Putting That Science Degree to Work

Science and engineering students appreciate their degrees even decades later.
August 2, 2006

Many science and engineering degree recipients continue to get use from their undergraduate studies even years after they’ve graduated, and even if they’ve switched disciplines.

According to a report from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Science Resource Statistics, in 2003, two-thirds of workers whose highest degree was a bachelor's in a science or engineering field reported that their job was related to their degree -- even if they received the degree 25 years ago or more. The report defined science and engineering as life, physical, mathematical, computer, and social sciences and engineering. That proportion was almost three-quarters for workers who had earned a degree within the last 24 years. The report used data from NSF’s Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System survey, which typically gets responses from around 100,000 individuals.

Mark Regets, a senior analyst at the Division of Science Resource Statistics, and author of the report, said that the numbers suggest that “people use their [undergraduate] science and engineering training in a wide variety of fields, and that their training seems to remain relevant throughout their careers.”

Regets didn’t have exact figures, but he said that, for instance, English majors tend to report lower levels of job relevance as they move away from graduation. “I think science and engineering training is relevant to so many things in modern society,” Regets said.

Fifty-seven percent of people who had received a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering at least 10 years earlier, and did not go on to get an advanced degree, said that their jobs required at least bachelor’s degree level knowledge of science or engineering.

Though science and engineering served them well, a larger proportion of people went on to earn advanced degrees in non-scientific fields -- 29 percent -- than in science and engineering fields -- 20 percent. Regets said it is common for people with science and engineering bachelor’s degrees to leave a strictly science or engineering field, but that, in a subjective survey like SESTAT, they tend to still feel that their undergraduate program is helping. “This is something we’ve consistently found,” Regets said. “People with science and engineering training seem to use that, even if not in narrow field.”

Thirty-eight percent of life sciences majors who went on to pursue an advanced degree did so outside of science and engineering; that made them more likely than any other group to follow that path. Regets said that some of that is certainly due to the fact that many life science majors who get advanced degrees get medical degrees, which are classified as professional degrees, as opposed to science degrees.

Engineering, math and computer science bachelor’s degree recipients were the least likely to pursue advanced degrees outside of science and engineering; only 17 percent of them did so. Only about 40 percent of engineering, math, and computer science bachelor’s recipients sought an additional degree, as compared to 60 percent of physical sciences bachelor’s degree recipients, 49 percent of social sciences bachelor’s recipients, and 57 percent of life sciences bachelor’s recipients.

The small number of engineers and comp sci and math majors hunting for more sheepskin “may reflect the market value of a bachelor’s in those fields,” Regets said.

Interestingly, among science and engineering bachelor’s recipients who also earned a business master’s, many more said that their job required at least a bachelor’s degree level of knowledge in the natural sciences than said their job required social sciences knowledge, despite the obvious relationship between business and economics, a social science.

“This is all very subjective,” Regets said. He noted that “we have some people with a physics degree who job is ‘physicist,’ and they say it’s unrelated to their degree because maybe they’re working on something different from what they did in school.” But, he said, the odd physicist aside, the survey responses "certainly bear on the relative importance [of science and engineering versus business training] as perceived by people” who went on to get business degrees. He added that, if someone has a business degree, “but is very heavily involved in science matters, they’re more likely to think of [science] as required for what they’re doing day to day.”

In disciplines farther afield from the sciences, some science and engineering bachelor’s recipients still found utility in their degrees. Eight percent of people who went on to a law degree reported a need for natural sciences knowledge, and 52 percent of those who became artists, writers or editors said that their degree was at least somewhat related to their job.


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