UW News

January 9, 2003

Best students shunning science, study shows

America’s top college graduates increasingly reject careers in science and engineering, UW researchers have found, raising concerns about America’s technological future.

Faced with the prospect of low-paid apprenticeships and training lasting a decade or more — and constricted job opportunities even after that — more of the brightest young Americans are pursuing the quicker payoffs offered by business and certain other professions, according to the study.

Over a recent eight-year span, the number of high-achieving American college seniors who planned graduate study in mathematics fell by 19 percent and engineering by 25 percent, according to the study in tomorrow’s edition of the policy journal Issues in Science and Technology.

“With the notable exception of biological sciences, many of the top U.S. students with potential to become scientists are turning toward other career paths,” said William Zumeta, a professor at the UW’s Evans School of Public Affairs and College of Education and co-author of the study with UW doctoral student Joyce Raveling.

During the same period — 1992-2000 — master’s degrees in business administration swelled by nearly one-third and there is evidence that top science and engineering majors played a part in this growth.

Indeed, science majors increasingly abandoned science after graduation, the authors found.

Even after an apprenticeship period that stretches out 10 years or more, including low-paid postdoctoral appointments, prospects for satisfying, autonomous research positions are slim because of the small number of faculty openings, Zumeta said.

Top students therefore increasingly turn to business and health professions such as physical therapy, speech pathology and public health, according to the study.

To document science’s shrinking appeal, the researchers tracked all U.S. citizens and permanent residents scoring above 750 (the top 5 to 7 per-cent) on the Graduate Record Exam — the most widely used graduate school entrance exam — between 1992 and 2000.

The number of those elite students who planned to embark on graduate study in science and engineering fell by 8 percent (to around 8,000) over the eight years, while those planning to enter other fields increased by 7 percent (to around 4,650).

Using another set of data — 2,000 senior natural-science majors from five highly selective American colleges — the researchers found that the number of science majors with no plans to ever enter graduate school more than doubled from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 1998, while the proportion intending immediate graduate study plummeted from 48 percent to 28 percent.

“One must wonder,” Zumeta said, “how successful the United States can be in the technological age without a dependable flow of home-grown talent into the ranks of researchers and eventually scientific, industrial and policy leaders.”

The authors also noted that international enrollments in U.S. graduate programs in many science and engineering fields fell during the 1990s, an unprecedented turnaround.

To counter the exodus from science, Zumeta and Raveling recommend that the federal government take steps to make academic careers more attractive, such as by funding a cadre of highly selective research assistant professorships available only to those who have completed doctoral and postdoctoral training with distinction.

While a laissez faire approach may spur adequate labor supplies in other industries, Zumeta said, scientific research is largely a public endeavor — most scientists with advanced degrees do research or teaching supported by government funds.

“If public policies serve to make scientific research careers inadequately attractive to the best young minds,” Zumeta said, “this will surely work to society’s detriment in an age when scientific and technological advances are basic to economic growth, environmental protection, public health and national security.”