Mea culpa: About studying science to get a job

By Phil Plait | November 10, 2011 5:39 pm

This morning, I posted an article where, looking at a database from the 2010 Census, I concluded that your chances of getting a job are a lot better if you major in a science field. Four of the ten college majors with the lowest unemployment rates were science-related.

It turns out I made some errors in the post. One is a logical fallacy, the other in my structure and wording, implying something I didn’t mean to. These were pointed out to me by a reader who makes several valid points, but then falls into errors of his own. This is worth sorting out, so I want to take a moment to show what’s what.

I was taken to task about my post on Twitter by Noahpinion, who pointed out (in tweets here and here) that many fields of science had higher unemployment rates. I replied that the numbers he quoted (6-7%) were still below the national average.

That was a mistake on my part. Noah pointed out that I was using 9% for the national unemployment average, but that’s overall unemployment. A better figure to use would have been 5%, which is the unemployment rate just for college graduates! That is correct; I should’ve used the lower number.

I’ll note that this doesn’t change the point I was trying to make: that a large fraction of the college majors with the lowest unemployment numbers are science-based. But that’s where I think I made a bigger mistake.

In my zeal to write something short and pithy for Twitter (and the post headline), I made it sound like getting a science degree will guarantee you a job. "Want a job? Study science" is the headline, and it’s misleading. In the post itself I tried to make it clear that in reality, studying science (or at least the fields of science I listed — astronomy, pharmacology, and others) would increase your chance of getting a job. I even mentioned that you may not get a job in the field you studied, but I do think that getting a science degree prepares you better for the job market. If done correctly, you learn things like programming skills, writing, communicating, and so on. I said a lot of my friends got astronomy degrees and went into different fields that were related to their skills developed (though they had PhDs — which in some ways makes it harder to get a job… but that’s another story).

Anyway, Noah wrote an interesting article about this on his blog, pointing out where I went wrong. Fair enough. He says that what I am saying is that the problem with finding a job is on the supply side: we’re not training enough people with employable skills. He then says:

BUT, the story Phil is telling is just not right. Not right at all. It implies the same thing that many conservatives are saying openly – that the root of unemployment is on the supply side. That our high unemployment rate is simply due to the fact that we’re not teaching kids the right stuff, or maybe that kids are choosing wimpy majors.

This is certainly not at all what I meant, though after re-reading my post, I can see where someone might easily read that into what I wrote. I should’ve been more clear, and that’s my fault. Of course I understand that it’s not that there are jobs sitting out there unfilled, waiting for science majors to take them. I just didn’t say that specifically in the post, and I should have. I blew it.

However, I do disagree with what he says next:

Earth to Bad Astronomy: your short-list of fully-employed science majors is totally cherry-picked.

That is unfair. Cherry-picking is when you arbitrarily pick things that make your position look stronger, showing them out of context. I looked at the ten majors with the lowest unemployment rates; the only arbitrary thing is the cutoff I chose. As I looked down the list, past those ten, I saw plenty of other science-based majors. Ten seemed like a decent cutoff, and I did not pick it to make my position look better. So arbitrary, yes; but cherry-picked, no.

Then Noah says:

Overall, science and engineering majors are suffering right along with everyone else in the country, because that is what happens when we are in an economic depression. And all those astronomers who have plenty of jobs? Guess what: they’re employed because they work for the government. Yep, that’s right, the same government whose ability to provide employment Phil laughs at.

This is both incorrect and a gross misrepresentation of what I wrote.

Of course science majors are suffering along with everyone else. I never said otherwise. I did say, or at least tried to say, that some fields of science are clearly better choices if you want to maximize your chances in the job market.

I also take exception to Noah’s comments about the government. First of all, I didn’t "laugh at" the government, I was pointing out that certain ideologues in government want to suppress science and science education. That’s a huge difference! I also never mention the government’s ability to hire people, let alone laugh at it. If anything, I link to a post I wrote where I show that governments suppressing science (as Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal did) leads to losing jobs, or at least losing revenue.

In that sense, Noah is doing the same thing he accuses me of: over-generalization.

Second, he says that astronomers are employed by the government, but doesn’t give evidence for that. According to this site, the majority of astronomers work in academic fields; Universities and so on. Of course, many of them have NASA and/or NSF grants, but in many cases the funding comes from non-government sources. But these astronomers don’t work for the government, they work for academia.

And how does this matter, anyway? Whether the government is hiring, or private industry, those people who majored in those fields got employed, and that was my point in the first place.

So, to sum up:

I made some errors in that article. The biggest, I think, is that I implied strongly that getting a science degree guarantees a job. That is incorrect, and I’ll add an update to that post as soon as I’m done here. However, my case that getting a science degree, at least in certain fields, is beneficial to getting a job is still on the table. It would be interesting to pick some other field (the legal system, maybe, or engineering?) and see if the unemployment rates are comparable to that of science majors. Maybe all fields have some distribution of unemployment. However, and this is important, the fact still remains that of the ten majors that have lowest unemployment, a large fraction are science related.

There’s not much we as individuals can do to turn the economy around or create new jobs, but we can at least maximize our own chances of getting what jobs are out here. These numbers are an indication of how to do that.


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