The employability skills science graduates need: Exploring insights from employers, educators and students

Ashleigh Steele
October 19, 2023

As university STEM educators, your role in shaping students' education and preparing them for the professional world is crucial. With rapid growth of student numbers over the last decade and current economic challenges, it is all the more essential that students can be confident they will graduate with skills that employers value.

Here at LearnSci, we’re investing time and effort into developing ways we can support you to make sure your students graduate with the essential skills employers are looking for. In this article, we delve deeper into the Skills Agenda, with insights from our community of educators, students and employers.

“Communication skills and other professional skills are vital. We're looking for self-starters in the next cohort of graduates. We're looking for intuitive problem solvers who can self-source information.”

Chris Joyce, Principal Sustainability Consultant, Turner and Townsend

Who is responsible for supporting professional skill development?

A central debate has emerged, raising questions about the development of professional skills. Professional skills are defined here as transferable skills needed for the workplace, not including subject-specific technical skills, such as teamwork, oral and written communication, problem-solving, critical thinking and resilience. While the acquisition of technical skills and knowledge remain a vital aspect of a university education, there is a growing recognition that professional skills play an equally crucial role in preparing students for lives and careers beyond university. Historically, teaching these skills is not traditionally in the realm of academic or educator expertise, but there seems to now be an expectation from the public and employers that a university education should equip students with something more than just subject knowledge.

“There's a huge emphasis on enquiry skills lately. We're needing wider thinkers beyond problem solving within just their discipline. So what does a collapse of a fishery mean, not only for ecosystems, but also for communities and economies."
Sarah Taylor, Environmental Socio-Economist, National Oceanography Centre

In science courses, there is a strong focus on teaching students how to prepare for working in the scientific industry, but some argue that there is a lack of preparation of these more general professional skills, which are not only useful for industry but also for careers outside traditional scientific roles. 

Approximately only 30% of physics, chemistry and biology students at UK universities end up in scientific roles 15 months after graduation.

There are arguments that science courses should be integrating professional skills within their curriculum in a context and subject specific approach. However, with educator workloads being at an all time high, others argue that courses should focus on ensuring the delivery of technical skills and scientific knowledge, with professional skills being passively gained and students seeking support outside their scheduled coursework. By identifying stakeholder opinions and student needs around professional skills, opportunities for development can be better informed. Recent and ongoing transformations of university curricula have seen an increase in stakeholder input from employers, professional bodies and students themselves. Technical and professional skill development opportunities within curricula have integrated a graduate employability-skills focus in the higher education sector.

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Input from our community of educators, students and employers

Our mission is to empower the next generation of scientists to develop the skills needed to make the world a better place. We reached out to our community of students, educators and industry professionals for their perspectives and wanted to know the value placed on various skills for science graduates to have when entering the workforce.

What are the most important skills to have as a science graduate? 

We asked the above question to our community of STEM educators, STEM students and STEM graduate employers. Via a poll, they chose their top three skill clusters from the following:

  • Practical Skills (safety, equipment, subject-specific software)
  • Data Handling Skills (obtain and record data)
  • Data Analysis Skills (process and interpret data, critically analyse, stats)
  • Communication Skills (teamwork, present orally, write reports, active listening)
  • Professional Skills (plan, prioritise, self-evaluate, time manage)
  • Enquiry Skills (research, design and plan experiments, problem solve)
  • Computational Skills (pattern recognition, algorithmic thinking, decomposition)
  • Other (please specify)
Summary of respondants in our survey. 61 student responses from students studying a STEM-based degree. 32 employers from companies who employed STEM graduates. 16 educators form our community who taught on STEM degree programmes.
An overview of the students, employers and educators who took park in our research

We received student responses (total 61) from the University of West England, University of Sussex, University of Plymouth and Queen Mary University of London, studying a STEM-based degree programme who were in foundation, first, second or third year. Employer perspective (total 32) was gained from companies who employed STEM graduates, and was gathered from a range of disciplines, including: Pharmaceutical, Technological, Weather and Climate, Engineering and Environmental services. Respondents held a variety of positions but all were involved in the hiring process. Educator responses (total 16) from our community of higher education partners all taught on STEM degree programmes, primarily from the chemical and biosciences.

The value of graduate employability skills in STEM

Overall, all three groups shared similar viewpoints, indicating a degree of alignment between academic institutions and industry expectations. 

Radar plot of responses to the question "What are the most important skills for a science graduate to have? Choose your top 3"
Radar plot showing the percentage of students (n = 61), educators (n = 16) and employers (n = 32) asked that identified the skill cluster to be in their top three most important skills for a science graduate to have.

Employers value communication skills highly, with a significant difference to the percentage of student or educator respondents putting it in their top three. There is also a stronger emphasis on professional skills - such as time management and self-evaluation - than students or educators, and a lesser focus on practical skills. This is likely due to companies offering specialised or specific training in their industry, and so are looking for candidates who possess a strong knowledge of practical skills in general which can be adapted via on-the-job training.

88% of employers placed communication skills in their top three most important skills for science graduates.

Student and educator perspectives largely aligned, with a strong emphasis on practical, data analysis and communication skills. One notable discrepancy was the weighting on enquiry skills - such as research, experiment design and planning - which was ranked in the top three by a higher percentage of educators than students. Students placed more value in computational skills - such as pattern recognition, algorithmic thinking and decomposition. 

It is fantastic to see there is some alignment between perspectives on skills, especially between students and educators. However, it seems there’s still some way to go to communicate to students and employers what skills employers value highly. It is of vital importance that perspectives of stakeholders align to ensure graduates have the right skills to not only join the workforce but to make the world a better place and solve future challenges.

So how can STEM educators help their students develop professional skills?

Developing skills in tandem with subject knowledge is no easy task, but many innovative educators in our community are demonstrating how this can be achieved in an effective and efficient manner. 

At Maynooth University, Prof. Frances Heaney's team employs digital badges and signposting in chemistry courses to engage students in recognising skill value. This approach, which received a Teaching Innovation Award, empowers self-identification of key skills, emphasising their role in employability. Similarly, at the University of Warwick, Prof. Leanne Williams offers professional skill-focused modules, nurturing self-driven learning and enhancing vital competencies. Moreover, skill portfolios are becoming prevalent, with Universities such as Queen Mary University and the University of Bath aiding skills development and providing future employers with evidence. 

These initiatives demonstrate how educators can integrate professional skills in STEM education, bridging academia-industry demands to equip students for successful futures.

Share your insights

The insights shared in this article are just the beginning of a larger conversation about the future of skill development in STEM, and we want to hear from you. How does your department support skills? Share your insights, thoughts and experiences, and connect with our diverse community via social media using #LearnSciCommunity, or join our active community group sessions to learn more from like-minded educators.