back to article Boffin shortage will blight Blighty's prosperity

The UK's top scientific body has warned that the swarms of new PhDs being churned out by British universities include a falling proportion from scientific or technological disciplines. It is feared that this lack of knowhow may render Blighty uncompetitive in the hi-tech, value-added sectors which alone can support Western …

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Damned Right

I find science PhDs for investment banks, typical entry level money is £60K base + 20-30 bonus. Good ?

Nearly.

We have had London bankers ask us for French or Russian PhDs because British ones are seen as soft. This is often British bankers making this judgement.

Easily the worst are Computer Science PhDs. Many of them have the technical content of a "business" Powerpoint by Accenture. A really quite scary % have "clouds diagrams". This is not a new wave of distributed computation, but the way that when you boil it down, they've driven some package which they didn't write and have made little effort to understand.

Actually, I can't remember the time I saw a British CS PhD these I didn't understand, so either I'm some sort of genius (which would surprise many people), or they simply aren't doing anything new.

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IT Angle

What do you expect !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Do a PHD or a MSC but who can afford it; really!!! its so expensive and has little regard in "real" industry; How often have you heard the term "their CV is to academic" its a real kick in the $£$£. Maybe you can get a job and do it part time; With an average cost of around £10000 for a masters the OU this is hardly pocket money and there are few employeers that will pay that for science or technical staff (they seem to be glad to fork out oodles of cash for accountants and hapless business managers). Don't get me started!

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Flame

Scholarships for science?

It costs a fortune to take a degree these days, and yet our kids still seem to be choosing the soft subjects that will often not provide them with a marketable skill when they graduate.

Why should we be surprised if thousands of well-qualified Eastern Europeans come to Britain and step into the jobs that should have been filled by our kids? Don't get me wrong - I think open EU borders are a great idea (I used to work in France so I benefited the other way round). But one consequence is that they highlight the deficiencies in our own education policies. Let the Poles and Hungarians flood in!! They are nice people and the Hungarians in particular make fabulous red wine. The fact that they're flooding in might finally shake the eejits in Westminster into doing something about preparing this country to be more competitive.

So if the government really wants to see a competitive Britain, why not offer scholarships to candidates who choose one of the subjects that have been identified as critical to the future competitiveness of the country? (And by the way this would absolutely have to include the children of immigrants who are EU or UK citizens).

That way kids can still choose to do degrees in "media studies" or "fashion" or "Batman comics", but they won't get a scholarship for it.

Since the money for scholarships will be in short supply, and probably wouldn't cover all the current technology places in the UK, there should be some merit scheme that universities can take part in to be preferred for a scholarship. For example, if the U of Sussex decides to call its fashion course "Fabric Technology" to win a scholarship, the deciding committee would have the power to say "tosh and pish you oiks, that ain't a proper technology subject me laddo - no cash for you". More established technology universities would have preference, but there would also need to be an incentive for universities to transition from soft to hard subjects so as to win scholarships.

All universities would have to compete for some number of scholarships in a given year. Since New Labour makes us record every possible statistic these days it should be possible for a university to publish its "probability of employment" ratio for technology courses and be preferred in the selection for scholarships.

More controversial is if these scholarships were means tested. Remember that the "middle classes" (ie. anyone on more than £30k a year total household income) pay for everything in this country these days. So when we spend what's left of our wages (once Mr. Darling has taken his cut) on things like our kids' health and education it would be nice if we could be included on schemes like this.

/rant

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Flame

Money, money, money

If the salaries paid to people with a PhD in hard science reflected their rarity, then more people would take the subjects. Also, more people with a PhD might actually do some research.

Leaving university with a PhD in theoretical physics (having basically done 4 years as a research assistant for £3000 a year) I had a choice of doing research for minimum wage or doing something else with a proper salary. Guess what, I became one of the few IT project managers who can deliver on the threat to "put a nuclear bomb under your arse if you don't get some work done".

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Tom
Flame

It is happening at lower levels as well

I used to work in the IT department for a 'Valleys' council in South Wales. The education department produced a report saying that almost 85% of school leavers where taking non-technical subjects, a fair proportion of those were hair and beauty courses. The conclusion was that, as there was only a finite number of hair dressers needed, it was adding to the areas already high unemployment.

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Hmmm...

As someone with a postgraduate degree in a hard science from a top university and who is currently studying for an MBA at one of the world's best business schools, I can tell you from first-hand experience that getting an MBA from a good school is no pushover.

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Dead Vulture

The Elephant in the room

I keep hearing the same tired refrain by "Industry leaders" and the like that they are decrying the skill set of the candidates that they want to employ. They seem to be missing the point somewhat.

The reason that the number of hard science grads and postgrads is dropping because quite frankly who the hell wants to do hard study, incur big debts, then join the workforce where you are consistantly underpaid in comparison to colleagues doing non technical jobs with fluffy McQualifications.

This is due to the UK wishing to become a "Service Economy" and get rid of all that nasty "making things"

Its a chicken and egg scenario, and until someone wakes up to the problem we're a dead duck

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Stop

Where are the jobs?

Well as a holder of a PhD in Software Enginnering I'd like to know where the highly paid jobs are that a PhD (and only a PhD) graduate can get? Perhaps if there were more jobs, and people recruiting people with a PhD more people would take them!

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cor
Unhappy

Oh, but the Sociology boffins have it all figured out..

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/01/30/engineers_terrorists_wikipedia_oxford_sociology/

Barf..

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Silver badge

water off a duck's back

Sadly the people in govt who read these reports are all arts/history/language/"-ology" graduates and are therefore incapable of understanding the facts, figures and forecasts of what a lack of science/tech graduates mean. Since the Daily Mail doesn't have hysterical front page headlines about the lack of quality scientists, they'll do nothing.

I'm left with the distinct impression that so long as people can watch programmes on TV about nature and fluffy animals, with the occasional pretty piccy from Hubble thrown in, they reckon that "science" is in good shape.

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"probability of employment"

Every university has to compile these stats and make the information available. It's usually the responsibility of the Careers department: http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=graduate+destinations

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Another Press Release from the Department of the Blindingly Obvious...

Students are taking easy subjects.

*yawn*

But where's the incentive to do otherwise?

If you do a soft subject, don't have to work hard, and at the end of it, you get a low-paid job, if you get one at all.

If you do a hard subject, you have to work hard, and at the end of it, you get a low-paid job, if you get one at all.

The surest way to a highly paid job is to go to Eton/"old school tie" school of your choice, after which you can join daddy's company as an "executive consultant".

</rant>

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Anonymous Coward

Reality is a cold, cold place to be...

The UK has NOTHING that the world wants.

Wealth and civilisation comes from trade and industry. The UK does neither.

The Chinese students can do the hard technical subjects too and they actually have a use for them there.

Why do research & design here for use there? They can even do that cheaper themselves!

Anything that can be done in China, WILL be done in China !

The world is too small for every nation to be an advanced trading and industrialised economy.

The UK must decline and surrender the perks it once enjoyed.

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Boffin

We're all doomed

I'm studying for an Engineering Doctorate at the moment. I work in the research and development department of a high end audio designer/manufacturer.

I get paid just as well as most of my fellow graduates with "real" jobs when you take out council tax, NI and pension plus I'm earning a doctorate degree. More schemes like the EngD would encourage far more engineering students to study for doctorates rather than the huge amount of foreign students currently littering our countries EEE departments doing PhDs that are too academic and don't pay enough to attract anyone else.

The only thing is, if I'm the future of Britain, we're all screwed!

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Anonymous Coward

PhDs - not a good career option

I'm 36, and have a PhD in Biochemistry from Cambridge U (hardly a 'soft option'). I work in postdoctoral research (malaria biochemistry, thanks for asking) and earn £22k per annum, on a series of (often very) short term contracts. There's no job security and the hours are long.

Speaks for itself, really.

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@Tom

Apropos the over-supply of hairdressers, I seem to recall that the late Douglas Adams proposed a solution to this problem which involved putting them on a spaceship along with all of the other useless members of society (he singled out middle managers too) and sending them far, far away.

We'd better hang on to the telephone sanitisers, though.

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Anonymous Coward

So much for the famed "market"

As others have pointed out, we are constantly told that Adam Smith and his well-known invisible hand will take care of adjusting the rewards of different jobs.

Don't you bloody well believe it. Not only do science graduates have to work far harder and pay more fees: once they get their degrees, they find it hard to get paid even the national average salary. Having a PhD might help; then again, it might not. As I have mentioned before, I once rode in a taxi whose driver had taken up that lucrative profession because designing complex microprocessors for a British company did not pay well enough to raise a family.

The way things are set up here in Blighty is that those who can, do; while those who can't run the shop (which includes deciding who gets paid what). How many times have we all heard some bunch of [insert your favourite body part] politicians and "business leaders" bloviating about science and technology, while obviously being barely able to add single digits to one another?

If the shortage of science PhDs is harming our economy so much, why don't some of our clever and gifted leaders set their own hands to the wheel? With their undoubted talents, it should be as snip. Why, doesn't the OU already offer a course called "PhD in Nuclear Engineering for MPs (only one week because they learn so fast)"?

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bear in mind

To get from gcse science to phd is a tough road and one most won't take when sports science btec is 4 gcse's and has a question - name three thing in a gym that can be dangerous. Sooo easy and you get more qualifications without the questions on maths or formula's.

It we have schools competing they give easy questions to get good grades and so as it's been reported before the class of people reaching univsity isn't upto speed and have to do foundation courses just to reach basic university level.

Not shocked at all by this report, shame the govt won't act or listen or care.

Should be a requirement in government. Chancellor has an economics degree, trade and industry a business degree. Health has at least been trained as a proper nurse or doctor (not the new piddling half-ass temporary nurses they spew out now) defence was a ranked soldier, The science bloke is a scientist, not a piddling "wooly" science like sports tech or food science.

At least then the cabinet has merit.

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Paris Hilton

@ Anonymous Coward

22k after a phd? Thats awful, I'll be graduating soon taking a position with a Big-4 Accounting firm starting on about that much after only doing a standard degree; Economics. Although, believe me, its most definitely not a soft option. Isn't the financial sector one of the only things the UK exports (along with I guess North Sea oil, and whisky) , surely finance is the smart area to go into?

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Silver badge

@It costs a fortune to take a degree these days

Tell me about it. Next year my lad will hopefully be starting a four year course leading to an MEng in AI, not exactly a soft subject. I reckon I'm looking at 15K sterling per year minimum. Not being British he had to say why he wanted to study in the UK so he gave the usual bumpf about the prestige of British universities. Then this week the news breaks that McDonalds may be allowed to award degrees. Laugh? I broke down crying. I now wonder whether it will be worth him going. Doesn't HMG realise just how many foreign students will look elsewhere once this happens? The xenophobic might say so what. The so what is that when outside students stop going the fees for UK students will increase.

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Actually ...

... I think I'd be better off now if I had done my PhD in the Politics of Hungarian Love Poetry, rather than my chosen research field of computational physics with an emphasis on distributed computing.

Oh well ...

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Fees being higher in harder subjects is not really a flaw

It may feel like adding insult to injury, but the only reason it's wrong is because the resultant salary is so low. The general populace *are* becoming brighter - they've worked out that working harder for less is not sensible.

Myself, I gave up at BSc(Hons).. Then again, my chosen area for an MSc/PhD would have been interface design, and that's a useless area to get involved in - all notable development is driven by the big companies, living in the US is probably mandatory (if you can get in), any serious academic research is simply used by the companies with bugger all money going to the academic and the rest appears to be made up on a whim.

It's key to progress that people feel they can make a difference, will be appropriately rewarded for it and don't have to wade through too much mundanity (paperwork, management, regulation) to do so. I wouldn't be surprised to find that hard science or similar PhDs currently fail on all three grounds.

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Anonymous Coward

Why bother

Given the poor pay, lack of prospects, short term contracts and 7 or 8 years of training, each year getting further into debt, why bother.

If you want to get a job in a different country most countries are welcoming to tradespeople. Not the same if you've got a PhD unless you have a job already waiting for you. Why bother going to university at all if you're technically minded when you can go learn a trade and after a few years get a job almost anywhere you want in the world for probably as much pay as a new PhD.

Finally, a lot of people I know with PhDs have partners who are similarly qualified and have PhDs. To manage to get two jobs in the same city at PhD level isn't that easy and often results in long commutes for both partners.

</rant>

There's this perceived demand for PhDs and until the prospects, pay and actual demand for Science / Engineering PhDs picks up I imagine the numbers of UK graduates following this route will continue to decline.

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Flame

Just remember

"Should be a requirement in government. Chancellor has an economics degree, trade and industry a business degree. Health has at least been trained as a proper nurse or doctor (not the new piddling half-ass temporary nurses they spew out now) defence was a ranked soldier, The science bloke is a scientist, not a piddling "wooly" science like sports tech or food science."

IIRC a certain prime minister was a trained chemist.

Inbetween taking milk off kiddies she also oversaw and approved the destruction of manufacturing industry in this country.

Why should anything change with the current incompetant shower

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Why am I not surprised?

"Biological sciences have in theory grown massively, but this doesn't mean the UK of tomorrow will be strong in genetics or pharmaceuticals: those numbers come from a huge boom in courses such as psychology and sports science."

Which would be all very well if the population as a whole was becoming well-adjusted and capable of winning anything.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the Government put so much focus on the goal of getting people into higher education that it forgot that what they are actually studying may be important too. Much of the numbers growth has been driven by get-the-numbers-in courses so it's hardly surprising that PhDs in the natural follow-up subjects are booming.

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Stop

Dumbing down

About 30 odd years ago in the UK, I took a post-graduate course in one of the "real sciences". These days I am a voluntary assessor for a quango that carries out laboratory accreditation. I meet 27 year old lab managers with post graduate degrees in scientific subjects, who are functionally illiterate and innumerate.

Truly - They are unable to write a report that summarises their work, and are unable to hazard a guess as to likely ranges for their results. Last year, my personal favourite was an environmental laboratory who use mass spectrometers - The 30 year old post-graduate chemist manager (and all of the graduate level technicians who drove the instruments ) did not know the atomic mass of carbon.

Might this be because ~45% of UK students go on to graduate level today - 35 years ago less than 5% of UK pupils went on to higher education? Yes I am sure that we are all very bright, and that a lot of untapped potential has been wasted in the past, but we are letting almost anybody who can be bothered to turn up graduate. Today, when people have to expend a great deal of money and accumulate massive debts to graduate, we know that if the punter does not have a very good chance of passing our courses, they will go elsewhere.

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Anonymous Coward

the problem is with employers

They don't actually care what subject you have studied, just what result you got.

I realise its not a PHD, but when i finished my BEng in software engineering, i obviously, applied to a number of IT companies graduate schemes. Every single one of them turned me down because i didn't have a 2:1. What really winds me up is that, having spent the previous 4 years developing software as part of my course. They ended up accepting someone for the software development role with a 2:1 in art and no previous experience!!

If the companies don't care what the subject is, just the result, then of course nobody is going to take the trouble to do a difficult course.

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PhD, really?

Um, so a boffin thinks there should be more top notch

boffins to solve the problem. hmmm.

Here's me, just a dumb ass, thinking that the problem is

due to over taxation. Killing business, and making the

good uns leave the UK and get a job where they get

better pay/standard of living/etc.

Simplistic view, but if you reduce tax to less than those

countries around you, dont the good people/good companies

decided to set up here? Guess it's not in the politician's

interest to do what's best for the country in the long term,

just to get into power in the next 4 years, ah well.

ho hum, go on then, get more boffins!

Um, can you get a PhD in common sense? Or is that

a bit of an oxymoron?

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Image and location has a lot to answer for

I think the image of science itself and post-graduate degrees need to be reviewed. The softer subjects tend to have a more glamorous appeal and are better gender balanced. This sends out all the wrong messages.

The science/technology graduate may find that many job vacancies tend to be in unappealing sterile business/industrial parks in soul less, sleepy but expensive commuter new towns rather than in the centre of a flourishing vibrant community or town or big city. A drain on the quality of life, particularly for the young. Employers, town planners and other movers and shakers need to think about the whole experience offered to an employee.

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Anonymous Coward

I'd rather be a hammer than a nail

It's the old case of "if you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail". If you are a department of education your only approach to any problem is to increase education. Nothing needs to tie up with employment, the needs of business, imigration - as long as your stat looks good, who cares?

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Coat

Well not suprised

I applied to a certain uni only to be told that my BEng first and engineering degree along with 4 years experience was no match for a Master degree and I would need to complete a masters before I could do a PhD with them. I have met a lot of people with masters and there is no garantee of inteliigence.

but I'm not bitterrrr

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Anonymous Coward

Surprised?

Just take a look at the back of New Scientist magazine to see what amazingly high salaries you too could be earning if only you had that PhD in a hard science.

I'm guilty of having studied for a science PhD but did so only because I was actually interested in the subject; I wasn't daft enough to think it was worth it in terms of money. I now earn well over twice the salary of the average advertised postdoc job, but then so do my other colleagues without any postgrad qualifications.

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Silver badge
Unhappy

Education as an Industry

What did everyone expect to happen? The Western educational system has been altered to make spreadsheets (graduation ratios, level of education, etc...) look good, not to actually teach anything or accelerate careers. The education system is stupid and is failing society.

Just remember, all the crazy stuff you see big companies doing, they learned that somewhere - school!!

Drop out now, before you're in debt for 20 years.

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Flame

Of course

This is all made better by McDonald's *shudder* being allowed to give employees qualifications equivilant to A-Levels..."Hi, I've got a qualification in being a fast-food service executive".

And here I am, wanting to go to uni and study Astrophysics...off to the USA methinks.

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Anonymous Coward

Depressing

My final PhD (science) examination is in a couple of weeks, and you had to tell me that! I was expecting a large sack with a $ sign on the side to be planted into my left hand, whilst a £70k/year contract waiting to be signed is forced into my right the minute I left the exam!

I blame New Labour's target system - try to get as many people to uni as possible in the name of equality, and then wonder why the average IQ of graduates decreases at the same time as a skills shortage appears (@Solomon Grundy). Since when has academia been for everyone? I did a degree and PhD because I found it interesting and wanted to contribute to that field, not because I went to a privileged school or had tonnes of money. This drive to get more people into Uni only serves to feed the creation of courses aimed at people who would be better served learning vocational skills for the benefit of society.

If I'd been aware enough of the politik at the time, I might've applied to be a plumber, or a builder - their earning potential is far higher than mine - instead of going to uni.

[gets off high-horse]

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Paris Hilton

BCS, CSci .. hahahahah!

What makes all of this a joke is that two organisations in the UK that supposedly promote science and IT are a bunch of incompetent ..... you fill in the rest.

Example: BSc(hons) first class, PhD in computer science, 10 years experience in industry, lecturing posts , EU projects, book etc etc etc etc...a good, solid CV..

...BCS state that this is not sufficient for a CSci qualification because (wait for it), I am not qualified enough...yes, that's right, NOT qualified enough - I WORK AS A SCIENTIST DAY IN DAY OUT WITH PUBLICATION RECORD, EXPERIENCE ETC.

How do I get a CSci ... either show a BCS "accredited" BSc degree (BTW, there are no accredited degrees) or have an MSc. No other experience is necessary, other than paying the monthly fee.

It gets really silly when you interview someone with a CSci (awarded by that bastion of IT intelligence: the BCS) who has *no* idea about good, honest research and basic scientific principles.

Paris...she's got a CSci from the BCS...

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Look on the bright side

Having an Master's or Doctor's degree in a technical or scientific subject gives you quite the leg up if you want to emigrate.

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Anonymous Coward

From within academia

There is another aspect that must be considered. In order to properly train

students in experimental sciences (physics, chemistry, biology...) there are

costs associated with the maintenance of a laboratory, and the necessity

to buy consumables such as chemical products and periodically renew

the equipment. For this reason, a department of humanities is likely to

cost less to a university. This is even more likely in a research university

where professors have also their laboratory, which is buying even more

expensive equipment than the teaching laboratory. From the point of view

of the administration of the university, if student fees represent a notable

segment of the budget, and if the extra cost created by the science departments

is not fully covered by the student fees, it is better to avoid enrolling science

students. Since a significant fraction of the professors must be now retiring,

it is likely that a good strategy for the administration of the university is to

note that there are less students willing to study sciences than students

interested in the humanities and thus replace science professors with humanities professors. At some point, science departments will be small enough to make

their closure possible without too much protest. Of course, the members of the

Royal Society understand this all too well, and this is the reason why they

are producing this report on the shortage of science students. This strategy

of trying to preserve student enrollment in the sciences is doomed to fail.

The obvious reason is that industry is disappearing in Europe, making it

unlikely for the science graduates to find jobs outside academia. And of course,

within academia, universities will do their best to minimize the number of tenured

professors in the sciences in order to make it easier to close science departments.

The net result of all this is that not only in the UK, but all over Europe (and maybe

also in the US), we should observe a quick market-driven decline of science studies. The real question is really whether our post-industrial society is in need of

scientific or engineering skills, or whether the sectors of entertainment, banking,

insurance, real estate and litigation will be able to produce enough cash to allow

the Europeans to buy all industrial products from India or China.

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Black Helicopters

@Anonymous Coward - malaria researcher

Why bother !! Just get a McQualification and you'll earn more and have a more secure future too !! There'll always be demands for burger-flippers !!

I think I can *just* hear the McAssassins coming for me !!

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Tim

Soft vs Hard

I'm a Masters Physics student. I had an exam recently on General Relativity with questions such as writing Lagrangians of different descriptions of space. In contrast a friend sitting a computer science degree had the question "How many lectures did this course consist of?"

Employers seem to care less and less about the degree itself, and instead focus on the grade. A first in media studies may land you that job above the guy who "only" got a 2:1 in Physics.

It seems all employers are looking for experienced staff now, which makes it akward to get in the door. On graduation I think the best bet is to join a big company at a low level and transfer around inside for a few years be for moving away for a sensible job.

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To Dr, Chris Johnson

We have banks looking for good PhDs, but sadly not in S/W Engineering, several of the banks who pay the most have explicitly told us that they don't want CS PhDs for the top roles. They prefer physics & engineering, and will look at economics/finance.

We do have a job that I don't know that you can't do, though my experience of British CS PhDs makes me skeptical.

We need a fuck off good C++ developer who can write high performance code that is highly reliable. Can't state exact numbers, being first year £60-120K depending on what you can do.

What people around here need to understand is that the vast majority of international banking is run by science graduates, and finance is what pays for Britain. Manufacturing is suffering the lingering death it so richly deserves, and there are now more Jedi Knights in this country than full time farming workers.

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mo

Statists

Just another report encouraging the State to interfere with the labor market and to spend more money so that the universities can benefit?

Why not stop taxing us and leave us alone to pay for our own education? How is that for a revolutionary idea? How come professors who work for the State at Universities never recommend less State power? Less taxation?

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modern economics

Although socialism was indeed a creature of academics which leaked out as toxic waste is wont to do, the vast majority of economists these days are either at the position of regarding the level of the state as roughly optimal or advocate less of it.

Modern ideas of the market economy have their heart at the university of chicago, and places like the London School of Economic which used to be the anus of the dimwitted socialist movement is now pretty hardline about the utility of markets, and produces hordes of people who are valued by banks.

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mo

Modern economics

Capitalist states are not capitalist free markets and along a continuum they come closer to socialism than they do to true free markets.

People like Freidman and Hayek adopted by Mrs Thatcher (rolling back the State), was rhetoric only...there are still massive payments to the corporations. The US is basically a war economy, using Cold War and now the 'war on terror' to give massive payouts to corporations to fund R&D in war which have spin offs in the market. Universities have links to businesses and arms manufacture.

Hayek was probably given wealth by people who wanted to use his rhetoric to reduce welfare to the poor, not welfare to the rich.

Sceintists need to critically know about their position, who they are working for, what they are helping produce and how (politics and sociology), a narrow technical specialism which simply creates a technical person who knows how to produce the end product (possibly a WMD) without any idea of the big picture and how they help re-produce concentrations of private power, is a weakness.

PhDs in science are too narrow and they produce a technically proficient person who is unbalanced and a 'whore' who sells his/her services to the highest bidder no matter what destruction they create.

Sadam and the US/UK States have plenty of PhDs who help them make weapons and probably helped produce the Internet as a commerical spin off (is this really a good thing?).

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