Universities and (lack of) showcasing use of science degrees

By Grant Jacobs 09/11/2009

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.

0 Responses to “Universities and (lack of) showcasing use of science degrees”

  • This, I think, is where things like Waikato’s BSc(Tech) degree is useful. The name’s a bit misleading as it’s not a degree in technology! It’s a 4-year degree where the students get a total of 12 months of work experience, working on a range of projects & with a requirement for them to do a bit of research thrown in. It certainly gives them a good idea of what possible careers there are available & the realities of being in the workplace 🙂 (& no, that was not an advertorial!)

  • no, that was not an advertorial

    Really? Just kidding…!

    Otago University’s degree in Molecular Biotechnology (http://www.otago.ac.nz/appsc/bappsc/mobi.php) does something similar. In addition to biological courses & research projects, they study the commercial/business aspects and do what I guess we’d call “work experience”. (& no, that’s not an advertorial, either!)

    Not meaning to make excises, but when I wrote the post I was referring not to “professional” courses like these, but your “run of the mill” B.Sc. Biochemistry, B.Sc. Zoology, etc., degree.

  • No excuses needed 🙂 I suspect the reasons why ‘run of the mill’ degrees don’t do as we’d both like are complicated – part of it could be concern that an ‘outsider’ wouldn’t do as good a job in front of a class (probably unfounded, in many cases…); part of it would be to do with ‘fragmenting’ the teaching, & we do know that students don’t actually like having too many different teachers (maybe giving only one or two lectures) in a paper; and part of it would be this dreadful dread of having to leave ‘stuff’ out! (Speaking personally, I’ve pared down the amount of ‘stuff’ I teach over the years – I’d much rather teach ‘core’ material well & help my students to fit it all into a ‘big’ picture of how things work & fit together.

  • Hey Grant

    I just wanted to draw you to an initiative that I have been involved with at The University of Auckland called Chiasma (www.chiasma.auckland.ac.nz). Chiasma is charged with promoting innovation in the biosciences while creating a link between the student community and the wider bioscience industry. Of particular relevance is the annual event called Synapse – a biosience career showcase where we invite successful individuals from the industry to speak to a crowd of 300+ students about their career, their company and their perspectives on having a career within the NZ industry. Inherent in this is exposing to the audience the varse career alternatives/ options in bioscience that lay before them. Check out our past speakers on the website – we have had an impressive diversity of speakers to date. During the event we also have a networking function to allow students to make links with our industry guests.

    Another program we have recently piloted is connecting bioscience students with local companies to set up some summer work for them while also providing them with a stipend through the FRST TIF initiative. It has caught on quite nicely so we will be running it on a larger scale next year.

    The result ?? Well,.. simply.. the eyes of students have been opened to career opportunities they never thought exsisted. How do we know this? Our members are acutally taking up such roles. From business developers, sales representattives, patent attorneys to scientific roles within local biotech companies and govt/ policy positions.

    So as you can see at the UoA things are progressing. We are now looking to establish contacts within other universities such that other students can be given this same opportunity.

    Graeme Fielder

  • Hi Graeme,

    Nice advertorial 😉 Just kidding! The trouble with this topic is no matter what you write, it’ll probably be an “advertorial” for one thing or other…!!

    I wasn’t thinking of “extramural” events like the ones you mention myself but the day-to-day course, with the idea that the students get to see these people without any obvious “sell” but events like yours and the links to business are great to see and they’re one solution. They’re probably best for students that are already interested in checking that out? (Do you think you reach most students or only those that make the effort?) Do you cover not just business, but all of the various places science is used? (For example, see the list I give in the article.)

  • Hi Alison,

    I take your points, it would be harder within a course.

    (One last try…) Perhaps course organisers could identify small modules or subunits that could be taught in a stand-alone fashion?

    I could imagine, for example, teaching computational methods for protein sequence-structure matching in a course on protein structure and function, with the rest of the material being the experimental methods to study proteins, the structure of proteins, etc.

    (Alison is AWOL, so I’m not expecting a reply anytime soon…)

  • Hey Grant
    Thanks for the reply.

    In order to cast our lines beyond those that who are naturally inclined to check things like this out, it is a constant marketing effort to spark the initial interest in new students passing through. One of the hardest things to do is definitely get a student to do something outside his/her typically academic day. So I definitely understand where you’re coming from regarding the injection of such speakers into the academic curriculum and its respective benefits. A couple of things that I have seen develop in recent years are lecturers who are multi-faceted . e.g. teaching while also leading a university spin out company or have co-appointments with CRIs. So hopefully we are heading in the right direction.

    In terms of Chiasma we are particularly focused on the biosciences and their interplay with the commercial world as it was the lack of this that served as the driver for setting up this organisation. Even so we cover a pretty wide spectrum – med technologies/ devices, health IT, patent attorneys, science communicators etc.