It wasn’t long ago, and I remember being told, time and time again, that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) was the future. If a person wanted a job, they should first get a degree in STEM, then work in the technology field. That’s where the money was going to be. That’s where opportunity lay.
In middle school, I remember a shift in curriculum. All of a sudden, science classes went into overdrive and math classes became the focus. Common-core became law, trying to standardize mathematical education. Now I’m a junior studying mathematics, and I feel a bit misled.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with a professor of mathematics from Iowa State University. I asked him about the Ph.D. program, and what an aspiring Ph.D. student like myself should look into. His words were clear: go into applied math, or, if a person really wants to be employed, go into that fancy, buzz-word field called “data science.”
Pure mathematicians, in other words, are going to have a tough time. With tenure positions vanishing on college campuses, and the life of an adjunct professor being no better than a pet-sitter, few options are left for pure mathematicians looking for a way to make a living.
I admit, I’m stressed about the situation. I plan on going on an applied route, but still, there’s this feeling that jobs will be few and far between. When once the saying was “STEM! STEM! STEM!” it’s now “Data science!” Not too long ago it was “computer science.” There always seems to be some few fad field, some new gold mine career. But, as gold mines go, there are plenty of busts, or at least, not as big a boom.
As fields specialize, they became niches, and all of a sudden more education, more training, more experience is needed. Where once a person could code their own program with relative ease and sell it, like Elon Musk did, there are now Ph.D.’s in the field. And the field becomes necessity, such as learning to code.
This pattern of boom, bubble, and bust makes life for young scientists difficult. What started out as a promising field as a freshman becomes more closed, less fortuitous by the time they are a senior.
Of course, this isn’t to say STEM is a bad field. The numbers still say STEM is one of the best career paths. According to Pew Research, STEM workers have a noticeable pay increase over their peers. Job opportunities are aplenty, but not in the way everyone thinks. The market is flooding. As the New York Times reports, there may be a demand, but there are more people earning STEM degrees, more than the positions available.
Computer science, at the time of the study, saw as many job openings as new workers. Math, engineering and physical science all saw flooded job markets. Now, STEM workers do get work. But it’s just not in STEM. As Pew reported, about half of workers college educated in STEM work in a non-STEM position. So there are jobs, just not related to the classes one takes.
I’m not trying to sound a panic alarm. I’m merely issuing a warning to anyone who thinks STEM is a magic button, a silver-bullet to a good career. Having a degree in STEM is not a first-class ticket to the high life. The job market has become more specialized: coding, machine learning and data science are the new booming careers.
In short, it’s the same as it’s always been. Jobs in a respective field are hard to find, even in STEM. A new-comer has to play it smart: learn how to code, how to program. Pick up on skills outside the classroom that will stand out against the rest of the STEM applicants for a job. The scariest thing is this progression is unlikely to change: every job seems to be under threat of automation.
Don’t necessarily abandon a STEM career. They can be very rewarding, and yes, there are still opportunities. But the competition is stiff. A degree of pragmatism is needed. Know when the gold isn’t there and don’t hope for another boom. Be smart and be aware and then STEM can deliver the rewards we all were so emphatically promised.