More than a quarter of final-year physics and maths undergraduates and a third of final-year geography undergraduates in the United Kingdom had no idea what kind of career they wanted when they entered university, according to new research from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.
The survey of more than 7,000 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students at undergraduate and postgraduate level also showed that less than a third of final-year PhD students have a definite career in mind.
Other key findings include:
• Fewer than half of final-year physics undergraduates definitely want to pursue a career related to their degree — the second lowest figure across all STEM subjects in the survey
• Almost half of final-year PhD students across all subjects are not sure they want to pursue a career related to their research
One of the report’s authors, Robin Mellors-Bourne from the Careers Research & Advisory Centre, says that the research highlighted weaknesses in the careers advice and information on offer to students before they go to university. “Very few students choose their subject with a career in mind,” he says.
Mellors-Bourne says schools and colleges focus on promoting university as a good thing in and of itself, and don’t give enough information about potential careers. This leaves students with a lack of broad labour-market knowledge. “I think that’s particularly true of physics,” he told Naturejobs.
He says that while students shouldn’t feel compelled to make highly rational career decisions before university, more forward planning is needed: “It’s quite useful for parents or students to have some inkling of the sorts of careers that naturally would be opened up [by doing a degree].”
Institute of Physics careers manager Vishanti Fox says that the skills learnt during a physics degree are highly valued by a wide range of employers, but she agrees that students considering the subject need more information about potential careers. “Careers advice to school students and undergraduates is an area that can always be improved,” she says. “We are working with schools, universities, businesses and Government to make sure students know the options open to them with qualifications in physics.”
Mellors-Bourne says forensic science is a prime example of the dangers of ignoring career prospects when choosing a course. He estimates that because of interest from students there are now around 100 forensic science degree courses available in the UK, but only around 50 jobs become available each year, leading to a “horrendous oversupply” of forensic science graduates. “I don’t think any of them entered [their degree] realising that they probably wouldn’t get a job at the end,” he says.
What’s your reaction to the report? If you’re a student, do you feel as though you have access to enough careers advice? If you’re working as a scientist, what’s your experience of career planning?