Science Graduates struggle to find work despite government’s ‘smart economy’ strategy

30 Sep

In December 2008, the Irish government launched a strategy which it claimed would be central to Ireland’s economic restoration. By combining innovation and enterprise in order to create a unique ‘smart economy’, Ireland would become the go-to destination for foreign investment and high quality research and development. Almost two years later, however, large numbers of the science and technology graduates at whom this strategy was aimed find themselves unable to secure work in the field and, in some cases, facing emigration.

On paper, Jen Bell from Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, appears to be a perfect fit for the ‘smart economy’ model. In 2008, Bell graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a PhD in Molecular Microbiology which she hoped would kick-start a career either as a patent scientist or in regulatory affairs. These careers are central to what she terms the “commercialisation of scientific technologies”, a sector of the ‘smart economy’ in which one might reasonably expect to find increased employment opportunities. Unfortunately, given the current economic reality, this is not the case. “The biotechnology industry is showing some signs of expansion, but when I approach potential employers, I’m receiving a lot of conflicting information due to the fact that there’s a recession”.

Faced with reduced employment opportunities across the board, it is not altogether surprising that many qualified individuals are choosing to pursue their career dreams further afield. Daryl Gunning, who holds an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation from Trinity College Dublin, packed his life “into two small bags” earlier this week and departed for New Jersey. “I don’t think the lack of job opportunities is necessarily because of the recession. Ireland just never really cared about conservation. For someone like myself, in comparison to the amount of work placements and internship schemes available in America, there’s not an awful lot in Ireland.”

Gunning’s comments highlight a disparity between those individuals who have a passion for a particular branch of science and the broader ambitions of government strategists. “Any time that the government is promoting science, it’s very biased in favour of chemistry- and pharmaceutical-based subjects because the politicians feel that they’re the companies that will come to Ireland,” he continues. “Not everyone is necessarily interested in those fields.” Similarly, the current tendency of many third-level science courses to prepare students for a career in research and development is not to everyone’s taste. Jane Travers, a Medicinal Chemistry graduate who is currently working in a call-centre, feels that many students are leaving college without the necessary technical skills. “A lot of the courses are theory-based, so you’re not really getting job skills. You’re getting skills to learn and to study yourself, but not to walk into Glaxo or to Pfizer and set up a chromatography column and work away at it.”

Of a class of sixteen postgraduates, Gunning is not the only one to decide that his future lies outside of Ireland. “There were four girls from Canada, America, Finland and Brazil on the same course, and they’re all going back home. I’m emigrating, and one of my friends is ready to move to America as well as soon as she gets the money together.” At a time when the government is emphasising the need to attract the best and the brightest from around the world to Ireland, this inability to retain the international students who are already in the country should set alarm bells ringing.

Equally worrying is the fact that Gunning’s decision to try his luck in America was partly influenced by a lack of funding to begin his PhD studies here in Ireland. While the fundamentals of the ‘smart economy’ vision may prove to be sound in the long-term, it has contributed to the current excess of qualified personnel who find themselves waiting impatiently for investment to arrive. For someone like John Nash, who has also been unable to secure funding for a PhD despite holding a BSc in Chemistry, the idealism of the ‘smart economy’ is exacerbating problems in the short-term. “The government shouldn’t really be encouraging people leaving school to study science when they can’t properly look after those who are already doing it. There’s not enough money to facilitate everybody who wants to study a PhD. There aren’t enough jobs for those who are already qualified. I don’t know why they’d be encouraging more people to study it.”

What’s more, it’s not only the potential graduates of the future that the latest crop of degree holders find themselves competing against. With the Live Register standing at over 450,000 in August, the few companies in the industry that are hiring have an array of experienced candidates at their disposal, leaving Nash and others who have recently secured their degree at an inherent disadvantage. “A lot of companies don’t really want to hire graduates straight out of college. They might advertise that they’re looking for chemists, but they really want to hire a forty-year old professional who has twenty years of experience. A grad wouldn’t have a hope of getting any of the jobs.”

His comments are indicative of a challenge faced by graduates of all stripes. With companies increasingly targeting experienced candidates to fill their vacancies, it is becoming ever more difficult for graduates to get their foot in the door initially. Unpaid internships and work experience placements are particularly popular for those cutting their teeth in the business and legal professions, but there is a perception among jobseekers that such opportunities are relatively scarce in science. Those programmes that do exist are massively oversubscribed and, consequently, almost as competitive as trying to secure a permanent job. “You have to be getting top, top marks to get into those programmes,” explains Travers. “Anyone else is just left behind.”

While they wait for the right opportunity to arrive, it appears that the toughest challenge for these graduates is to remain confident in their abilities. “Trying to secure a job is pretty much a job in itself. It can be pretty soul-destroying at times,” Bell concedes. “But you have to look on the bright side of things. Something will turn up soon.”

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