Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Do High School Student Want to Become Scientists?

Do High School Student Want to Become Scientists? the answer is, no [Is Canada losing the lab-rat race?].
"Look up 'scientist' on Google," the 16-year-old says, "and you will see someone in a lab coat." At the moment, she is considering something with more immediate results, such as physiotherapy.

Ask her biology classmates at Colonel By Secondary School in Ottawa if any of them want to be scientists and only a few tentative hands flicker up. What's worrying is that this is no average high-school science class. It is part of the International Baccalaureate program, chosen from a large pool of applicants. These are students who spend half of their time in labs, working through experiments, not dozing off during lectures - the kind of education most scientists wish they had had. If any group should be producing lab-coat keeners, it should be this one.

Julia Dutaud, 16, sitting in the back in her school-rugby T-shirt, would like to study environmental science - a field growing as rapidly as any - but she wonders if she could make a good living at it: "Going into science would be a nice thing to do," she says. "But we aren't sure how much opportunity we would get after university."

Half the students are planning to be doctors instead, a profession they and their parents consider more stable.
I don't think this is a new problem. Back in the olden days, there also weren't a huge number of high school students who wanted to be scientists. Why should there be a significant number in a typical high school class? At my university there are about 8,000 students entering first year and about 400 or so want to pursue a career in science. That's about right—half of them (200) will be able to enter graduate school when they graduate and that's also about right. It means that a typical high school science class of 25 students will likely have only two or three who want to be scientists.

It would be a disaster if half of every high school science class wanted to become scientists because the vast majority would be disappointed.

There's another problem not covered in the Globe and Mail article. In my experience, many students don't begin to understand what a scientist is until they get to university and start seeing them in their natural environment. A surprising number of high school students think you have to be a physician in order to do the cool research on genes and diseases. It's only after they get to university that they learn the difference between a physician and a scientist.

When did you, dear reader, first develop a serious interest in science? Was it in high school or university? Is it a problem that there aren't more high school students who want to become scientists?


  1. I had a great opportunity in high school to take an elective biology course. We did lots of cell bio, some micro bio, and plenty of dissections. It was that class that got me into biology.

    I initially was pre-med but quickly realized my interests were far from those of most of the other pre-meds.

    I ended up in grad school for bio and it was there that I realized, as much as I loved science. I wasn't competitive enough to stay in the game.

    As a grad student we were invited to watch scientists give presentations in hope of landing a professorship at the measly college I was working at. I couldn't believe how qualified I felt some of the candidates were. I figured if these people couldn't get hired at this school, then what did one have to do to land a job?

    As a high school teacher, I try to develop science skills in my students and encourage them to pursue science related fields, but I'm more concerned with making sure I try to do something about most of their serious misconceptions that fill their heads.

  2. I was interested from fairly soon after I entered high school.
    The real life problems of career opportunities in science, however, only became clear much later.
    The actual numbers who went into science from my school was small and I guess this was a factor in common with other high schools. And yet the available career paths for scientists was still incredibly limited - compared to the much larger number of former classmates that went into computing, accountancy law or medicine and never seemed to have problems getting jobs.
    I do wonder about the ethical questions of encouraging students to go towards science without fully informing them of the pitfalls of this particular line of work. What tends to be emphasized is that the real problem with science is the low wages compared to similarly qualified professionals. This, while it may be true, would be fine if it were the only problem. The real problem experienced by most scientists in research is that there is intense selection for the 7% or so that will reach the ultimate goal - a tenured position. The remaining 93% are likely to have been the top students in their schools in science, often the top students in their university classes and yet eventually find themselves on the wrong side of a social darwinist career process.

  3. I remember exactly when I developed a serious interest in science, and when I dropped the idea of becoming a scientist.

    In second grade during our class's weekly school library hour, I picked up a book by Isaac Asimov entitled "The World of Carbon." (It was on a shelf for older students, but I fortunately had a teacher who was more interested in teaching than enforcing bureaucratic rules, who told the librarian I had permission to check out that book and any other I wanted.) Soon I was fascinated by all sorts of science subjects, and everyone knew what to get me for birthdays and holidays. (My favorite childhood gift ever was a microscope.)

    When I got to college, I was still fascinated by science and math but also loved literature. When trying to decide at the end of my first year what to declare for a major, it was an important consideration that many students in the sciences were trying to get into med schools at a time when those schools were extremely selective. This meant they were working like fiends, and I would have to as well to get good grades in science classes. Wanting to enjoy a bit of the good life during my college years, I took the lazy way out and majored in literature (double majoring in political science, to satisfy my parents' concern - they were footing most of the bill, after all - that if I didn't want to attend med school I could still get into law school).

  4. Hmm-- I always loved science, but I thought biology was the 'dumb' science. I took as little of it as possible. I wanted to do astronomy/physics.

    Then I met some asshole sexist engineering professors (made asses of themselves WHILE THEY WERE 'RECRUITING ME'), and decided to do biology (at a different university) just to get into med school.

    Then I had some kickass professors in college and an awesome summer research opportunity, and decided to go to grad school instead.

    I didnt make this decision till about my senior year of college.


    But I always loved science!

  5. Science geek from day one. First I wanted to be a palaeontologist, later an astronomer or physicist. Somewhere in high school I became aware (from grad students who were trying) of just how damned hard it is to have a paying career in straight science, and chose engineering instead. It was probably the right decision.

  6. I knew I wanted to be involved in science since middle school. However, my career aspirations were closer to doctor as I thought they did most of this stuff. Through university and experiencing research, I realized the distinctive roles of physician and scientist and would like to do both as a future career.

  7. I gained an interest in science early on as a young kid. But, in high school, I was also thinking going the more clinical route, with pharmacy. Once I started taking university courses, that changed and now I'm in a research based major.

  8. I think science and reasoning is the main reason I dropped out of high school >.> Too much stuff irrelevant to my education was being shoved onto me, as well as the environment in general; none of it is conducive to free thinking and logic.

  9. Primary school. Did help that my dad was a geologist who majored in paleo and my mum was a frustrated biologist. Now a researcher in a microfluidics/bio/chem group.

  10. As young as I can remember, I wanted to be a marine biologist. Science was always my favourite class in elementary school and junior high (to about age 14), and I took biology first, and chemistry and physics second in high school. Everything else came third.

    I'm currently between graduate schools (long story), but I consider myself to be a scientist. At the very least, I work in science, as a technician in a lab at a university.

    I'm not surprised these high-achieving high-school students are wary of science careers. The broad diversity of science-based employment simply is not apparent from their vantage point. The list of jobs that require at least a B.Sc. level of scientific training is far too long to discuss here, suffice to say it includes much more than just "university professor" and "drug company researcher".

    A surprising number of high school students think you have to be a physician in order to do the cool research on genes and diseases.That too. This is more widely believed than just within high schools. Every. Damn. Time. I get my hair cut, I get asked about what I do ("biologist") and the follow up question is invariably something about being / becoming / working for a doctor. Why would a misanthrope like me want to work with humans?

  11. 4th honors project. My first time in a lab. Before that, complete lack of interest. Always had been interested in the topic matter though.