EducationScience & Tech

OPINION: University Science Programs Need More Hands-On Learning

Overall, I loved my undergraduate experience as a Life Science major.  However, one thing that nagged at me since my first year in university was the pressure to gain hands-on experience in my field.  I was told that hands-on experience conducting research, operating lab equipment and writing scientific papers was necessary for completing a fourth-year thesis project, getting into graduate school and obtaining a good job post-graduation.  As I searched for opportunities in lab or research settings, I found them to be highly competitive and not nearly as abundant as I’d imagined they would be in a university setting.  Thus began my belief that universities need to provide more hands-on learning opportunities for their science students.

The Changing Role of the Bachelor’s Degree

The role of a university degree is not necessary to provide hands-on experience and employable skills to students — traditionally, that is the role of college programs, while university programs are more based around theory and higher learning. But the popularity of the bachelor’s degree is changing its role: it’s now the new high school degree, diminishing its prestige and value in the eyes of prospective employers.  This is due to the false but prevalent mindset that university is “required” and is superior to college or trade programs.  Furthermore, the increasing competition in the job market allows employers to be more selective when hiring.  Some hiring managers require university degrees even when the job doesn’t require one because they believe it shows the candidate is more career-oriented or driven, or simply to reduce the number of applications to read. 

Jobs in the science field that haven’t required a bachelor’s degree in the past now do, including chemical equipment tenders, dental hygienists, medical equipment preparers and administrative positions.  This phenomenon, known as degree inflation, renders the job market even more challenging for those without university degrees.  It creates an elitist cycle where more and more people feel pressured to pursue a university degree, but are then unemployed for a long period after graduation, which has adverse effects on underprivileged students who need to pay off student loans or who need to be financially independent post-graduation.  

OPINION: University Science Programs Need More Hands-On Learning

The popularity of the bachelor’s degree is reducing its value to employers.  (Image Source: Woodlands College Park High School)

Degree inflation also causes underemployment, which is when graduates end up working jobs that are not in their desired field or do not match their skill set.  Underemployment after graduation is rampant in today’s competitive job market, with people taking on low-paying jobs or low-level internships years after graduation to try to break into their chosen field.  With the bachelor’s degree losing its prestige, more and more students are pursuing graduate degrees to improve their job and salary prospects. Enrollment in graduate programs in the United States has increased by 41% between 2000 and 2018.  More students are also choosing to pursue college degrees after university to gain more hands-on skills and for co-op opportunities, both of which can make students more employable.

Thanks to degree inflation, a university degree is now the bare minimum in today’s job market.  The real asset in your application is now experience in your field, which shows you have employable skills and sets you apart from other candidates with the same degree. Employers consider internships, previous employment, and volunteer experience more important than GPA and coursework when assessing potential employees.  Additionally, students who graduate with experience in their field are more likely to be offered good jobs post-graduation.  For example, 90% of engineering graduates from the University of Iowa who gained work experience through the co-op program got jobs in their field soon after graduation, compared to 50% of those who did not get work experience in the field.

Another issue is that Canadian employers have reduced their investments in training new employees by 40% since 1993.  Rather than taking on new graduates with the potential to be great employees and helping them develop the skills they need to succeed in the workplace, employers are seeking candidates who possess the equivalent skills of several years of work experience in their field right after graduation.  

Between degree inflation and employers’ lessened dedication to helping develop their employees’ skills, it is more important than ever for university students to gain employable skills throughout their degree to avoid being underemployed or unemployed for a long time post-graduation.  Since these skills are not often built into the degree, students must seek these opportunities themselves.

OPINION: University Science Programs Need More Hands-On Learning

The Problem with Current Opportunities

Throughout my degree, I found time and time again that the opportunities for hands-on experience available to me were highly competitive.  With no prior research or lab experience, I didn’t get any interviews for summer jobs or internships in the sciences that I applied to, so I relied on the opportunities available at my university.

My university offers a few dozen paid research internships each summer; however, with thousands of undergraduate science students at the school, these internships are impossibly competitive.  When I did not get one of these internships after my second year of undergrad, I reached out to a lab that interested me and asked to become a summer volunteer.  Volunteering in this lab plus working part-time as a receptionist was a good setup that finally allowed me to gain research experience, but may not be an option for students who need to work full-time in the summers.  The 10-12 hours I worked per week were not nearly enough to support my living costs over the summer, let alone save money for the coming school year. 

With Canadian tuition costs constantly rising and the recent slashes to financial assistance for students in Ontario, many students cannot afford not to work full-time in the summers.  Unpaid internships may be banned in Canada, but volunteering in labs is a common method of gaining first-time research experience that is less accessible to students who need to work during the summer.

OPINION: University Science Programs Need More Hands-On Learning

It is possible for science students to obtain funding for summer research, which is another highly competitive option.  One of the most prominent sources of funding is the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).  Two problems arise with seeking funding through the NSERC: applications are evaluated based on the student’s research aptitude and previous research experience. Furthermore, in my experience, professors are more likely to supervise NSERC students who have previously volunteered in their labs or who will be starting a thesis project with them.  These factors make things more difficult for students seeking first-time research experience.

I was lucky enough to gain further research experience through my thesis project in my fourth year, though unfortunately, there are not enough thesis spots available to accommodate everyone in the program, making the search for a professor to supervise my project extremely competitive and very stressful experience. 

Future Directions

The discussion so far shows that universities are not adequately preparing science graduates for the job market despite the fact that employers are demanding more and more education and experience.  What’s the solution?

More lab-based courses is an important step toward ensuring that students gain hands-on experience with lab equipment and techniques, which can be helpful for many jobs they may want to pursue post-graduation, such as lab technicians or researchers.  In my second-year genetics class, I was disappointed to find out that our lab on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and gel electrophoresis — two important basic techniques in the world of molecular biology and the biomedical sciences — would not have us work on these techniques ourselves, but that we would only get to watch our teaching assistant carry them out.  

In my four years of undergrad, I never had a chance to attempt PCR myself, despite it being a crucial technique for lots of lab work.  It is important that lab courses actually allow students to do experiments hands-on instead of simply learning the theory behind how they work.

On a better note though, my program introduced a third-year lab course in which  I had the chance to use technology to record heart and breathing rates, design my own study and conduct literature searches.  I consider this course as one of the most useful ones I took in undergrad.  

OPINION: University Science Programs Need More Hands-On Learning

Courses that allow students to work together in labs offer lots of employable skills. (Image source: McGill University

Creating more paid laboratory and research-based summer positions is ideal, but costly. More lab courses is a good start, and it would also be beneficial if science departments ensured that more students are able to conduct thesis projects.  New opportunities can also be generated by getting creative.  For example, low time-commitment volunteer or extracurricular positions can be created that allow students to gain skills while also studying and working, such as shadowing lab technicians or being involved in editing scientific articles. 

The onus isn’t completely on universities to address this issue, however.  On the flip side, employers should have reasonable expectations for entry-level candidates and stop requiring higher education when it isn’t relevant to the position. They should also re-invest in training new hires and stop expecting new graduates to have all the skills of someone who has been in the workforce for several years. Additionally, students should be encouraged to consider college or trade programs if these will provide them with the best skills for their desired career path, rather than considering a university degree the gold standard.

It is evident that the university degree is becoming the minimum requirement for many employers, with experience now playing a bigger role.  If recent graduates want to find meaningful work in their field, they need to meet employers’ expectations.  While the higher learning provided by a university degree should not be compromised, universities must acknowledge that their role is no longer simply to teach theory — now, these degrees are essential to finding jobs in many fields. If university programs adapt to the changing role of the bachelor’s degree and arm students with useful hands-on experience, their graduates will succeed more in a competitive job market and find meaningful work with adequate compensation for their skills.

Author

OPINION: University Science Programs Need More Hands-On Learning
Queen's University Life Sci Alum '20. When I'm not writing, I enjoy music, drawing, and checking out old houses.