Where I mix career information and career decision making in a test tube and see what happens

Thursday, June 28, 2012

STEM Dropouts

Last year, I wrote a blog about research that explained why STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) majors in college become discouraged about their chances of persisting in their major. In this week’s blog, I look at the reasons why graduates of STEM majors drop out of STEM-related careers after they enter the workforce.

The analysis of undergraduate behavior that I reported on last year found that students who become disillusioned with non-STEM majors tend to do so slowly over several years and tend to experience loss of interest and diminishing expectations about the earnings they can expect in their field. On the other hand, students who become disappointed with STEM majors tend to do so precipitously in their freshman year, mostly because of diminished expectations of their ability to earn a decent GPA. In other words, it’s not boredom or lowered career expectations that discourages them, but the challenge of the coursework.

But what about after graduation? Those who graduate with a bachelor’s in a STEM field have successfully met the challenges of the curriculum. Having overcome this hurdle, do they face other barriers once they have left college and entered the workforce? I found some answers to this question by analyzing data from the 2003 National Study of College Graduates, a longitudinal study conducted by the Census Bureau on behalf of the National Science Foundation. This survey asked 170,000 college grads under age 76 about their education and their current work situation. Although the survey was updated in 2006, I used data from the 2003 sample because it polled graduates of the full range of college majors, whereas the 2006 survey looked only at science and engineering majors.

Using data from the 2003 survey, I was able to compare the work situations of people who held bachelor’s degrees from STEM and non-STEM majors. In compiling the set of STEM majors, I ruled out the social sciences and the health-care sciences that focus primarily on patient care.

One important finding was that STEM grads are more likely than non-STEM grads to be working in a job that is closely related or somewhat related to their major, as shown by the graph below. The differences are not great, but they are significant.


But when STEM grads are in an unrelated career, what is the reason? The next graph compares the responses of the two types of grads. You’ll note that for many of the reasons for not working in a related job, the STEM and non-STEM grads are quite similar. Evidently  the STEM grads have hardly any added tendency to lose interest in their field, because only one percentage point separates them from the non-STEM grads. The biggest difference is shown by the navy blue zone: STEM grads tend to be quite a bit more likely to be in an unrelated field because of their inability to find work in their field. With non-STEM grads, as indicated by the two lowest zones, disappointment with pay or promotion or dissatisfaction with working conditions was a more likely reason for working outside their field.


Keep in mind that this analysis is based on data collected in 2003. It may be that in 2012 and the years ahead, there will be lots of job opportunities for STEM grads, keeping them employed in work that is related to their major. But what I find from this survey tells me that if lots of STEM-related jobs don’t materialize soon, or if career development professionals fail to help connect STEM grads with appropriate jobs, we may lose STEM grads to unrelated careers.

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