Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Choice of Undergraduate Major

Why do so many young people major in Economics rather than "STEM"?  Is it because our bloggers are so much wittier than their bloggers?   Today in the letters section of the NY Times, we learn the answer  .  Permit me to quote Columbia's wise Prof. Firestein.



To the Editor:
Why do science majors change their mind? They wise up.
Your article makes it sound as if American science students are stupid or lazy, unlike their workaholic Chinese and Indian counterparts. This is glib and insulting.
It is in their second year that students typically join laboratories and see firsthand that their dreams of a scientific career include low-paying and highly competitive professorial jobs, that getting grants for scientific research is increasingly difficult and unpredictable, that they are facing many years of postgraduate work at ridiculously low salaries and that they would have a hard time supporting a family.
Compare this future with that of the economics major (lots of math) who goes to business school and can look forward to million-dollar yearly bonuses.
American students change their majors because they recognize that this country has stopped providing a reasonable future for scientists, with slashed budgets for the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and National Institutes of Health.
For Chinese and Indian students, science remains a way out of poverty. For American students, it’s becoming the path into it.
STUART FIRESTEIN
New York, Nov. 6, 2011
The writer is chairman of the department of biological sciences at Columbia University.

Now, I can assure you that not every econ major will earn a million dollar bonus!  There appears to be  missing information here.  Prof. Firestein implicitly is assuming that every science major seeks an academic appointment.  Where are the for profit companies that would seek to hire these students?  While there is a free rider problem, they have an incentive to alert students to the types of industry careers they could have.

I agree with Prof. Firestein that an increase in the NSF and NIH budgets would lead more young people to become scientists.   Some responsibility here must lie on the faculty.   Science often appears to be a bunch of definitions and identities.  Have the scientists figured out how to bring their subject to life?  Do they compete to keep majors enrolled?  Universities do not shrink science disciplines that have few students.  If Departments lost faculty slots when they don't have students, then guys like Prof. F. would do a better job in the classroom.






1 comment :

Brandon Adams said...

I don't think the hard sciences or engineering schools need to make their curriculum more entertaining.

Econ was a large part of my undergrad, and it was far more dry than the physics, biology, or geology courses I took. Hard sciences already have an advantage in the fun department because of their lab components. I got to handle radioactive emitters in physics, look at my own cheek cells in bio, and take a guided nature walk in geology.

Econ, in comparison, always took place in the classroom. At its most colorful we were studying the life of Thorstein Veblen.

So, I agree with Prof. Firestein. The jobs available to those that choose a pure research career are low-paying and underappreciated. I met a guy at a party about a month ago that just received his MSci in biology and he was thrilled that he'd been able to find a job in his field that paid $30k.