Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Too Many Science Graduates

By Guy Nolch

A new report finds that the increasing number of science graduates are having difficulty finding relevant employment.

Advocates of science have long argued the merits of students studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and several programs have been established to ignite an interest in science as early as primary school and then maintain that interest into adulthood. Already these efforts seem to be working – perhaps too well.

In August the Grattan Institute reported that “science has added 26,800 local students since 2009, outstripping growth in other STEM fields”. But what happens to all those students when they finish their studies?

The report, Mapping Australian Higher Education 2016, paints a pessimistic picture of the career prospects of science graduates. It found that:

  • last year only 51% of science graduates found full-time work 4 months after completing their course – 17% lower than the national average;
  • the end of the mining boom has had dire consequences for geology graduates, with the full-time employment rate at its lowest level in 30 years;
  • only half of all working science graduates say their degree is required for their job – 20% below the average; and
  • science Bachelor degree graduates are less likely than other STEM graduates to work in high-skill managerial or professional jobs.

So where do many of our science graduates go? More than one-quarter start another Bachelor degree, while 60% of those pursuing Masters degrees enrol in medicine. A disproportionate number of science graduates pursues research funding for postgraduate study, and this greatly improves their chances of finding work related to their degree.

Furthermore, the report predicts that “school teaching opportunities for science graduates should improve as the school-age population increases and as STEM school education is promoted around Australia”.

The bottom line is that “employment directly related to science expertise is unlikely to increase substantially in the near future,” with the report concluding that “on-going increases in applications and offers for undergraduate science courses mean that completions will keep growing, making it hard for employment rates to improve”.

The report also notes that the government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda – the “ideas boom” – includes incentives for university–industry collaboration that “should reinforce trends towards applied research”. The catch is that “scientific and research skills are not a major on-going need for innovating businesses”.

However, a science degree does provide critical thinking, analysis and problem-solving skills that are valuable in the business sector. Rather than trying to squeeze all science graduates into the few science jobs available, or expecting them to undertake further study for a career in research or teaching, clear pathways into postgraduate business studies need to be promoted. By adding the management, leadership, innovation and commercialisation skills that aren’t explicitly taught in a science undergraduate course we’d be producing science-savvy graduates who are ready to take advantage of the “ideas boom”.

Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.