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Universities could do more to expose their students to a wider range of uses of their science degrees.

A couple of years ago I was at a national molecular biology conference. In between sessions they held a forum for (post-graduate) students, offering a panel of senior scientists presenting what the students might expect in their futures.

The panel was exclusively academics, one Professor (and head of department), one Nobel laureate, and one research group leader.

No commercially-based scientists. No biotech company representatives. No science administrators. No science advisors. No consultants. No research contractors. No heads of diagnostic laboratories. No forensic scientists. No environmental testing specialists. No scientists-turned-biotech-lawyers. No patent officers. No-one who runs specialist instrumentation. No science communicators either for that matter!

You get the drift.

The panel certainly presented what might be expected of a (idealistic) academic career, but they failed to mention any other possibilities. Not once.

Almost all the scientists students see while at university are lecturers (who also run research groups), but there are far wider uses of science outside of universities.

It has been widely noted, in the USA at least (where statistics are available), that the majority of post-graduates do not go into university employment. This has been an increasing trend for some time and you’d think there is little reason for that to change. (I believe the statistics for this as on the NSF website, but site is down for maintenance this weekend!)

This panel really bothered me. It projected a notion that “success” in science is research group leader or lecturer and by implication that anything else was somehow “losing out”.

The trouble with only seeing success as being group leader, is that students can get hung up about it, since it’s practically all they see for several years.

How to mitigate this?

As an undergraduate I was taught virology by a medical scientist from the local hospital. I recall a fine lecturer, but what I recall being struck by was his being a scientist outside of the university.

I know it seems patently obvious–hospitals have medical scientists!–but young undergrads don’t always see that sort of thing unless it’s stuck in front of their faces. After all, they’re trying to get through a veritable maze of exams, tutorials and essays. And social events! Mustn’t leave out the social events…

Perhaps the universities need to bring in more guest lecturers outside of universities and research laboratories? Not just for taught courses for undergraduates, but also departmental seminars and the like. Simply so that students see them. Sure, you could sit and talk about these people, but nothing beats having the “real live” person in front of the students.

For taught courses it would have to fit the department’s plans, but certainly there is little excuse in the departmental seminars.

Expose the students to a wider range of use of (post-graduate) science degrees. Make sure that they don’t get hung up on the notion that “success” is group leader. They may be better suited to other applications of their degree.