Counterpoint: Chemistry and other physical sciences degrees do pay off

  • Article by: ROBERT HANSON
  • Updated: June 2, 2014 - 6:50 PM

Graduates tend to get advanced degrees rather than get jobs right away. That skews the numbers.

As a chemistry professor at an undergraduate institution that saw more than 60 chemistry majors pick up their diplomas recently, I was disappointed by the analysis of the Minnesota Graduate Employment Outlook presented in “New tool tells which college degrees pay off” (Business, May 30). The presence of physical sciences (chemistry, physics, astronomy, geoscience) in the “Bottom 5” category should be a clue that something is very odd here.

A report from the American Chemical Society tells a different story: “Over that same time frame [2011-2013], full-time employment changed from a rate of 89.7% to 90.0%” and “[t]he share of chemists who were unemployed but looking for jobs fell from a peak of 4.6% in 2011 to 4.2% in 2012.” Median salary for chemists was reported to be $92,000; $73,900 for those with only a bachelor’s degree, $100,600 for those with a Ph.D. So a degree in chemistry doesn’t pay off? Really?

The implication from the article’s title would be that graduating from college and going to graduate school, medical school or other professional school “does not pay off.”

On the contrary — continuing education after getting a B.A. or a B.S. degree in the physical sciences is very common and certainly does pay off, not only financially but also in terms of lifelong opportunities and meaningful employment.

Reading the fine print at the Education Department website we discover the missing clue: (a) “Graduates who re-enrolled in school after completing a degree and chose not to seek work will not appear in wage records” and, of course, (b) the data are only for “graduates with reported wages in Minnesota.”

In that case, the subtitle for this article, “Data show nearly 70 percent of grads in Minnesota lacked a full-time job a year after graduation,” is at best misleading and more probably just plain incorrect. The data suggest nothing of the kind.

The Education Department report simply suggests that Minnesota graduates in areas such as computer science and engineering often do remain in Minnesota and get jobs here after graduation (or perhaps after a year in a master’s degree program).

On the contrary, Minnesota grads in the physical sciences tend not to go straight into the workforce, or not so much in Minnesota, at least, and probably opt for additional training to advance their career aspirations.

 

Robert Hanson is the Larson-Anderson professor of chemistry and chairman of the Chemistry Department at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

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