I know. Enough with the bad news, already.

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.

The surplus of scientists at the bachelor’s and doctoral levels has been a hot discussion topic recently, as well as in the past.

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.

The Atlantic associate editor Jordan Weissman had apparently heard enough talk of a shortage of scientists, and presents data that flies in the face of that notion in “The Ph.D Bust: America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts.”

Politicians and businessmen are fond of talking about America’s scientist shortage — the dearth of engineering and lab talent that will inevitably leave us sputtering in the global economy. But perhaps it’s time they start talking about our scientist surplus instead.

Weissman makes his case by providing graphs based on data from the National Science Foundation, broken down by broad disciplinary categories. I’ve included the graph for the physical sciences, of which he comments “In disciplines like physics and chemistry, the percentage of employed have also fallen just below the unemployed.” After presenting the entirety of his data carnage, he concludes:

Most of these Ph.D.’s will eventually find work — and probably decently compensated work at that. After all, the unemployment rate for those with even a college degree is under 4 percent, and in 2008, science and engineering doctorate holders up to three years out of school had just 1.5 percent unemployment. But next time you hear a politician talking about our lack of science talent, remember all those young aerospace engineers, chemists, physicists who will still be casting around for a gig after they’re handed a diploma. There’s no great shortage to speak of.

The global recession is, well, global

Finally, to illustrate the global impact of the economy on the employment outlook for those just entering the workforce, there’s The New York Times article “In China, Families Bet It All on College for Their Children,” by Keith Bradsher.

The article focuses on a low-income rural Chinese family which has been tracked for the past seven years by The New York Times. The only child, a daughter, is now enrolled in a three-year polytechnical college. The family’s extreme financial sacrifices to afford her education serve to exemplify the struggles faced throughout China by a majority of families trying to secure a college education for their children.

Many families in the West sacrifice to put their children through school, saving for college educations that they hope will lead to a better life. Few efforts can compare with the heavy financial burden that millions of lower-income Chinese parents now endure as they push their children to obtain as much education as possible.

Even after attaining that educational goal, however, the new graduates find that securing employment is a daunting task.

Yet a college degree no longer ensures a well-paying job, because the number of graduates in China has quadrupled in the last decade.

The lengths to which this family has gone to pay for a college education for their child is not unique in China, and is a driving force toward increased levels of higher education.

Her parents’ sacrifices to educate their daughter explain how the country has managed to leap far ahead of the United States in producing college graduates over the last decade, with eight million Chinese now getting degrees annually from universities and community colleges.

And how has this become a bad thing?

But high education costs coincide with slower growth of the Chinese economy and surging unemployment among recent college graduates.

Unlike the US, where those without a college degree have a harder time finding employment, “young college graduates in China are four times as likely to be unemployed as young people who attended only elementary school, because factory jobs are more plentiful than office jobs.” If this trend continues, it could act as a disincentive to a attending college.

Okay, I’m done

Believe me, I’m also tiring of all the bad economic and employment news. I truly hope that things turn around, and soon. I’ll try to keep my eyes open for something more optimistic.

Now where did I leave my rose-colored glasses?

Author: Glen Ernst

Chemistry and pharma researcher and manager. Lifelong passion for science, the arts and language. Blogger for CENtral Science, also blogging as The Scientist Next Door. LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/glenernst

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1 Comment

  1. Chemistry PhD from Illinois, 3 years removed from a postdoc, still unemployed, I’ve really got to stop reading all the depressing news.