It doesn’t seem so long ago…the halcyon days of my misspent youth. The year was 1992 and my mother had just been admitted to the hospital for a potentially fatal case of the flu. She had inflammatory lung disease of unknown origins - and a case of flu could be a fatal complication. Indeed - when she arrived at the ER her condition was critical. Here, in a nutshell, was how my passion for molecular biology was born. From my Granfather’s diabetes, to my mother’s life-shortening lung disease, I was consistently exposed to the limits of modern medicine - not its marvels.
Like many - I was fooled by ”scientist shortage” reports of the 1990’s:
On that day, I said goodnight to my mother and talked briefly to her attending physician. After assuring me that my mother’s condition was stabilized, the conversation turned to research. I mentioned briefly what I did for a living (I was a lab manager/technician) and my plans to get a doctorate. The doctor nodded sagely that it was well known that the U.S. needed more Ph.D.’s in biomedical science.
How many times does a lie have to be repeated for the general public to be hoodwinked into thinking it is true? In those days, it was quite true that getting a reasonably high-paying job in biotechnology straight out of graduate school was completely doable. What no one seemed to grasp was that the flood of graduate students post-docs coming to the US from abroad, was already sowing the seeds of the massive glut that I would face upon graduation from a doctoral program. By the time I was out of the pipeline, there were no industry jobs for new graduates. Freshly minted Ph.D.’s were shoved unceremoniously into the post-doctoral logjam into which most would disappear for 10 years of further “training” at coolie wages before “qualifying” for a real job with a salary and benefits.
Here we go again - the great STEM career shortage rides again:
So it was with a feeling of deja vu that I heard the president’s senior advisor and assistant for Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs say that the thing to do was to encourage women and our youth in general to train for those valuable STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and math) - because this was how to secure their future!
Are you kidding me? A career in any of these fields involves a long and arduous education generally involving several YEARS of post-graduate study. A lot can change in those years. Shortages turn into gluts as people chase the career tracks that are profitable - for the moment. Once a critical mass of “bodies” is reached, the field becomes commoditized and you can kiss that nice salary and secure future good-bye.
Right now people are flooding into computer science and programming - again. Efforts to encourage women to enter this field are in full force - again. The reason I say “again” is because we have heard this all before - back in the 1980s. One such effort appeared in the New York Timestoday. (”Giving Women the Access Code” by Katie Hafner.
Ask many of the graduates of higher education in STEM fields how valuable that degree has been and more than half will laugh hysterically. My computer science counterparts learned the hard way - as I did - that employment opportunities can turn on a dime creating a situation where long term educational commitments are nothing more than a crap shoot.
We need more than a bandaid for this problem…
Encouraging students to enter STEM fields without first understanding the cyclic dynamics of these industries is the height of irresponsibility. These types of degrees promote “hard skills” that are not easily transferable to alternate disciplines.
So it should be no big surprise that women and men are shunning these fields in favor of a softer skill set in business where sliding from field to field is not so difficult.
© 2012 - Ruthmarie G. Hicks - http://www.thebodypoliticUSA.com - All rights reserved.