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What do science graduates do?

December 2020

Science graduates have been - and will continue to be - at the forefront of tackling many of the UK's greatest challenges, from the coronavirus pandemic to climate change, and the latest What do graduates do? underlines their key role in the labour market

Subjects

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physical and geographical sciences
  • Physics
  • Sports science

Science students who graduated in 2017/18 are now contributing to a sector at the very forefront of scientific development and a key driver in the UK economy.1 Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates are vital to addressing the needs of future generations - from supporting food production for a growing population to fighting antimicrobial resistance or helping life on Earth to adapt to climate change.2

Companies in the UK increasingly need ethical hackers, atmospheric scientists, virtual world creators, artificial intelligence trainers, sustainability experts, climatologists and many more.3 There is therefore a vital role to play for graduates from biological sciences, chemistry, physics, physical and geographical sciences and sports science.

Students from this cohort graduated into a time of low unemployment for graduates (5.8%) and considerable economic growth. Mining, engineering and water, information and communications, science and education were all growing from the levels recorded in 2016 to current levels in 2020.4

Despite this exponential growth - or perhaps because of it - there continue to be governmental and industry concerns about a skills shortage that might hinder further expansion. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has estimated that there was a shortfall of 173,000 skilled workers in 2018 and this shortfall cost the STEM sector £1.5billion in lost productivity.5 The gender gap is also a huge cause for concern both for the UK government and for national institutes such as the Royal Society for Chemistry(RSC), the Royal Society for Biology (RSB) the Institute of Physics (IOP).6,7,8

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Types of work and further study

The spread of careers across these five academic disciplines was hugely diverse.

SPORTS SCIENCE: Sports scientists were the most likely of all the disciplines (at almost a third) to become teachers but also became education professionals (16.5%) as sports coaches, personal trainers and sports development officers with local authorities and national sporting associations.9 Nearly 10% became health and education specialists and 6% health professionals with opportunities in fields such as health and fitness promotion and assistant physiotherapy roles.

Only 10% of sports science students went on to full or part-time further study reflecting the practical nature of the careers they embraced - but of those who did, one in five undertook a teaching qualification while almost a half took a Masters qualification in subjects such as nutrition, psychology, sports coaching or journalism.10

BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES: Biological science graduates were eligible for roles as diverse as researching human health to climate change and ecological conservation. Over 30% became science professionals e.g. researchers, or associate professional and technicians such as laboratory technicians, ecologists, environmental scientists or countryside rangers. A considerable proportion (25%) worked in manufacturing, construction or research and development, reflecting research opportunities in food production and brewing, ecological advising to the building sector and research into human and animal health. Nearly 10% became HR and finance professionals working with banks and finance companies and a further 7% in marketing and sales.

The unemployment rate of 7.1% was high compared to the average of 5.1% across all disciplines and may reflect a disjunct between graduates' aspirations to certain careers such as roles in conservation, and the availability of graduate positions in those areas.

One in five biology graduates went straight on to full or part-time further study reflecting a need for higher level qualifications (in addition to work experience) to move into careers such as environmental management, conservation, consultancy or human health.

PHYSICS: Physics graduates were highly likely to become IT professionals (32%) or undertake roles in business, finance and HR (17%).

In both cases they are valued for the advanced computing and analytical skills developed throughout their degree studies. Nearly one in four worked in manufacturing or construction reflecting high-level technical skills and one in five in IT and telecoms with an additional 13% working in the business and finance sectors.

Less than 8% worked as science professionals. Given the skills shortage this makes for an interesting question - why so few? It may simply be that the IT and financial sectors are simply better at advertising to students and offer higher salaries.11 Only 7.6% became education professionals leading to shortages of science teachers across the UK despite incentives to science graduates from the government to train as teachers.12

One in four graduates undertook full or part-time further study. Interestingly, physics graduates had very high levels of PhD level study - on a par with chemistry graduates - reflecting an enthusiasm for academic research and development, leading to careers in academia or industry.

PHYSICAL AND GEOGRAPHICAL SCIENCE: Students from these disciplines study a wide range of subjects such as geology, oceanography, environmental geography, astronomy, topography and geographical information systems. Nearly 9% became engineering and building professionals and nearly 18% undertook other professional or technical roles. Careers included mudloggers, wellsite geologists, environmental consultants, minerals surveyors, sustainability advisers and construction engineers.13

Construction employed over 20% of these graduates and manufacturing a further 8%. A considerable proportion of these graduates embraced opportunities in business and finance (nearly 18%) where the salaries are highly competitive and organisations are very proactive in trying to recruit technical graduates with a flair for maths and highly developed analytical skills.14 One in five undertook a postgraduate diploma either in teaching or another technical discipline while 285 graduates went on to a Masters (62%). Only 8% of those who proceeded to postgraduate study were undertaking a PhD at the time of the survey.

CHEMISTRY: Chemistry graduates were not only the second most likely group within this cohort to undertake further study but had the highest level of study at PhD level at nearly 58.5% of all postgraduates from this discipline. This clearly reflects the need for higher level attainment for positions in academic research, analytical chemistry, pharmacology, toxicology and industrial research and development.

Even without further study, nearly 40% of all chemistry graduates became science professionals or associate professionals and technicians with roles in research and development in agrochemicals, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, plastics and toiletries.15  As a result, 30% secured employment working in manufacturing of one kind or another with over 15% in research and development and 12% in education. Like many of the other sciences, a substantial number of these graduates accepted positions in business and finance where their analytical skills are highly valued.

Salaries

Fifteen months after graduation from their undergraduate degree programmes, the average salaries were broadly similar varying across the five disciplines from £20,226 for sports sciences with no additional study, to £27,156 for physics graduates with an additional qualification e.g. a Masters degree.

Gender

This is a topic of considerable interest to the UK government, umbrella organisations such as the Royal Society for Biology (RSB) and individual firms looking to bring in graduates with a broad base of experience and perspective. Whereas chemistry and the physical and geographical sciences are broadly balanced between men and women, biology attracts nearly twice as many women as men and both sports science and physics are heavily weighted toward male students - in the case of physics, by a ratio of four men to every female graduate. In physics, these numbers reflect school attainment where only 1.9% of young women took A-level Physics in 2016 compared with 5.6% of young men.

In a recent report Why not physics? the IOP suggests that losing all this talent is not only injurious to women' career horizons but also contributes to the oft quoted skills shortage in the UK.16 The report points out that if this gender imbalance could be addressed then there would be 1.2 million female physicists in the UK as opposed to the current 462,000. A similar story is found in chemistry where only 9% of chemistry professors in universities are women compared to 35% of graduates.

There are specific issues around academic career progression for women including adverse funding structures and issues around work/life balance but if the choices are influenced at a much earlier stage - when young women are considering A-level or Higher options - then more could be done.17 The IOP report suggests that more needs to be done at school level in terms of monitoring and publishing numbers of A-level candidates, providing more effective careers support and including gender equality in Ofsted reports to promote active change. The Institute of Physics is currently running Improving Gender Balance initiatives in the four home nations and London while the RSB is looking to mandate inclusion metrics for all its committees.18,19

Looking ahead

As of late 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic and the uncertainty of a looming Brexit, what might the future hold for graduates from these disciplines? Growing dependence on information technology, the possibility of green recovery and a green Brexit, a growing need for health research and biodiversity planning as well as a prospective boom in housing and construction would indicate a growing need into the foreseeable future, for science graduates with the correct academic background and appropriate skills and experience.

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Also in this series

Notes

  1. Delivering STEM skills for the Economy June 2018, House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, June 2018.
  2. Biology Changing the World: Royal Society of Biology Strategic Plan 2019-21, Royal Society of Biology.
  3. Work in STEM and the world is your oyster, The Telegraph, November 2019.
  4. Employment by Industry, ONS, August 2020.
  5. Delivering STEM skills for the Economy June 2018, House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, June 2018.
  6. E.g. Breaking the Barriers: Women's Retention and Progression in the Chemical Sciences, Royal Society of Chemistry.
  7. E.g. Diversity and inclusion, Royal Society of Biology.
  8. What we're doing to address gender imbalance in physics, Institute of Physics.
  9. What can I do with my sport and exercise degree?, Prospects, July 2019.
  10. Ibid.
  11. The Graduate Market in 2019, High Fliers.
  12. Top graduates to get up to £30k to train to teach core subjects, GOV.UK, October 2015.
  13. What can I do with my geology degree?, Prospects, December 2018.
  14. E.g. PwC is hiring for assurance, but doesn't just want accountants, efinancialcareers, November 2016.
  15. Chemistry's Contribution: Workforce Trends and Economic Impacts, Royal Society of Chemistry, October 2020.
  16. Why not Physics: A snapshot of Girls' uptake at A level, Institute of Physics, May 2018.
  17. Breaking the Barriers: Women's Retention and Progression in the Chemical Sciences, Royal Society of Chemistry.
  18. Improving gender balance, Institute of Physics.
  19. Biology Changing the World: Royal Society of Biology Strategic Plan 2019-21, Royal Society of Biology.

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