say the fundamentals are what’s most important. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the multitude of advanced maths subjects, and disheartened when you gain only a passing exposure of a few. For this reason, I have felt unqualified to boast technical maths skills to employers.

  2. No worries Owen. I think it gets missed by most people. There seems to be a trend these days of people having some small amount of experience with eight billion different techniques. If you know the core stuff really well, you’re on a firm footing to build on your knowledge base in the relevant direction. For example, the other day at work I came across a problem that needed a type of regression that I had never done before, but I was able to read up on it and eventually understand it enough to apply it. I think we need a better way of saying to an employer: “I don’t have much experience with X, but I’ve got a strong ability of being able to learn things to a high level quickly”. Surely a fast learner is better than somebody who has read the wikipedia page and done a few copy-and-paste examples…

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