TEM Versus STEM: Separate and Unequal (And Biology Takes It in the Chops)

Perusing a report, Higher Education Pays: But a Lot More for Some Graduates than for Others (pdf), we come across the following figure showing the post-graduation incomes of various degrees:


Basically, there’s no economic premium to be had with a biology degree (and chemistry doesn’t do that well either). But maybe this is a Texas-specific phenomenon? (Biologists, don’t mess with Texas!). Well…


OK, that’s only two states, right?


Gulp. From the report:

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.

Part of the problem is that a biology degree has essentially become a ‘pre-degree’, something one needs to attend various graduate schools (e.g., nursing school, med school, PhD school). Related to that point, the skills one learns might be very technically challenging, but aren’t necessarily applicable outside of biological research.

Of course, the other thing to note is that the massive ramping up of biology faculties (as opposed to decently paid researchers–not the same thing) means that they’ll be teaching more courses, making it easier to obtain a biology degree.

This is a very serious problem. For those students who don’t ultimately go on to graduate school of some sort, it seems to me that biology graduates don’t really have any particular skills employers want. Employers’ economic needs shouldn’t be driving biology curricula, but, at the same time, we need to be honest with undergraduates about the post-graduate economic realities of a biology degree, especially when so many students are taking on significant debt to receive that degree.

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3 Responses to TEM Versus STEM: Separate and Unequal (And Biology Takes It in the Chops)

  1. Newcastle says:

    Well there are those of us who have (micro)biology undergraduate degrees who work in research laboratories doing something more than just passaging cells. I just taught a new post doc what a phosphate buffer is and how to make it just yesterday. (Shoot. Me. Now.) And yes we don’t get paid diddly squat. Thing is, we are the continuity in the academic labs, I was here fifteen years ago when we did that paper and I know where those cell lines are stored and I know how we actually did the experiments and I can do all of them. I’m the one who teaches the grad students and far too many post docs how to do the hands on part of our research. The PI hasn’t touched a lab bench in a couple of decades, it isn’t his job. And were are the first to be laid off when we don’t get the funding. I wouldn’t recommend the career to anyone but I actually like doing research for a (albeit marginal) living.

  2. Lindsay says:

    Most of the interview that I’ve gotten have been with private companies, mostly veterinary pharmaceutical companies (it’s Kansas). The jobs I was interviewing for were pretty much in biological research, just not academic research. And they did think I had a good skill set; my biggest weakness as a candidate was a total lack of work experience. So probably it would help to maybe build an internship program into these lab-based biological science degree programs? I don’t know, but what I can tell you is that research jobs are available outside academia, and some of them are even for people with only undergraduate degrees. Typically they want you to have worked in a lab environment for a while, though, and just going to college won’t necessarily give you that.

    Also, I’m astonished that the math people do so well! It’s a pity they don’t break it down a little more, though — if I had to guess, I’d say the high average salary reflects how in-demand statisticians are, rather than anything that’s true of all mathematical specializations. (EVERYBODY wants to get in on this Big Data thing, and they need people trained in statistics to do that. Why yes, I *do* know a statistics graduate who’s been drowning in job offers since he left school.)

    I’d also be curious to know how some of the other physical sciences fare — I don’t see physics on that list, or astronomy, or geology, or atmospheric sciences or hydrology or whatever else there might be in that category. Physics is definitely one of the fields I would predict to have little or nothing for the BS-level crowd.

  3. CC says:

    I would really like to see more data on how wages play out after the first year. And I think there are two major underlying issues here. One is who is responsible for educating the student on the worth (or lack of worth) of their degree? The resources are out there if the students want to look for themselves. Which I think the should be since college should be looked at as a financial investment and one should take the time to do adequate researching before investing that much time and money into something.

    And in my opinion, the second issue is how are we supposed to tell people that their chosen path isn’t the one they should be taking? Hasn’t our society evolved into the type where we only encourage the youth that they can do anything they set their mind to? Should we stop encouraging those who aren’t a good match at being doctors/physical therapists/dentists/veterinarians to keep pursuing that degree because it will probably just be a big waste of their time and money? And whose job is that to step up and give them the reality check? In this day and age I would be afraid to.

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