Category → Education
Which do you want to hear first, the good news or the bad news?
The bad news, you say?
Okay, here it is. The bad news—wait for it—is that there is no good news. Cue the trombone.
Last week, there was an appearance of even more articles focused on how badly the Great Recession has hurt new college graduates, at all levels. The scope of this phenomenon appears to extend beyond science, and beyond North America or the EU. What follows is a quick overview of three articles on various aspects of this topic.
A devalued bachelor’s degree
First, there’s the provocatively titled “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk,” a New York Times article by Catherine Rampell. The opening statement provides a startling and depressing premise:
The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job.
An Atlanta law office is presented as a microcosm of what’s being seen more broadly. At this firm, the minimum prerequisite for employment, regardless of position, is a bachelor’s degree. This includes office administrators, file clerks and even their in-office courier.
Evidence is provided that this situation is not unique to this one law firm:
Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma — positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters — are increasingly requiring one, according to Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job ads from more than 20,000 online sources, including major job boards and small- to midsize-employer sites.
The shortage of scientists is nonexistent
Returning to the sciences—in spite of the data supporting the premise of a glut of newly graduated scientists, there has been chatter bemoaning the opposite.
Are you getting the value you expected out of your chemistry education?
Earlier this week, Chemjobber blogged about the regrettable employment situation for chemists. The centerpiece of the post was a graphic, which originally appeared in a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report on 2012 employment numbers. The figure represented the unemployment numbers, broken down by highest level of education completed and the associated wages for those employed in each group.
Chemjobber amended the graphic with both the ACS member unemployment numbers (also by degree), plus the BLS numbers in the category “chemists and material scientists.” The result is powerful. Chemjobber summed it up:
As you can note, chemists come out worse in every single apples-to-apples comparison on all equivalent degree holders.
A further irony is found in the title of the original graphic, which Chemjobber retained: “Education Pays.” Well, yes, if you’re employed, your salary will generally increase with level of education (except for the slight dropoff from “Professional degree” to “Doctoral degree”).
However, if you have the misfortune of being among the unemployed—the numbers are even worse for recent graduates—your return on investment is currently zero. This adds insult to injury, particularly if you attended an expensive private institution and have a seemingly insurmountable student loan debt to pay off. “Education Pays” then sounds derisive.
The soaring cost of higher education was the subject of a recent New York Times op-ed piece, entitled “My Valuable, Cheap College Degree,” by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and former professor at Syracuse University.
The title refers to an effort to provide more affordable higher education opportunities:
One idea gaining currency is the $10,000 college degree — the so-called 10K-B.A. — which apparently was inspired by a challenge to educators from Bill Gates, and has recently led to efforts to make it a reality by governors in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, as well as by a state assemblyman in California.
To achieve these cost cuts, there is a reliance on distance learning, such as massive online open courses (MOOC) and other formats. Understandably, this goal has been greeted with a fair amount of skepticism:
Some critics see it as an invitation to charlatans and diploma mills. Even supporters often suggest that this is just an idea to give poor people marginally better life opportunities.
Okay, a couple of topics to cover today, and they are related.
First, if you haven’t done so already, you should check out The Watch Glass, a Tumblr which contains excerpts from the C&EN Archives. This endeavor is curated by recent JAEP guest poster, Deirdre Lockwood. Although The Watch Glass is only a couple of weeks old, there have already been some very interesting nostalgic snapshots of chemists and chemistry from the past.
This inspired me to have my own peek at the archives and see what interesting things I might find. It didn’t take long. I’d like to highlight one discovery in particular, a small article entitled “Ph.D. outlook: too many for too few jobs.” Hmmm, doesn’t that sound familiar?
Yes, but here’s the kicker. The publication date of this article: August 13, 1979.
“What? 1979? Surely there must be some mistake! That’s a current topic!” I hear you scream. That, or it’s just the voices. You know, the shrill ones in my head.
Okay, the C&EN archives are by subscription only. That is a bit problematic, because not all readers of this blog have access, whether they’re ACS members or not. I had to wait for the library to email a pdf from scanned microfiche (ask your parents or advisor). Fortunately, the article is short, and the abstract, which is viewable to all, contains roughly half the content, from which you can get the gist. It begins:
The fourth in a series of employment reports from the National Science Foundation has been issued. The report concludes that the number of science and engineering Ph.D.’s in the labor force will increase nearly 50% by 1987.
Well, that’s quite a large increase. That’s good, though, right? The result of a productive American education system. U-S-A! U-S-A!!
The only hitch is that the number of traditional employment positions available to these Ph.D.’s will increase only 35% over the same period.
You’ve probably seen the numbers.
Last month, here at C&EN, Rudy Baum presented his take on unemployment figures for ACS members, which fell from 4.6% in March 2011 to 4.2% for March 2012. He pointed out that this rate was still “well below” the national unemployment rate, which was at 8.2% in March 2012.
This was followed by a commentary by Madeleine Jacobs, CEO and Executive Director of the ACS.
She expressed concern for her membership by stating that “those unemployed chemists are no longer solving critical challenges and creating jobs to ensure sufficient energy, clean water, and food while protecting the environment and curing diseases. Unemployment has both a human and an economic face.”
She was prompted to speak out by Brian Vastag’s article in the Washington Post from July 7th, which covered the lack of available jobs in the sciences. Within that article, a chemist, displaced from her position at a pharmaceuticals company, was quoted as advising her high-school aged daughter to avoid pursuing a career in science. “I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her,” she said.
Ms. Jacobs was particularly disturbed by this advice, and felt compelled to call others to action. This is where her initial expression of concern morphed into something else:
“Many people became scientists to fulfill what they saw as their patriotic duty. Let’s not discourage our children who are passionate about chemistry and other sciences by pointing them to other fields.”
She then proceeded to quote, as support for her position, a biology undergraduate, who said, among other things:
“Anyone who would discourage a child who loves math and chemistry from pursuing a career in science because it might be difficult to find employment might not be a scientist for the right reasons.”
I guess there’s room enough for at least two on that particular high horse.
Okay, where to begin?
Among my coworkers, Madeleine Jacobs’ commentary was viewed with something best described as sputtering disbelief. Her rebuke smacks of “nothing worthwhile is ever easy,” or “hard work is its own reward.”
Gee, um, thanks, Mom.
That disbelief was wonderfully crystallized in a subsequent post by Chemjobber. He first pointed out that a straight comparison between the unemployment numbers of ACS members and those of the country at large was a bit misleading:
“Less than 30% of the United States has a college degree. The ACS membership in 2010 consists of 64% Ph.D.s, 18% M.S. holders and 18% bachelors’ degree holders.”
He offered a comparison that still isn’t perfect, but is much better, by limiting the comparison of unemployment numbers to ACS members and nonmembers with college degrees. To summarize—if you break it down by degree, ACS members have higher unemployment than the college educated public at large. Continue reading →
Responding to a request from several former ACS presidents, the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety is attempting to develop an online laboratory safety certification program aimed at chemistry graduate students. The program ideally would address longstanding complaints from industry that Ph.D. programs do not adequately educate students to work safely in industrial research and development laboratories. A well-planned and peer-reviewed online certification program could be part of the solution to this training gap.
The development cost for online training programs, according to an informal survey of commercial online training providers, is approximately $20,000 for each presentation hour of this type of safety course. This means that developing an 8- to 10-hour course with about a dozen training modules would cost $160,000 to $200,000.
The division is now facing the following questions and would welcome input from Safety Zone readers:
- How might costs be lowered? What work could be done by volunteers rather than paid consultants?
- Does ACS have the resources to develop the program without using a training provider?
- Several organizations are willing to support program development: the ACS Corporate Associates, National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, and Council for Chemical Research. Are there others that might be interested?
- Is there sufficient demand to warrant developing the program? Can it meet industry’s needs?
- What topics should be covered, and what is a realistic amount of time to commit for effective training?
- Is taking an online course and passing tests sufficient for certification or should there be other components?
Related post: Teaching safety to chemical engineers
Another thing that struck me as I was preparing the safety talks is how few undergrad lab safety talks there are available on the internet – do we all just hide them away in the dark recesses of our virtual learning environments? Are we scared to make them public just in case something happens that the talk didn’t cover? I would have thought that prospective students and their families, and those of current students might quite like the idea of being able to see the safety requirements set out somewhere. Just a thought. And where can we actually share best practice for undergraduate lab safety?
I know that the Journal of Chemical Education and the Journal of Chemical Health & Safety both publish papers related to lab safety education (and papers on some of the programs I wrote about last year appeared in JCHAS over the summer), but does anyone have ideas for faster, less formal dialogue in this area? If people have some good suggestions, perhaps this a project that the ACS Safety Culture Task Force would consider.
On Monday, an explosion occurred during an organic chemistry lab at the University of Maryland (UMD). The local fire department responded, reportedly sending “16 pieces of fire, EMS and Haz-Mat units and about 70 personnel” to the scene. Two students received first- and second-degree chemical burns and were taken to an area burn unit.
UMD chemistry department chair Michael Doyle tells C&EN that:
The evidence that I saw with the fire marshall was consistent with waste material (strong acids) being inappropriately added to an organic reagent bottle and not to a waste container. I believe that the lesson learned is the need to segregate reagents for a lab from the reagents being used.
One of my colleagues notes that this is also a reason to be careful about reusing old reagent bottles as waste containers–current reagents and waste can be easily confused (although I don’t know if this was actually the situation at UMD).
The fire department’s blog has more photos, although the post differs from Doyle on the cause of the explosion.
Food for thought on the tension between making labs safer or greener and making sure students still learn essential skills: I recently ran across this video of Theodore Gray speaking about risk in science education. Gray–of Gray Matter, Mad Science, The Elements, and Wolfram fame–argues that “we’re all ninnies” when it comes to accepting risk in science experiments. He makes the analogy that we accept some risk of injury or death when it comes to children riding bikes or playing football, so why not when it comes to the laboratory? “There’s real value in communicating the fact that science is a big thing that goes out and does stuff in the world,” Gray says. “Sometimes it’s dangerous and that makes it exciting.” And it’s that excitement that can draw in students, both those who will someday become professional scientists and those who won’t but still need to understand the key role that science plays in society.
(h/t to Context and Variation)