From Lab Bench to Copy Desk

Why I’ve given up on the almighty STEM degree


I saw Ted Cruz in Storm Lake, Iowa, before the Iowa Caucuses say college graduates were left behind by “The Obama Economy.” For once, he and I agree.

As a liberal and a Bernie Sanders diehard, you might be surprised by that. But looking at my experience with life after college, along with dozens of my friends’ experiences, you begin to realize that not everything the admissions counselors were saying was actually true.

I came out of high school thinking I wanted to go to med school. I chose the small private college with the best biology department in the Midwest. After my first year, I realized that the health care industry wasn’t going to be my gig. I didn’t have good enough grades, physics and anatomy and physiology sounded daunting and all of my friends were changing their majors from pre-med biology to something else. But science still was interesting and I enjoyed the classes I was taking.

After a required conservation biology class for the biology major, that was the direction I wanted to take. I signed up for all the right classes, I got good grades (3.5 overall GPA in college), I got research opportunities most other students weren’t exposed to. Then I graduated. And I hit rock bottom.

I looked for jobs, research assistantships, professional science masters degrees and even looked into the Peace Corps like it was a full-time job. My professors were saying that it would be a piece of cake to get a government job right out of school that would at least pay my loans off and buy some nice beer. For god’s sake, I’ve got a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) degree! This should be easy, right?

Of course, none of my academic advisors actually had any connections in any of those jobs that were so easy to get. When I got on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources job website, only three positions were listed ... and all of them required masters degrees and five years of experience. I searched high and low for jobs with people of my qualifications and this is what I got: $8-an-hour temporary work, no benefits and 60 other people applying for the same job. Reality hit in.

I thought I was a screw-up. I felt completely worthless. Then, I realized I wasn’t alone. I have conversations with friends that applied to med school that have been working as CNAs (Certified Nurses Assistants) for years (a job you don’t need a BS for) since they got their degrees. Some friends got into national service jobs for loan forgiveness programs (some are $70,000-plus in debt) while living like a peasant for 5 years. Others simply didn’t find work in their fields and worked at Best Buy, Little Caesar’s, Target or Hy-Vee with bachelors and even masters degrees.

Some got lucky and got into white-collar insurance-adjusting jobs for $12 an hour with benefits. Most didn’t get a job in their field or placement in the graduate school they wanted. The lucky ones had connections through their parents or siblings.

I realized I needed money to pay off my $30,000 loan and a new direction. I took a job copy editing with my parents’ newspaper and laying out The Progressive Populist. I struggled with it and it kicks my butt regularly, but I get to read all the columns from my favorite authors. I’m forever grateful that my family (both my uncles, mom, dad and brother Tom) gave me this opportunity.

In the end, I decided I needed use my science degree for something, regardless of how much I look forward to reading Ted Rall’s column every Wednesday afternoon. I’m going back to school to pursue teacher licensure.

My advice: there is propaganda behind the acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Parts of the S have been gutted by state and federal sequester cuts for basic research at state universities and government agencies.

Laying out The Progressive Populist was my favorite part of my job, hands down. I know I’m going to miss it.

Kieran Cullen is taking early retirement as copy editor of the Storm Lake Times and The Progressive Populist “to pursue other interests.”

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2016

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