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Sandra Collins: STEM and Mobility

14 November 2014

Dr Sandra Collins is the director of the Digital Repository of Ireland, the national trusted digital repository for humanities and social sciences data headquartered in the Royal Irish Academy. She is also a funded investigator at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, the chair of the federation of All European Academies (ALLEA) E Humanities Working Group, and a member of two expert advisory groups for the European Commission. In 2014, she was one of Silicon Republic’s 100 top women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

I graduated in 1996 with a PhD in nonlinear fluid dynamics, and since then I have worked as a mathematician and university lecturer, an engineer and researcher in the telecommunications industry, a funding agency programme manager, and now as director of the Digital Repository of Ireland—an interdisciplinary research centre combining humanities and social sciences data with large-scale digital preservation infrastructure. I have always felt that my STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education gave me the training and tools to move across disciplines and sectors, and I believe strongly in the value of interdisciplinary research. However, it is also true that academic career progression is often predicated on metrics which are best achieved by building expertise within a single domain. Interdisciplinary research is difficult because of the investment required to understand multiple domains, and often not directly rewarded via standardised metrics. It was this reflection that led me to question the mobility of STEM graduates.

A 2012 paper published in Research in Higher Education1 finds positive career outcomes for individuals with an occupation closely related to their college degree, including a better income profile and greater job satisfaction, and increased chances to maximise their return on educational investment. Conversely, graduates working outside of their discipline may suffer both material and non-material disadvantages. There are reasons for remaining within your discipline—but how many STEM graduates do?

Comprehensive data from the United States’ Census 20122 published in July 2014 showed that 14.8 million college graduates who were in employment reported having an undergraduate degree in STEM but only 26% of those graduates had a STEM occupation. The largest share of graduates going into a STEM field were students majoring in engineering, computer science and mathematics with about 50% of these employed in a STEM occupation. There are some gender differences, notably in engineering where only 14% of engineers were women, and in computer occupations where 74% of computer professionals are men. The occupations that STEM graduates move to are diverse and include management, health care and education.

It is clear that STEM degrees provide a range of career options, and the opportunities in the information and communications technology (ICT) domain in particular are evolving and expanding as the technologies change. Jobs we cannot imagine now will entice future STEM graduates away from more traditional occupations. I can attest to the difficulties in recruiting and keeping STEM graduates in third-level research and education when industry is so buoyant. A 2012 graduate recruitment survey conducted in Ireland and Northern Ireland3 reported that the information technology and telecoms sector was the second most prolific creator of graduate jobs (13.6% of all jobs created in 2011, increased from 9.3% in 2010).

STEM innovation has increased the global demand for STEM expertise significantly. Higher-education institutions, as incubators of innovation, aim to attract more STEM students. Enablers of global mobility include scholarships and international partnerships between education institutions, and a high demand for STEM graduates in the global labour market results in strong employment prospects both domestically and overseas. Policies that inhibit international mobility (such as immigration and visa restrictions) can hamper recruitment and progression.

STEM mobility can also have negative drivers: a recent Fortune magazine4 article reports the average tenure across a sample of 716 women in the ICT industry was only seven years. In 68% of cases, motherhood was cited as a factor in their decision to leave the tech industry but many women said that it was a lack of flexible work arrangements, an unsupportive work environment or a salary that was inadequate to pay for childcare. 27% of cases cited women’s discomfort in working environments that felt overtly or implicitly discriminatory as a primary factor in their decision to leave ICT.

In summary, STEM graduates are highly mobile, and are moving across disciplines, sectors and geographical territories, but how can we create an attractive environment in which employers can retain the best STEM graduates, and should we actively encourage mobility, and the diversity of experience and skills that it brings? An important change for the academic sector would be to adopt a broader suite of metrics guiding career progression; metrics that recognise and reward the value of diverse experience. We should foster a culture of equal opportunity where mobility is a valuable experience for both STEM graduates and employers alike and recognised as such.

1Yonghong Jade Xu, ‘Career outcomes of STEM and non-STEM college graduates: persistence in majored-field and influential factors in career choices’, Research in Higher Education 54:3 (2013), 349–82.

2United States Census Bureau, ‘Where do college graduates work? A special focus on science, technology, engineering and math’, 10 July, 2014 (last accessed 17 October 2014).

3GradIreland, Graduate salary & graduate recruitment trends survey 2012, Dublin, 2012 (17 October 2014).

About This Series

In November 2014 to coincide with Science Week the Academy and Silicon Republic collaborated to produce an opinion series authored by selected members of the Academy around the topic of STEM Education, particularly focusing on primary and post primary level.

Authors outlined their respective opinions on the current practices and future initiatives that may advance STEM Education in Ireland. The views and opinions expressed by the authors were their own and did not reflect, the position of the Academy, but were simply an illustration of the various opinions reflective of the diverse Academy membership.

This article was originally published on 14 November 2014 on Silicon Republic.

Silicon Republic is Ireland's leading technology news service covering the ICT industry, communications, CIO strategy, venture capital investment, academia, as well as emerging areas like innovation and discovery, green tech and the digital lifestyle. It has been voted Ireland's leading technology website six years in a row.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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