One thing everyone seems to agree on is that we need more science graduates - or more broadly, science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates. There is concern that not enough people are taking STEM degrees, and that of those who do a large proportion doesn’t end up working in the field they qualified in. Something must be done.


Of last year’s graduates around a fifth, or 68,390 graduated in some form STEM. There were almost twice as many men – 23,625 women and 44,765 men – so if there is a dearth of STEM graduates, there is an even greater shortage of women qualified to work in the field. So why are there so few people taking up science careers? The industry hasn’t had the best of times recently, which is off-putting when there is greater emphasis on degree outcomes and employability.


The recession struck STEM harder than most, with many areas still yet to see the early signs of recovery. This is the result of a toxic brew of issues including the public sector cuts, which reduced roles in healthcare. In the private sector, there were high-profile cutbacks and job losses at pharmaceutical companies.


In addition, work in biology – a popular destination for women – has been in particularly short supply thanks to the downturn, as have jobs in engineering. Maths graduates had a less difficult time, but turmoil in the finance industry has led to fewer opportunities. It’s not all bad, of course. Geology graduates have been faced with a myriad of opportunities in oil and gas and those working overseas command some of the highest salaries.


Gender patterns

Overall unemployment rates for 2012 STEM graduates six months after leaving university were higher than those for all graduates. The unemployment rate for women from all subjects after six months was 6.2%, but 7.2% of female STEM graduates was unemployed. However, they did fare better than men – 9.7% of graduates from all subjects were unemployed, as opposed to 10.1% for STEM graduates.


Female STEM graduates were more likely to find work quicker, but they were also more likely to find themselves in jobs that don’t require a degree such as childcare, retail and business admin. Forty per cent of female graduates and 28% of male graduates were in jobs classed as below professional level.


Men are also more likely to enter careers related to their degree – around half of male and only a third of female STEM graduates start working in STEM jobs. Popular occupations for men are in IT and engineering while careers are more diverse for women with many taking roles as lab technicians, biochemists, teachers and financial analysts.


Changing perceptions

As well as the impact of the recession, STEM can have a bit of an image problem. Courses are considered difficult, the rewards at the end not always competitive, with little structure for career progression, particularly in science and technology. It can also be viewed as male dominated and unfriendly to women. If people don’t want to be a scientist they worry about what they will do with their degree. 


While some may consider taking a STEM degree leads to inflexible career choices, restricting deviation into anything different, it actually opens rather than closes options. Our five UK astronauts have been STEM graduates, which is an exciting aspiration for any talented young person.


The sector has tried hard to attract young people, but given that we’ve been trying for years and we’re still felt to have a shortage of STEM graduates, perhaps another approach is needed. Some of the rhetoric smacks of trying to instil guilt in people that they aren’t doing science. There’s an argument that we need to make the career more exciting, but nobody has had to do this with accountancy or law, which attract students in droves because they’re viewed as rewarding careers.


If there are not enough people taking STEM degrees then we must consider a different approach. We must start in schools, lay aside the guilt-trip, look at career structures and demonstrate to young entrants viable career paths as well as all of the great things a career in science offers.

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Deputy director of research at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit