Brain drain

Smartest students shunning science careers, except biology, researchers conclude.

Jan 10, 2003
Charles Choi(cqchoi@nasw.org)

A new report finds that the United States' top college graduates are increasingly rejecting careers in science and engineering in general, however the life sciences remain a notable exception, with growing numbers of the country's best and brightest steering towards biology.

The authors suggest that the long time it takes to get a doctorate coupled with few job opportunities afterwards may be driving elite students towards programs with relatively short training periods, such as physical therapy or Masters degrees in business administration. While graduate programs in biology are still booming, that too could change.

"I suspect the intrinsic interest of life sciences makes them attractive. There's so much going on that's so widely publicized," said the study's author William Zumeta, professor and associate dean at the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs and its College of Education. "But at some point I think these students will make the same judgments being made in other sciences, which is that the career prospects aren't very inviting, and the top students will turn away."

Zumeta and co-author Joyce Raveling, a doctoral candidate in education, were concerned that the poor job market for scientists would keep top graduates away. "If you are going to drive science ahead and important discoveries are going to be made, you need some of the top minds to do that," Zumeta said. So they analyzed data for US citizens and residents who scored in the top five percent of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), the most widely used graduate school entrance exam.

The number of these "best and brightest" entering science and engineering graduate programs from 1992 to 2000 shrunk by eight percent overall, based on Educational Testing Service data, with the greatest declines in engineering (25 percent) and mathematics (19 percent). Among top GRE scorers, however, enrollment in biological sciences programs showed a 59 percent gain.

When it came to careers outside science and engineering, the researchers found that the fields attracting the largest growth in top GRE scorers were short training programs in health professions such as physical therapy, speech and language pathology and public health – drawing 88 percent more top scorers in 2000 than in 1992. Masters degrees in business administration also grew by nearly one-third in that period. No evidence suggested top scorers were rushing to law school and signs were ambiguous for medical school applications.

Top science undergraduates who could continue in science are discouraged on the whole by the long apprenticeships involved, Zumeta believes. "The training time for a PhD in science can be 10 years or more, if you include the postdoc period where you aren't paid much, and no matter how much you love science, you have to be asking yourself whether it's worth it," he said.

Zumeta also noted that after all that training, "the job market at the end is not necessarily all that attractive. The demand for positions is not keeping up with the supply coming out, even with industrial research positions and government jobs. Even biotechnology is not growing fast enough. So you have this postdoc logjam."

Zumeta and Raveling's findings are described in their article, "Attracting the Best and Brightest into Science and Engineering," appearing in the January 10, 2002 issue of the National Academies of Science policy quarterly, Issues in Science and Technology.

The authors' recommendation to make science careers more appealing is for policy makers to create long-term career-development incentives for top students.

"We recommend creating federally-supported research-assistant professor positions that would be highly competitive but large enough in number to provide significant interest when they're making choices to go into graduate school. They can then build a record and compete for a tenured slot afterwards. It would help keep young people in research, working on projects of their own selection at the period in their career that we know they are most likely to be the most productive and most innovative," Zumeta said. "They would have to prove themselves as a postdoc first before they are eligible for this," he added.