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Tag archives: careers

The STEM employment paradox, revisited

Orange figures holding up signs that say "hire me"

Unemployment rates among new STEM graduates are higher than average. (Courtesy: iStock/geopaul)

By Margaret Harris

Why, at a time when we hear so much about the UK’s shortage of scientific and technical skills, do unemployment rates among new science graduates remain stubbornly higher than average? This question has been bugging me for some time. Back in 2012, I wrote a blog post about it, suggesting that the answer might be a mismatch between what universities teach and what employers need. But that answer never really satisfied me, so for the graduate careers section in this month’s Physics World, I’ve examined the subject more carefully.

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The October 2014 issue of Physics World is now out

By Matin Durrani

There’s some great material in the October issue of Physics World, which is out now in print and digital formats. Highlights include a look at Europe’s Rosetta mission, which is set to land a probe on a comet for the very first time, an analysis of whether pulsars could be used to detect gravitational waves, and a great feature by University of Maryland physicist James Gates, who insists that although CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has so far seen no signs of supersymmetry, the search for SUSY must go on.

Another great article in the issue is by my colleague Margaret Harris, who is Physics World‘s careers editor. She’s written an in-depth study of what we’re dubbing the “STEM shortage paradox”. This is the curious fact that many employers in the UK say they are struggling to find enough good people with science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM) backgrounds, whereas at the same time lots of physics graduates are finding it hard to get jobs. So is there a really a “STEM shortage”, or do STEM graduates have the wrong skills, aren’t good enough or want to work in other fields? In the video above, Margaret outlines her motivations for writing the article.

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A scientific pyramid scheme, symmetry through the ages, why physics students are “standing a little taller” and more

Pyramid power: this lovely pyramid has nothing to do with postdocs. It is model of a much larger  Sierpinski tree that can be found on London’s South Bank.

Pyramid power: this lovely object has nothing to do with postdocs. It is a simpler version of a much larger Sierpinski tree that can be found on London’s South Bank.

By Hamish Johnston

Just this week six people were convicted in Bristol of crimes related to running a pyramid scheme. This involves taking money from lots of new investors and giving it to a smaller number of investors who signed up earlier – until the pyramid collapses. Is the current model for training scientists a pyramid scheme of sorts? That is the claim in a piece on the US’s National Public Radio (NPR) website written by Richard Harris.

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A day in the life of CERN’s director-general

Rolf-Dieter Heuer

All in a day’s work. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Geneva

There is no such thing as a typical day in the life of a CERN director-general (DG), certainly not this one in any case. In my experience, each incumbent has carved out a slightly different role for themself, shaped by the laboratory’s priorities and activities at the time of their mandate. For me, every day goes beyond science, management and administration, and I am particularly fortunate to have been DG through a remarkable period that has seen not only the successful launch of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and confirmation of the Brout–Englert–Higgs mechanism, but also an opening of CERN to the world – an area that I have pursued with particular vigour.

As I regularly joke, we have changed the “E” of CERN from “Europe” to “Everywhere”, and that has meant a lot of travel for the CERN DG, as we hold discussions with prospective new members of the CERN family. And when the CERN Council opened up membership to countries from beyond the European region in 2010, it seemed to me that we should also be extending our contacts in other directions as well.

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Connecting physics with Argentine industry

Photo of scientists in an optics lab

That’s me on the right visiting an optics lab at the University of Buenos Aires.

By James Dacey in Buenos Aires, Argentina

This week, physics PhD students and advanced undergraduates from across Argentina will flock to the University of Buenos Aires for the physics department’s winter school. It’s an annual event where budding researchers spend a few days at the nation’s premier academic institution to learn about some of the latest developments in fundamental research. The year, however, the meeting will be focused on bridging the gap between academia and industry.

I’ve been in Buenos Aires as part of a fact-finding mission to learn about the physics-education system in Argentina. After meeting with various people involved with Argentine physics education, it seems to me that the theme of this year’s winter school at the University of Buenos Aires is indicative of a change in the way physics is being presented to students. The subject is being rebranded from a purely intellectual pursuit into a practical science that can equip students with highly sought-after professional skills. The bigger picture, of course, is that right now the Argentine economy needs all the fresh ideas and workforce it can get!

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Ice cream that changes colour, tag-team parenting and the ITER director-general hits back

Shades of pink: the Xamaleón ice cream in action. (Courtesy: IceXperience)

Shades of pink: the Xamaleón ice cream in action. (Courtesy: IceXperience)

By Hamish Johnston

It has been a cracker of a summer here in south-west England, with lots of sunshine and temperatures in the mid-twenties just about every day. Not surprisingly, I have been eating my fair share of ice cream, but unlike this concoction whipped up by a physicist-turned-chef in Spain, the stuff you get in Bristol does not change colour when you lick it!

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British scientists from ethnic minority backgrounds share their life stories

By James Dacey

What does it mean to be a scientist from an ethnic minority background? Is it harder to get career breaks and to reach the top of a field? Can your background actually be a source of inspiration? Is it even useful to anyone to be discussing these questions?

These are among the issues touched upon in a new series of video interviews with 10 British scientists with minority ethnic heritage. The interviews were conducted by researchers at the British Library as part of a larger audio history project commissioned by the Royal Society called Inspiring Scientists: Diversity in British Science. You can watch all 10 interviews on the Royal Society website.

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The cost of stereotypes

By Margaret Harris

When a 2012 study showed that scientists subconsciously favour male students over females when assessing their employability as early-career researchers, it generated plenty of debate – not least among women, who were, according to the study, just as likely to be biased as the men were.

Some of these discussions got rather overheated, but one cogent criticism of the study did emerge.  Roughly, it was this: might the scientists’ preference for men over equally well-qualified women be a rational response to the fact that, because of various barriers, women in science often need to be better than their male counterparts in order to have an equal chance of success?

The question was an awkward one, since it implied that women in science could be caught in a vicious circle, with the negative effects of bias in the workplace making it “rational” to be biased in hiring (and, in turn, making such workplace bias more likely to persist).  However, a new study appears to rule out this argument by finding similar patterns of hiring bias against women even when the “job” is an arithmetical task that, on average, women and men perform equally well.

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100 leading British scientists

By Margaret Harris

Earlier this week, the UK’s Science Council – an umbrella group for learned societies and professional bodies – published a list of the country’s 100 leading practising scientists. The rationale behind the list is interesting: according to the Council’s press release, it’s meant to “highlight a collective blind spot” in our attitudes towards scientists, which tend to “reference dead people or to regard only academics and researchers as scientists”.

I gave a quiet cheer when I read this. As I’ve noted before, fully 96% of the UK’s science PhD graduates make their careers in something other than academic research, yet their contributions often go unrecognized. There are many reasons for this, including commercial confidentiality and poor visibility (almost every academic scientist has their own webpage; most industry scientists don’t) along with the aforementioned “blind spot”.  But whatever the reasons, a list honouring non-academic scientists seems long overdue.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure the Science Council’s list fits that description.

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Institute of Physics launches fundraising campaign

Photo of Brian Cox

Manchester University physicist Brian Cox at the launch of the Institute of Physics’ fundraising campaign on 23 September 2013. (Courtesy: Richard Lewis)

By Matin Durrani

The Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World, launched its first-ever fundraising campaign at a dinner at the Institute’s headquarters in London last night. The aim of the campaign, called Opportunity Physics, is to raise £10m over five years to let the Institute “significantly scale up” its work over the coming decades. The evening was hosted by Manchester University particle physicist Brian Cox, who is on the fundraising campaign’s board and is a familiar face as presenter of TV shows such as the BBC’s Wonders of the Solar System.

The Institute says it has identified a number of existing IOP projects that can be enhanced if further funding were available. Those projects are all centred on inspiring young people into physics, showing them what careers physics can lead to, helping physicists to flourish – whether they work in teaching, research or industry – and underlining how physics is central to a healthy, technology-led economy. With 52,000 members, the Institute already does a lot of good work, but it believes it can do even more with additional cash.

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