Sunday, December 08, 2013

The STEM Crisis: Reality, Myth or a Lack of Incentives?

There is much discussion in the U.S. today about the "crisis" looming in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM). Government officials, and industrial powerhouses such as Microsoft and Google bemoan the lack of "qualified" STEM professionals in the U.S. Most point worryingly at the sub-par performance of American school-children against their foreign peers, and the rising demand of a skilled workforce in Information Technology and Computer Science.

Recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education and IEEE Spectrum challenge this notion. These articles, are among growing number that argue that the "STEM Crisis" long harped upon by government and industry is largely a myth, pointing to high unemployment of current American STEM degree holders and hinting at more insidious reasons for companies highlighting the crisis. In this blog post, I make an argument that I know I'm not the first to make: that the STEM crisis is one largely manufactured by the lack of incentives our country makes for its own citizens to pursue degrees and occupations in STEM. Let's start from the beginning, the lack of STEM education amongst our K-12 students.

Myth 1: Poor math and science performance amongst American K-12 students is a reflection of the lack of qualified K-12 teachers in STEM.
Reality: Poor math and science performance amongst American K-12 students is a reflection of the lack of incentives to recruit talented STEM professionals into teaching careers.
The education system in our country is fundamentally broken. Teachers in the U.S. are undervalued, belittled, and are treated with far more contempt than their counterparts in other counties. No further proof is needed than the adage, "those who cannot do, teach". With such a lack of respect and pay, is anyone really surprised why there aren't more gifted K-12 teachers?  Furthermore, most states require teaching candidates to undergo additional training in the form of a Masters of Education or a teaching certificate. Most students fresh out of college can't afford to take out additional loans to complete such degrees (an issue we discuss in a few paragraphs).

Myth 2: American students (especially women) are just not interested in majoring in STEM.
Reality: Bachelors degrees in STEM are undervalued. Many STEM graduates cannot get a job with their bachelors degrees.
The STEM crisis, critics may argue, is caused by a lack of students getting (or willing to get) degrees in STEM fields, especially women. Data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) contradicts this. While women are still severely underrepresented in engineering and fields like computer science, they represent a majority or a near-equal proportion (> 40%) of undergraduate majors in the mathematical, physical, and biological sciences. In fact, 22.8% of undergraduates enroll in STEM fields, compared to 16.2% in the Humanities, 17.2% in Business, 15.3% in Health. It is incorrect to argue that there is a lack of interest (though I concede that I view the "STEM" label as being rather broad for the NSF data).

Next, let's take a look at salary data. According to the Wall Street Journal, bachelors degree recipients in Biology earn approximately $39,000, while Chemistry majors $43,000, Math majors $46,000 and Physics majors around $50,000. By comparison, English, History, Forestry and Film majors earn about $39,000, and Management majors make about $49,000. Despite a public perception that STEM majors are "hard", there is lack of matching salary incentives (for these majors at least), to encourage students to major in these disciplines. If such degrees were considered valuable and were in high demand (such as degrees in some engineering programs and computing), the salaries would be higher.

Myth 3: American students are not interested in/lack the talent to earn graduate degrees in STEM.
Reality: American students have financial constraints that make it difficult to pursue graduate degrees in STEM.
According to the Taulbee survey,  60% of the students enrolled in Computer Science graduate programs are foreign nationals. Similar statistics exist for many engineering programs.  This has led some to declare that American citizens are simply not interested (or not qualified) to pursue graduate degrees in computing. Nothing can be further from the truth. From my conversations with other professors, American students tend to be better performers and better prepared than their foreign counterparts. The lack of American students at the Masters and Ph.D. levels can largely be attributed to financial constraints. Unlike their richer, foreign counterparts, most undergraduates in the U.S. graduate with massive amounts of debt. Virtually no aid is given for students to pursue masters degrees. In essence, students often double their current debt to earn a two-year Masters degree that increases their salary differential by just 20k.

While STEM Ph.D.s offer aid, most Ph.D.s take an average of 7 years to complete. Even after 7 years of hard work, many STEM fields require job candidates to pursue post-doctoral work before getting a stable research or academic position. Many students, graduating with $30,000+ of debt, understandably want to start working right away. After all, that debt means holding back on dreams such as starting families and buying houses.

The reality is this: the STEM crisis does not revolve around an inability of companies to find qualified professionals in STEM fields; it is a crisis created due to a lack of incentives. There is in fact a surplus of STEM graduates, which in turn drives down salaries. Furthermore, the hyperinflation of college tuition and expenses means many students graduate with crippling amounts of debt and are unwilling to take the risks to pursue graduate degrees.  Until these issues are addressed, there will always be a "STEM crisis" in America --- just perhaps not in the way one would expect.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Next Steps

"Start an academic blog? Are you serious?"

So was my reaction to my husband Kevin's suggestion that I start blogging as part of my academic pursuits. I'm still turning it over in my mind. Would anyone read it? Do I care? Do I have the time?

It's been a while since I've written here. When I last posted over a year ago, I was just about to graduate with my Ph.D., start new job as an assistant professor, and (oh yeah) get married. All of that came to pass -- I had a wonderful wedding, started my job, and had a fairly successful first year as a faculty member.

Life as an assistant professor is busy and eventful. I love my job, my students, and well, my life. I usually get to work really early in the morning, come home exhausted, work out for a little bit, and then get to spend a couple hours with my husband before it's time to go to bed. Time already seems like a precious commodity -- so is blogging really worth it?

What would I talk about? When I started Autologica eight years ago, it was meant to chronicle my life as I transitioned from becoming and undergraduate to a graduate student. I could talk about things I am doing as an assistant professor, I suppose. A quick run down on what's going in my life right now:

I am also continuing the research I started during my Ph.D. As things continue to get published, I can write a little blurb about the work. I'm fairly leery about discussing anything unpublished, especially since I've haven't gotten tenure yet.

I can talk about the pedantic discoveries I make, as I continue to develop as a teacher and as a professor. It's truly amazing to see things from the other end. I love helping my students through their struggles, and celebrating in their successes.

Whatever I decide to talk about, I think I will continue to update this blog. If there are topics that anyone would like me to discuss, definitely e-mail me, or comment on this post. We'll see where this goes next.

Friday, May 11, 2012

An Ending and a Beginning

Hello World.

It's been a while since I've posted here. Almost two years. Why am I posting now? Because everything in life is changing at a rapid pace.

It's Friday, May 11th at 12:45 am. In approximately 18 hours, I will be graduating with my PhD in Computer Science. It has been a long journey --- six years in the making. I have worked so hard, been so focused and driven, even moving across the country to make all of my dreams come true. Today is supposed to be the happiest day of my life.

So why am I so terrified?

It is not that I have nothing to look forward to. In two months, I start a job at an amazing university as an Assistant Professor. Then, a couple weeks after that, I marry a wonderful man who has been a bastion of support for me for almost five and half years. I have dreamed of this day, this summer, for so long. When things have gotten tough, I have closed my eyes and thought about the day that I would graduate, when I would marry Kevin, when I would be working at my dream job at a dream university. And all my dreams are coming true.

Tomorrow is the beginning of the rest of my life.

So why can't I sleep?

The rain is coming down hard outside of the window of the apartment that I've lived in for the last four years. It's almost completed gutted now. Most of what is not in luggage have been shipped weeks ago. I have piles of things on the floor that still need to be shipped, things that need to be donated to Goodwill, and things that still need to be packed in the luggage my parents are bringing later today when they arrive for my graduation. Even as I write this, I am lying on an air mattress last slept on when I first moved to Texas four years ago. I gave my bed to a friend earlier this morning.

From my bed,  I can see my now mostly empty closet, gaping open in front of me. In addition to a scraggle  of hangers, I see my PhD robes, neatly hung, waiting to be worn tomorrow. Somewhere nearby, likely on the floor, is my graduation cap. And next to my graduation gown on another hanger (but out of sight) is another gown --- my wedding dress, waiting to be transported with me back to the Northeast.

I have achieved everything I've set out to do. I don't remember feeling like this when I graduated with my Bachelors. Of course not -- I was going to graduate school. I don't remember feeling like this when I got my Master's. It was just a stepping stone for the PhD. And now, with the PhD just a few hours away, I feel so.. lost.

After all, I haven't been prepared for this moment. What happens to Tom when he finally catches Jerry? Does the Coyote ever feel fulfilled when he finally bested the Road Runner? My memory of these cherished cartoons offer no solutions -- the point was that the mouse and the bird were unattainable goals. But what happens when you achieve a goal that you thought was impossible? Will I live happily ever after? (Impossible. This is a lie perpetuated by Disney.) Or, will I be like Pepe Le Pew, who, when finally winning the affections of Penelope Pussycat, runs away screaming?

But I have never been one to run away.

Logic states what I'm feeling is normal. I've read that many PhD students, once completing their dissertation, enter a sort of postpartum depression, as something that was a part of them for so long is finally gone.  But forget the dissertation, I have postpartum whatever because my entire life is leaving. Tomorrow, I am no longer a student. And later, I will be a professor, and then a wife. I threw out half of my clothes. After all, I need a professional wardrobe now. And I'll probably have to start doing my nails and my hair, and other womanly things that women do to be "professional". At least I'll still be a Linux user. That's OK, thank God.

Will I recognize myself in five years? How about in two? What about in one?

Only time will tell. But for now, I really should do my best to sleep. Everything is going to be fine. I must have faith, and believe.

Monday, September 13, 2010

An cute little utility

So recently I had some files that I needed to sanitize of those annoying return carriages (^M, or \r). I was originally under the impression that dos2unix would take care of this easily. For whatever reason, Ubuntu 10.04 has replaced dos2unix with fromdos, and fromdos does not do the trick. Very annoying.

So what to do? I could write my own little regular expression or Perl script to take care of this for me. I still have not mastered awk or sed (yes, go ahead and shake your heads). I did, however, find a really neat little utility that is very easy to use and does exactly what I want called tr.

Suppose I have a file dosfoo.yuck which I received from a collaborator that is full of carriage returns. To sanitize the file, I can simply run tr on the file as follows:

tr -d \r < dosfoo.yuck > foo.awesome

The -d flag stands for "delete". On the particular file I cared about when I ran this utility, the -d deleted all the the carriage returns, but now I had no more newlines in my file! Not to fear, because tr can handle this easily. Just do:

tr \r \n < dosfoo.yuck > foo.awesome

And voila! Problem solved.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Since my schedule tends to be fairly full, I've not posted here in a while. So here's a basic update on what's been going on.

On August 12, I became a PhD Candidate. So what does that mean? It means that I am now done with courses, preliminary examinations, and any other requirements other than my dissertation. At this point, I'm ABD, which fittingly stands for All But Done, All But Dissertation and/or All But Dead.

It's been two years since I entered Texas A&M University as a graduate student. In that amount of time, I've published four papers, with an additional two in preparation/under review. I've given a lightning talk, served on a panel, and presented numerous posters. I'm the lead author for the best algorithm for compressing phylogenetic trees, and the fastest sequential and parallel algorithms for comparing large groups of trees. This past summer, I passed four preliminary exams (one given to me by each committee member), wrote up a thesis proposal and successfully defended it.

Not bad for two years of work.

So what will happen with this blog from now on? Well, I do plan (ha ha) to keep on updating it. Most likely I'll start adding things I discover here as I play with some software.

My ubuntu-fix posts will probably be few and far between from now on -- Ubuntu 10.04 is out: it's beautiful, it's fast and it basically works. There has been no need for extra configurations like I've needed to do in the past. Gosh, I love Ubuntu. However, as I discover new things, I will definitely post them here.

That's all for now. I'll try and post something later this week.


Friday, May 14, 2010

I can't stop watching this

Ever since Kevin shared this with me, I've been watching it constantly.

I'll have an end-of-the-semester post some time soon, I promise :-) Followed by a new tech post.

For those who are wondering, yes, the paper that was referenced to in the last post got accepted :-) Now waiting to hear back on another one (sigh).


Saturday, February 20, 2010


I has it.

Waiting for paper notifications is always a pain. I do my best not to think about it, and focus my energy instead on the current algorithm I'm working on. This semester is a special case, since I should be hearing back about two papers in the next two weeks. Both are solid pieces of research and I'm incredibly proud of having been a part of both of them. At this point though, I am all too familiar with the paper reviewing process, and the endless submissions. Half the time, it's not clear to me the reviewers are actually reading the damn things... Each reviewer has so many papers to look at, and a seemingly impossible amount of time to look at it all in. Sometimes I want to scream out the same things ResearchCat is spouting above.

The tentative caption for the above picture is currently "ResearchCat on EasyChair".

And yes, I may have more ResearchCat pictures in the future... you didn't think LOLQualCats was the end, did you?