The Engineer’s Dilemma: The Role of Universities


The majority of US college graduates who hold STEM degrees no longer work in their fields of study. These millions of career changes create significant costs for STEM graduates and their employers, and they hurt society as experienced workers move on to new careers and are replaced by less-experienced ones. To understand this problem we need to start at what has been the beginning of STEM education: The university experience.

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Universities generally do a poor job of preparing STEM graduates for work in their chosen fields. The modern university system is characterized by strong incentives for faculty to get tenure, which they achieve through publishing research rather than teaching. Undergraduate courses are among the least desirable teaching assignments, and since tenured faculty have the first pick of which courses they want to teach, assistant professors are disproportionately represented among faculty assigned to teach undergraduates.

And so the undergraduate experience is characterized by inexperienced instructors who have no incentive to become good at teaching. Even if these junior faculty wanted to focus on teaching and preparing STEM undergraduates for the workforce, how could they do so when they have little to no experience working in industry?

Beyond the problem of inexperienced faculty focused on getting tenure, things don’t get much better. Prestige among tenured faculty is determined by grant funding and publication, activities that compete directly with industry for the best and brightest students. Many graduate students ostensibly begin their death march to a Ph.D. with visions of joining the ranks of their tenured mentors, but fewer than 10% of STEM Ph.D. graduates end up landing university teaching positions and only a fraction of those get tenure. The rest end up back in industry with very little to show for their five-plus years of hard labor: There is only a small wage premium on a graduate degree in engineering or computer science vs. a bachelor’s degree plus an equivalent number of years of work experience, and that wage premium might vanish entirely if we were to limit the cohort of students with bachelors degrees to those who actually chose to forgo graduate school.

The university system has apparently evolved to do nothing more than elevate and replicate itself. It takes in large numbers of undergraduate students to accomplish this mission, and most of these will necessarily end up in jobs outside academia. The welfare and long-term success of students who are not destined for academic tenure is merely an afterthought in a system that is optimized around the fraction of a percent of undergraduates who will eventually become tenured professors.

The tenure system and minimal attention given to all but a handful of undergraduates ends up hurting universities in the long run. Fewer graduates are realizing an economic return on their investment in education as tuition costs have risen dramatically over the past 20 years. Graduates who are saddled with debt and disillusioned about their career prospects are not going to be active in alumni networks or fundraising, especially in the case of the many poorly-prepared STEM graduates who are destined to hit a salary ceiling and change paths mid-career.

A university that fails to prepare STEM students for what lies ahead in their careers may be doing real damage to its brand and its future bottom line. But STEM graduates and their employers experience similar consequences much sooner.

Read on to learn more.

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