Where Do All the STEM Graduates Go? Higher Education, the Labour Market and Career Trajectories in the UK


Problems with the supply of highly skilled science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers have been reported by employers and governments for many decades, in the UK, the USA, and elsewhere. This paper presents some key findings from a project funded by the Nuffield Foundation that examined patterns of education and employment among STEM graduates in the UK. Five large-scale secondary datasets—comprising administrative, survey, cross-sectional and longitudinal data—were analysed in order to provide the most comprehensive account possible. The findings suggest that there is no overall shortage of STEM graduates but there is considerable variation in the career outcomes and trajectories of different groups. Recruitment to STEM degrees has stalled over the past 20 years but most STEM graduates never work in highly skilled STEM jobs—in any case, the majority of professional STEM workers do not have (or presumably need) degrees. Some groups of STEM graduates are currently under-represented in the highly skilled STEM workforce and increased recruitment from these groups could grow the numbers entering STEM occupations. However, employers may have to modify their views on exactly what constitutes a valuable or desirable employee and to what extent it is their responsibility to train their workers.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  1. 1.

    Deciding whether or not a graduate is employed in a HS STEM sector job is problematic and sometimes arbitrary. With this caveat in mind, we have adopted the classification used by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) which uses the criteria of whether an occupation has a high proportion of graduates, a high proportion of STEM-degree holders and a high proportion of STEM-degree holders among graduate entrants. The list below shows the UKCES (2011) classification of HS STEM jobs and the corresponding UK Standard Occupation Classification (SOC) 2000 3-digit occupational codes.

    SOC code HS STEM occupations
    112 Production managers
    121 Managers in farming, horticulture, forestry and fishing
    211 Science professionals
    212 Engineering professionals
    213 Information and communication technology professionals
    221 Health professionals
    232 Research professionals
    242 Business and statistical professionals
    243 Architects, town planners, surveyors
    311 Science and engineering technicians
    312 Draughtspersons and building inspectors
    313 IT service delivery occupations
    351 Transport associate professionals
    353 Business and finance associate professionals
    355 Conservation associate professionals
  2. 2.

    The 2000 socio-economic classification scheme was used to code occupational groups in this study. This comprises seven occupational categories of which managerial, professional and associate professional were most of interest in this study. For further detail, see ONS (2000).

  3. 3.

    Undergraduate (bachelor) degrees in the UK are usually three years in length. Students choose their subject before entry to university and degrees are relatively narrow in their field of study and inflexible in terms of the range of subjects that can be taken, especially in comparison to similar programmes in the USA. For example, a student enrolled on a BSc Chemistry degree will study content mainly in this area and the extent to which they will study modules in other subjects (especially beyond the sciences) is limited. Programmes where students study a range of subjects before declaring a ‘Major’ are rare in the UK where specialism happens relatively early in one’s academic career. In addition, programmes such as Medicine and Nursing can be studied at undergraduate, as opposed to graduate, level.

  4. 4.

    Definitions of graduate-level employment are based on the work of Elias and Purcell (2004).


  1. Arrow, K. J., & Capron, W. M. (1959). Dynamic shortages and price rises: the engineer-scientist case. Q J Econ, 73(2), 292–308.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bush, V. (1945). Science the endless frontier, a report to the President. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office.

    Google Scholar 

  3. CBI. (2014). Gateway to growth, CBI/Pearson education and skills survey 2013. London: CBI.

    Google Scholar 

  4. CLS (2016), Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education, www.cls.ioe.ac.uk

  5. Cmd. 6824. (1946). Scientific man-power. Report of a committee appointed by the lord president of the council (The Barlow Report). London: HMSO.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Cm 8980, (2014), Our plan for growth: science and innovation, HM Treasury and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, London: HM Treasury.

  7. Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy. (1995). Reshaping graduate education of scientists and engineers. Washington DC: National Academies Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Elias, P., Purcell, K., (2004), Researching Graduate Careers Seven Years On, SOC (HE): A classification of occupations for studying the graduate labour market, Research paper No. 6, Warwick Institute for Employment Research, accessed from www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ier/research/completed/7yrs2/rp6.pdf.

  9. Engineering UK (2016), The state of engineering, accessed 14th June 2016 from http://www.engineeringuk.com/Research/Engineering_UK_Report_2016/

  10. EU Skills Panorama (2012) STEM Skills Analytical Highlight, European Commission, accessed 9th June 2016 from http://www.in.gr/files/1/2013/05/23/STEMskills_en.pdf

  11. Furlong, A., & Cartmel, F. (2009). Higher education and social justice. Buckingham: Open University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  12. IET (2015), Skills & Demand in Industry: 2015 Survey. The Institute of Engineering and Technology, accessed June 2016 from http://www.theiet.org/factfiles/education/skills2015-page.cfm

  13. Gorard, S. (2008). Who is missing from higher education? Camb J Educ, 38(3), 421–437.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Grattan Institute (2016), Mapping Australian higher education, accessed 26th September 2017 from https://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/875-Mapping-Australian-Higher-Education-2016.pdf

  15. Greenfield, S., Peters, J., Lane, N., Rees, T. and Samuels, G. (2002) A Report on Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, accessed March 2010 from http://extra.shu.ac.uk/nrc/section_2/publications/reports/R1182_SET_Fair_Report.pdf.

  16. National Academy of Sciences. (2010). Rising above the gathering storm, revisited: rapidly approaching category 5. Washington DC: The National Academies Press.

    Google Scholar 

  17. ONS. (2000). Standard Occupational Classification 2000, Volume1 Structure and descriptions of unit groups. London: The Stationery Office.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Select Committee on Science and Technology. (2012). Higher Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects Report, House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. London: The Stationery Office Limited.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Smith, E. (2010). Do we need more scientists? A long term view of patterns of participation in UK undergraduate science programmes. Camb J Educ, 40(3), 281–298.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Smith, E. (2012). Women into science and engineering? Gendered patterns of participation in UK STEM subjects. Br Educ Res J, 37(6), 993–1014.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Smith, E. (2017). Shortage or surplus? A long-term perspective on the supply of scientists and engineers in the US and the UK. Review of Education, 5(2), 171–199.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Smith, E., & White, P. (2017). A ‘great way to get on’? The early career destinations of science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates. Res Pap Educ, 32(2), 231–253.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Smith, E., White, P., (2018), The employment trajectories of Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates, Report for the Nuffield Foundation, Leicester: University of Leicester.

  24. Steelman, J. R. (1948). Manpower for research. Bull At Sci, 4(2), p57–p58.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Teitelbaum, M. S. (2014). Falling behind? Boom, bust and the global race for scientific talent. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. UKCES (2011), The supply of and demand for high- level STEM skills, UK Commission for Employment and Skills: Briefing paper, December 2011, accessed from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/high-level-stem-skills-supply-and-demand

  27. Wakeham Review (2016), Wakeham Review of STEM Degree Provision and Graduate Employability,https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/stem-degree-provision-and-graduate-employability-wakeham-review

  28. Wilkinson, G. C. G., & Mace, J. D. (1973). Shortage or surplus of engineers: a review of recent UK evidence. Br J Ind Relat, 11(1), 105–123.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The research presented in this paper was supported by funding from the Nuffield Foundation.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Emma Smith.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Research Involving Human Participants and/or Animals

The research uses large-scale secondary datasets. No data was directly collected from human participants.

Informed Consent

Ethical procedures and those governing information consent were followed during the primary data collection phase.

Additional information

Submitted to a Special Issue on the STEM Workforce in the Journal of Science Education and Technology



The five datasets that we draw upon in this paper are listed below. While we have done our best to summarise the key features of our data, we encourage the interested reader to seek out a more developed account in our other publications that are cited throughout the paper.

  • Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) data

  • Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education data (DLHE) data

  • The Annual Population Survey (APS)

  • The 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS58)

  • The 1970 British Birth Cohort Study (BCS70)

Any student who wishes to study an undergraduate (bachelors) programme at a UK university has to make their application through UCAS. UCAS releases annual data on applications and acceptances to university. These data provide information on a number of applicant characteristics including sex, institution and subject studied. Data from 1988 to 2012 were included in this analysis. Further information on these data, and their potential limitations, can be found in Smith (2010) and Gorard (2008).

DLHE is an annual graduate destination survey administered by the Higher Education Statistical Agency. The DLHE survey gathers information on the activities of graduates six months after they graduate. Response rates tend to be relatively high; for the physical sciences they are over 80%. This dataset only considers destinations at six months after the student has left university, and it is recognised that career trajectories may be very different in the subsequent period. However, it tells us a great deal about the sorts of jobs that are immediately available to STEM graduates. DLHE data from 1992 to 2012 were included in our analyses.

The APS provided us with a detailed cross-sectional snapshot of the occupational status of STEM graduates in the labour market. These data contain information on the occupational status of respondents between the ages of 25 to 64 years. APS data from 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 were included in our analyses. As there were no substantial differences between these four years, the findings presented here are for a combined dataset of 803,634 cases.

The BCS70 follows the lives of around 17,000 individuals who were born in Great Britain in one week in April 1970, and who were aged in their mid-40s at the time of this research. Since the birth survey in 1970, there have been eight ‘sweeps’ that have gathered data on cohort members’ health and physical, social and educational development, as well as their economic, personal and occupational circumstances (CLS 2016). Data from five sweeps of the study were used in this analysis and provide a detailed account of the cohort members’ career trajectories at ages 26, 30, 34, 38 and 42. The BCS70 provides the best available source of data on the career trajectories of a representative sample of the British population. As with most longitudinal studies, there are some issues with data quality, particularly with dropout and non-response. However, response rates for all sweeps of the BCS70 are around 75%.

The NCDS58 follows the lives of a cohort of individuals who were born in March 1958. To date, there have been nine ‘sweeps’ of the NCDS, with the latest sweep taking place in 2012/13 when participants were 54 years old. Data were analysed at six points, starting in 1981 and captured the first employment destinations of the NCDS graduates as well as career patterns in the intervening decades. For reasons of space, and because most of the findings for the BCS70 were similar to those for the NCDS, this paper emphasises the results from the former study.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Smith, E., White, P. Where Do All the STEM Graduates Go? Higher Education, the Labour Market and Career Trajectories in the UK. J Sci Educ Technol 28, 26–40 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10956-018-9741-5

Download citation


  • STEM graduates
  • Higher education
  • Labour shortages