Why Aren’t Graduates Using Their STEM Degrees?

U.S. Census Bureau

Lots of people earn college degrees in STEM disciplines. But how many of them actually use those degrees for STEM-related work? According to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the answer is, “Not very many.”

In a survey of 3.5 million homes, the agency found that almost 75 percent of those who held a bachelor’s degree in a STEM discipline didn’t actually work a STEM job. In a series of interviews with the Washington Post, experts seemed divided about the reason for the discrepancy. Census Bureau sociologist Liana Christin Landivar cautioned the newspaper that the agency doesn’t necessarily record all STEM-heavy jobs—such as medical doctors—as actual STEM professions.

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told the Post that STEM-educated workers who end up in fields such as supply-chain management are still using many of the technical skills learned in school, even if the job itself isn’t devoted to mathematics or science.

The Census Bureau also offered up a nifty interactive visualization tracing where STEM graduates end up, occupation-wise. While the vast majority of those who graduate with degrees in engineering, computers, mathematics and statistics seem to slot right into STEM fields, a significant number of graduates in the physical sciences, psychology, social sciences, and multidisciplinary studies seem to end up in fields as diverse as education, legal, social services, non-STEM management, and agriculture.

Even as a percentage of STEM graduates never use their degree, salaries for STEM workers continue to rise, according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution. Thanks to increased demand for highly skilled workers, the Institution added, STEM jobs requiring a Ph.D. or other professional degree can now stay open for as long as 50 days: “Even sub-bachelor’s STEM job openings take longer to fill than non-STEM jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree.”

For years, everyone from CEOs to pundits have blamed the inability to fill STEM jobs on educational institutions’ inability to pump out graduates at a fast enough rate. But the new data from the Census Bureau suggests that the pipeline might not be the whole issue: A number of STEM graduates are simply going to non-STEM jobs.

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Image: U.S. Census Bureau

29 Responses to “Why Aren’t Graduates Using Their STEM Degrees?”

  1. Richard Lerner

    The problem with talking about STEM degrees and IT jobs as having a one to one relationship is a large part of the problem. Let’s face it – the skills that are used for supply logistics (scheduling, forecasting, etc.) are all very math based. Even back in the 1980 these were all parts of Quantitative methods that we all had to take as part of standard commerce courses.

    Likewise, any number of people in liberal arts degrees are fine doing IT work, unless you are mindlessly slinging out code 24/7 its your soft skills and ability to think clearly and be systematic that are more important, you can leave the issue of syntax to a compiler and Google.

    A large part of the so called shortage is self inflicted by these organizations that complain the most. Organizations should get rid of the resume scanning software and the outsourced HR departments and start looking for smart people who like to solve problems creatively – not people who can rattle off 14 buzzwords of the latest technology that will be obsolete in a year,

    • Cicuta

      Richard, you are 100% correct in everything you say. The STEM individual has a very disciplined mined and think logically as well as having the knack for solving problems which they enjoy doing. I have always said that: give and oscilloscope and other electronic tools to an EE and he is happy. Those people in the STEM’s category were born to be creative and they in the process generate all the jobs in industry and organizations such as NASA. As far as what you say regarding the people with liberal arts degrees are fine in the IT field is also true to a degree but there are things which they cannot do as they do not have the background to do it. For instance: anyone can do programming with no math background; however, there are tremendous limitations when we talk about serious programming which needs to understand mathematics and physics which in fact we don’t see in the IT jobs category unless working for NASA and the such in industry.
      What you say about HR is also true and the resume scanning or outsourcing recruiters. They should go back to the Head Hunters of the old days.


      “Organizations should get rid of the resume scanning software and the outsourced HR departments and start looking for smart people who like to solve problems creatively…” is an excellent point. And even if the Census Bureau included medical doctors as “STEM-heavy professionals” there would still be at least 50% of people who hold a bachelor’s degree in a STEM discipline not working in a “STEM” job.

      I am most concerned with what appears to be contradictions in the article.
      1. How can salaries for STEM workers continue to rise if the percentage of STEM graduates never use their degree? Most humans obtain a higher degree so they can be paid a higher salary in a specific discipline, not struggle to pay college debt they cannot afford with a salary that will still force them to need assistance from the government.
      2. Educational institutions’ are “pumping out” STEM graduates at a fast rate. There are too many STEM graduates who cannot get hired because they do not have 3 years or more work experience immediately after graduating. “With so many STEM graduates desperately searching for STEM jobs, why aren’t the CEOs to pundits making sure that more STEM graduates secure a STEM job?

      • M. Moore

        To answer #1, it’s all about supply and demand. Since people w/ STEM degrees aren’t taking the STEM jobs (for whatever reason), they have to pay more for the STEM job openings b/c of a (perhaps a perceived) shortage of applicants.

        #2 I agree for sure, too many students are being put in a situation where they believe churning out that degree as fast as possible is the way to go, and when they graduate in 3 years they can’t land a job b/c the person who took 5 years to finish theirs gained 2 years of field experience along the way. Tortoise vs Hare?


          Am I the one lacking common sense or the employer? If a person has a STEM degree and applies for a position with a company, why would the company not hire them? Why would the company want to pay more money to someone who does not have a STEM degree? I personally do not believe there is a shortage or a perceived shortage of applicants, just a lot of hot air excuses by people in managerial positions who are looking for a magician to do all things for very little money. And most students who graduate do not graduate with 2 years of experience. Most are lucky if they gain 1 year of experience before graduating. There is also extremely difficult to prove age and gender discrimination in the IT field across the board. I believe there is too much supply and the companies are demanding the impossible.

          • A Masters of Engineering Graduate

            I would like to comment here. I got my Master’s degree in Engineering (lightwave) over a year ago. I got my BS in Electrical Engineering with honors over 5 years ago. I also led my own research project as an undergrad. I been trying to get a job in the field of Engineering, but been told countless of times I don’t have the experience. That they want someone with more experience. Usually at least 5 years. Tell me, how do you get experience if you go to school for 8+ years and doing research. Isn’t research considered experience? These companies don’t think so. If fact most of them don’t care about education. Education to them is completely worthless and has no baring. I been struggling for quite a long time and personally starting to think the engineering degree isn’t worth it. I made more tutoring and teaching English than I ever did with using my Engineering degrees. I would really like to be an engineer or scientist, but the way companies are make this seem as an impossibility.


            This is exactly the point I was trying to make. There are too many STEM graduates that are killing themselves going into debt to achieve a higher education, to earn a better living for themselves and their family, and have nothing to show for it after graduation. I think ALL institutions across the United States should stop lying to high school students about a career in technology, and suspend ALL technology programs indefinitely if the tech field is already flooded with too many STEM graduates earning a living in a STEM degree field. And any STEM position opening should go to a U.S. citizen, with a degree, first. I personally do not understand what the problem is with the employers. Employers say they want someone with a degree, and when someone with a degree applies for the position they will not hire them. Something is wrong somewhere. I just don’t know where.

    • sam sneed

      They imported 577,298 fake computer programmers in 2012 when there were no new jobs. Its called the H-1B visa and its genocide for American software engineers who actually do know their stuff.

  2. Cicuta

    Liana Christin Landivar is dead wrong saying that medical doctors fall into the STEM degrees and here is why: STEM degrees fall into mathematics, physics, engineering, chemistry, biochemistry, astrology, biology, ecology, geology (Earth science or Geoscience), and other sciences dedicated to the study of earth and the universe.

    And here is why medical doctors do not fall into the STEM category: To be a medical doctor the person must know the anatomy of the human body’s functions and not how they are made up at the chemistry and biochemistry level. For instance: doctors do not know how the tissues of different organs are composed of and what they segregate as enzymes as that field falls into the biochemistry field. “Medical doctors” are “familiar” only with symptoms to diagnose an illness and even so they make lots of mistakes; they use the empirical method. Medicine is also sub-divided in different field for the different human body’s system such as circulatory system, nervous system, respiratory system, digestive system, and the Osteology System. Each of those systems has also sub-functions such as the Excretory System which is part of the Digestive system and those systems and subsystems are specialties for a medical doctor at the empirical level. Medical doctors are also generalists such as an MD and those who become specialist study only part of the human body. Those medical doctors do not get involved at the microscopic level of the tissue and organs either as that belongs in biochemistry which in fact falls into the STEM category as listed above. An MD does not know beans about high mathematics and physics or chemistry at the atomic level or even to put together a chemical compound as they are not chemists (the ones inventing medicines).

    Must be borne in mind that engineering, physics, and mathematics have also different disciplines; depending the application as well as Earth sciences and astrophysics which is in the physics category.

    • Richard Lerner

      While I agree that a medical Doctor may not know as much about biochemistry as a biochemist and that there are parts of of medicine that are extremely routine. I believe that you are holding the medical profession to a ridiculously high standard.

      I work in computers and while I have a general idea of what happens in a transistor at the quantum level (thanks to a couple of chemistry courses) I have not the foggiest clue how they actually work and could not tell you how to build one other than saying ‘get some silicon’ and wing it’ – hardly a recipe for success.

  3. That’s because not all STEM degrees welcome you with jobs. Only doctors, highly educated healthcare workers and IT.
    And IT needs no college education.

    The rest work for pennies.

  4. Unca Alby

    I have to wonder how accurate the “STEM” classification is if it includes psychology, social sciences, and multidisciplinary studies.

    I just can’t imagine IT giants like Intel and Oracle whining that they can’t find enough psychologists.

  5. Nightcrawler

    Why didn’t I use my Math/CIS degree? That’s easy: I wasn’t able to find an entry-level job.

    It wasn’t because I wasn’t willing to “start at the bottom.” I was willing to work for minimum wage. I would have even taken less than minimum wage if the job were located close enough that gas + parking wouldn’t have >= my wage. For example, I spent 12 weeks as a car sales trainee, earning only $300.00/week, working 50 hours a week…well below the minimum wage. I hated it–I nearly ended up hospitalized when forced to spend 10+ hours digging cars out of the snow in eight-degree weather with sub-zero wind chills–but I needed the money. And obviously, I’m willing to do grunt work.

    It wasn’t because I live in a far-flung, rural area. I live near Philadelphia.

    It wasn’t because I’ve got purple hair, neck tattoos, or weird piercings, or because I do not dress appropriately for interviews. I’ve been told I “look” conservative. I can pass both a criminal background check and a drug test.

    It was because there simply aren’t any entry-level positions.

    • Glen W Smith

      Several of the writers on the Simpson’s have higher degrees in maths. I met a man with a master in CS who got into mortgage origination. Another friend of mine ended up leveraging his engineering degree into a construction sales job, A big problem is that those who can do something else than just use their STEM degree, do, simply because there are so few entry level STEM jobs.

    • I think Nightcrawler has a point. I look and dress conservativetly, have a clean background, got mostly A’s and B’s in my computer science degree, and have several computer certifications. People in college would compliment my programming skills, so I think I’m above average. Yet I still had a hard time getting into IT. There seemed to be 20x more senior jobs than entry-level jobs. I came very close to flipping burgers before I found one at the last minute.

      • Nightcrawler

        I’m going to try to get back into walking dogs. It’s far better than retail or fast-food work, because at least it doesn’t require dealing with people and their problems non-stop, all day long. Out of all the bottom-level jobs I’ve had to do since getting my Math/CIS degree, dog-walking was the least offensive. I liked the dogs. They weren’t mouthy or rude to me. They didn’t treat me like I was worthless. I’d rather spend my time with them than with people.

  6. Barley Batman

    Not sure where these people got the idea that “anybody can program a computer” or that a “liberal arts major is fine doing IT work”. But it’s obvious these people have not worked as a software developer for a living. A liberal arts graduate isn’t going to be able to do anything more than write a couple of IF-THEN statements, but they’re not going to be able to write or support a large application. It takes years of specialized knowledge, most of which is not easy. If you doubt it, pick up a SQL book and you’ll soon find yourself lost very quickly. Pick up an OOP book and you’ll find yourself needing a few years to grasp it. Now try to pick up a book on the rules of interfence, Karnaugh maps, DB normalization, etc. etc. There’s math everywhere. And it’s not just NASA type of firms that benefit from employees with a computer science background. It’s business firms too. If you want to see how “easy” it is to write bad software, look around at the Google Play store, and the masses of junk software that get 1 star (bad) ratings. A liberal arts degree is in no way going to prepare you being a software developer. The best they can hope for is to write a “cute” application that does next to nothing. Programming isn’t just about syntax, unless you are just writing a tiny/cute application. You can’t rely on Google to be a good programmer. It’s not just about syntax. You can just “be smart and like to solve problems.” There’s a big difference between someone who can solve a crossword puzzle, and a software engineer. It takes years and years of study to become a valuable software engineer. The best liberal arts crossword puzzle solver can’t begin to compete with a person with a Computer Science degree from a GOOD university. Just because you got A’s and B’s in computer science classes and that you impressed some people with your programming skills, is subjective. It doesn’t mean you can survive in the role of a senior software developer who graduated from a GOOD university.

    The reason for the job shortage is outsourcing, and H1-B visas. Companies PRETEND they can’t find a “rock star” software engineer in America, so they outsource to save money. Of course, the quality of the software usually suffers and you wind up with buggy software. Even Google has begun to hire and employee less-than-stellar minds: just take a look at Google Drive. Google Drive is so full of bugs, you have to be willing to lose your data if you chose to use it. All of the other buggy software is basically what you get when assume “anybody can program a computer”.

    The one true thing mentioned above by another poster is that companies don’t know how to screen qualified applicants, or they require the person to know a hundred different technologies. It’s really a case of them shooting themselves in the foot, when they hire a Jack-of-all-Trades, because they get a Master-of-None. In a couple of years, the bubble will break, when companies find themselves patching horribly designed software and realize they need to hire the best and the brightest, which is NOT someone who can rattle off a few dozen buzzwords.

    And what’s funny is that the best and the brightest software doesn’t dare apply to the jobs that want a Jack-of-all-Trades “rockstar” because they know it means they’ll be patching junk.

    • Richard Lerner


      I think that you are assuming that the only people who really know how to write code are programmers. The computer as we know it is maybe 70 years old – the question is where did the first batch of programmers come from? If you do some reading you will discover that they came from from a wide variety of backgrounds and formal skill sets – the thing that they all had in common was that they were extremely curious and never gave up on learning new things.

      While it is true that people with STEM degrees tend to be more analytical, the biggest advances in computers most probably came from those who saw the world differently and wondered what could be. If you use a windowing systems on your computer then you are beholden to Xerox PARC, and all of that work was led by a psychologist (Robert Taylor).

      I’ve been in the IT world for a long time. Today’s technical challenges are tomorrows givens. In ten years we may not even recognize computer programming. The soft skills are will ultimately keep us all employed.

      • Nightcrawler

        When I was looking for an IT job, the thing that struck me about the job listings was that *none* of the employers were looking for applicants who could think, create, and innovate. They just wanted code monkeys with great memorization skills. Granted, being able to soak up languages like a sponge is a positive, not a deficit, but just because someone has 15 languages memorized does not mean they can do anything other than spit out IF-ELSE statements. Ask them to think outside of what they have memorized and they’re done.

        Steve Jobs couldn’t even code “Hello World.”

  7. Sorgfelt

    I can’t speak for everyone else, but I got a degree in physics because I wanted to understand the universe and build a flying saucer, and thought it would be cool if I could do that and a related “good” job at the same time. But, I also had decided that war was wrong and that I could not support it. So, soon after I graduate, I got feelers for working on nuclear weapons, and my dean gets me a job doing research for the Army. I realized that all this Sputnik inspired push for STEM was really about political power and war, not science. At the same time, I got an offer from IBM to work on computers in D.C., so I abandoned all of the war mongering jobs to, what I thought, help us improve our democracy with computers, only to find myself working in the Pentagon. Fortunately, I refused to reapply for a security clearance after my initial application was “lost”, and spent most of my time working for an airline. I’ve stayed with computers ever since.

  8. Liberty Mom

    Well, I was in industry for 13+ years with my BSEE and BSCS, then stepped out to raise my daughters. Now I can’t get back in. So, to summarize, I’m not entry level, but the resume is stale. All those years of experience and all the theory I learned in college do not open the door in the STEM positions.

    While away from high-tech I imported, published, ran a non-profit, volunteered in the community and gained many advanced soft skills.

    I’d really like to get back to making bank; I’ve been looking for two solid years.

    • Clinton Staley

      Speaking as an experienced software recruiter, I’d say your list of outside activities is great, but has one grave omission if you’re looking for software dev work. You don’t list any significant software development project that you contributed to during your hiatus from professional work, e.g. an open source effort, or a small mobile app you thought would be interesting or useful. Taking on projects as a volunteer activity, especially using new languages and technologies, is a hallmark of an experienced developer who will stay current. It reassures an interviewer that you won’t be one of the many “experienced” developers who don’t keep up.

      • Liberty Mom

        Clinton, You make a very good point about staying abreast of the field. After I made my whiny-pants remark, and before your comment, I enrolled in a Java class and started writing an app to manage my clients using Java, MySQL, and git/gitHub. I’ll probably also join an Open Source MeetUp in the next few weeks to meet people in the field.

      • If the slaves don’t keep up their job skills while the master doesn’t want them, then the slaves are at fault. Slaves should work for free even when the masters won’t hire so that they can show to the masters if they ever decide to hire, that as a good slave, you work for free when the masters decide not to hire and pay. Recruiters are the scum of the earth and enforce these ridiculous conventions for the masters, who don’t want the legal problems of their disgusting practices.

  9. I am seeing a number of problems with STEM jobs. Something I’m seeing is that employers are looking for someone who is 20 years old, with 25 years of experience, a degree, and who will work for minimum wage. In other words, management wants cheap, not good.

    The other thing is that employers are very cheap, greedy, and arrogant. Unless you have EXACTLY what they want (or are in management), they will refuse to hire you and let the job stay vacant because they are too lazy and cheap to train otherwise qualified personnel. Many good people are shut out of jobs who would otherwise do well in them with 30 minutes of training. If you don’t believe this, try reading Peter Capelli’s excellent book WHY GOOD PEOPLE CAN’T FIND JOBS.

    Another problem is that many STEM jobs are contract positions so when the project is done, so are you and then you are unemployed while the management continues to line their pockets, thinking themselves to be irreplaceable.

    Likewise, employers practice widespread age discrimination against otherwise well qualified personnel.

    Management, the people who party through four years of college, are a big part of the problem and until they get serious about putting people back to work are going to continue to have problems finding qualified personnel.

    • Curtis Mays

      I graduated with a Associates in Electronics Technology and. I’m 48 years old. i Don’t know computer programming or designing but i can service and repair many computer hardware and software problems and applications and I’m A+ certified. i feel that I’m discriminated against because of my age and some cases race because I’m a African American male. The reply i get back they looking for somebody with more experience i got over 15 years experience close to 20 i worked for retail shops hardly making nothing just for the experience and myself so in conclusion it is very frustrating!