Why Americans don't choose STEM careers

The NY Times has yet another article wondering why American students don't major in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). This time, it's on how many students start out in STEM fields and change:
Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree.
Based on my highly scientific sample of about a dozen second-generation Indian Americans who started out in science/engineering but switched careers, the article is wrong. It is not because the kids can't grok the math or find the subjects boring. On the contrary, it is solely because engineering and science in the United States are low-status occupations. Doctors are high-status, and so students stick with it. The reason the kids didn't pursue STEM careers is that they have better options -- bankers and lawyers make more money.

The reason why graduate students in engineering are mostly immigrants is the same reason that most fruit pickers in Georgia are Mexicans. Americans don't want to do this stuff.  Science, engineering and fruit-picking is what people fresh-off-the-boat do.


  1. Shhh! Don't let the anti-immigration people know, or they will scare all them away and I will be stuck with just lawyers to chat with.

    Seriously though, assuming that the reason students switch has to do with money is a bit of a leap. Instead, I place the blame squarely on the huge disparity in the quality of our education system. Students have aspirations and want to do these jobs, but they are completely blown out of the water by their friends from better schools when they get to college. How can they compete with that?

  2. Why do young bright Americans not choose careers in Science and Engineering?

    I came to the USA to get my PhD in a top private University 20 years ago and ended up becoming a naturalized US citizen. So, I have plenty of personal experience in this matter plus I know the experience of many of my colleagues.
    I also taught in a big public PhD- granting University, and I can say within the same graduate program, the difference in IQ (am I still allowed to use this term these days?) between native and foreign students is only about 6+/-2 points (I'll let you figure out which way or you can look up the statistics on GRE Gen. Apt. scores). What is more interesting though, is that I came across many dozens of very bright American-born undergraduates and hardly any of them pursued a graduate degree in STEM. Most went to medical schools, some MBA, dental and even Law schools. Did also I mention that some of my classmates from grad school after completing their PhDs and having a “good time” in private industry for a few years went to Medical or Law Schools (lucky me to be able to get a patent advice for free now).
    Why? As one undergraduate who worked in my lab (and ended up in a Med school) said: science jobs suck. I guess he knows it from his parents who are from India and both got their PhDs in the US. Low pay (compare to MD or even OD), no job security (for his parents it was an endless reincarnation of startups that do not offer provisions against stock dilution to their regular employees, i.e. even if a startup succeeded these people would have ended up with $2000 worth of stock), 10 days of vacations per year (and they could not take unpaid vacation time).
    Here is another quote;
    These GR and H1 B workers have extremely high turnover rates, and vastly less productivity, and no loyalty. I've witnessed repeated, long-term cycles where entire projects and divisions have stalled because expertise could not be retained within the company, costing millions of dollars. These corporations may scream about the lack of talent, but make every effort to avoid the cost of developing and keeping those skills. Who wants to invest the effort to be a STEM major, when you are treated, and compensated as a disposable commodity, anyway? My opinion is that the American corporate model is chasing itself down a hole.
    Read more: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2074024,00.html#ixzz22WXA0CQV
    Now ask yourself, why there is no shortage of medical doctors or dentists in the US, why these professions do not qualify for H-1B visas (unless the applicant is a researcher and not a practitioner), why the percentage of female medical school applicants and graduates went from 25 to 50% between 1980 and 2010 [https://www.aamc.org/download/153708/data/charts1982to2012.pdf ] without any special initiatives like Women in Medicine (I am parodying Women in STEM), and without any complains about family issues, [http://www.esa.doc.gov/Reports/women-stem-gender-gap-innovation] what sicko in the name of the US government is forcing more women and minorities into STEM disciplines where they are most likely to end up with less pay , benefits and job security than in the healthcare industry, and why the feminists support such a policy that hurts women instead of encouraging them to pursue fulfilling careers with in more secure and better paying fields ?…

  3. Do you still have questions? Yes - how to improve the domestic supply of STEM graduates? Massive government campaigns (NSF grant applications now require a statement on how to trick more young Americans into STEM fields, and don’t you dare to question who needs that) do not work (you, ladies, got enough street smarts to achieve parity with men where it matters, like in getting MD and JD degrees).
    One solution would be to close borders to qualified immigrants and wait till the market salaries (as well as vacation times and real stock ownership) of scientists and engineers grow to the level of medical doctors. I hope you figured out by now why MDs, DDMs, ODs, PharmDs and JDs get better pays and other benefits than PhDs. This is because their jobs cannot be outsourced since they work with customers directly and the employers have to pay them market salaries. (Ooops, I just bought Viagra from an Indian pharmacy after filling an on-line questionnaire that was supposedly looked over by some MD to issue me a prescription. I’d better tell my kid to specialize in surgery).
    While some reduction of the admission of foreign applicants to the US graduate program would be beneficial (there is a plenty of unemployed PhDs in the US now who are happy to take non-tenure track positions in colleges and they can fill the shortage of teaching assistants), this would be a major blow to the US economy and technological competitiveness in the short run at least. In the long run, research jobs will be completely outsourced just like manufacturing jobs are now (IBM already has a research center in Bangalore).
    Is there any other solution? . toowearyforoutrage on Fri 17 Feb 2012 12:38 PM wrote: (see above)
    To help fit supply and demand, one of the most sensible approaches (that our plutocratic government will never pass) is allow H1-B visa foreign STEM grads to be hired by ANY company. Let them offer services to the highest bidder rather than get stuck with the sponsoring company. If no American with the vital skill-set is available, companies can pay to import one (or train one). If they're just trying to lower their wage costs, it won't work because a company paying market wages will snatch that immigrant away.

  4. This approach would not make American students choose a PhD over an MD and it will increase the number of unqualified immigrants who use American graduate schools as entry doors for immigration (there is a college for everyone who can pay) and end up working as real estate agents or car salesmen (yes, I’ve met quite a few of those in California and Massachusetts).
    So, what am I trying to say here? My message is that the US economy depends on cheap skilled labor. Trying to make it expensive would increase the outsourcing of research jobs, unemployment, reduction of GNP and GNP per capita, the loss of domestic high tech competitiveness, and it will not make science and engineering careers any more attractive to young Americans. What are the alternatives?
    Well, there is another way to make PhD careers as attractive as MDs. It is to lower (or freeze) salaries and benefits in the healthcare industry so that they would be more comparable to those of scientists and engineers. This would slow down the escalating cost of healthcare in the US and it can make it more affordable to people. How to do it?
    In the case of scientists and engineers it was the opening the labor market to immigrants. Right now, non-researcher MDs, DDMs, ODs etc. unlike PhDs are specifically excluded from the employment -based EB-1 and 2 categories, i.e alien with a “degree of expertise” … in the sciences, arts, or business.” The medical job market is protected. Opening it up (the quality of doctors is still assured through the State Licensing Exams) would lower the cost of healthcare. What is the downside? One of my current doctors has a Romanian accent, another one- a Gudjarati. I don’t think anything is going to change in this regard.
    There is another way, however. And this is where I am going to get rotten tomatoes from my fellow Republicans. I am talking about Universal Healthcare. It would solve not only the problems with the accessibility and escalating cost of healthcare (its growth exceeds the rate of inflation by 4% http://www.forbes.com/sites/toddhixon/2012/05/30/health-care-prices-outpace-inflation-in-a-weak-economy/) but it will also reduce the US dependence on brain drain from other countries as the attractiveness of the STEM fields to the US students comes on par with the attractiveness of medicine, dentistry and the like.
    Is curbing the growth of MDs’ salaries going affect the quality of healthcare? Well, look at Cuba. With 1/25 of medical expenses per capita, it has the same life expectancy as the US, and black Cubans have a higher life expectancy than African Americans.[ http://www.phillytrib.com/healtharticles/item/209-the-plight-of-african-american-doctors.html]
    What’s the downside for an average American? I don’t see any unless a more uniform income distribution and lower unemployment is a downside. As far as the profits of high-tech and medical corporations go… someone has to give.