22 February 2011

When you're clever but ill-connected

Michael Skapinker has a column in today’s Financial Times: How poor students become top scientists. The ambiguity of this title seems to have escaped the FT's subeditors. In fact, he is drawing on an OECD study of young people from poorer families who beat the odds academically:
What distinguished high achievers from poorer backgrounds, apart from spending longer in the classroom, was their attitude. “Resilient students are more motivated to learn science, more engaged with science and have greater self-confidence in their ability to learn science. The level of self-confidence in their academic abilities is in fact one of the strongest correlates of resilience,” the OECD study said.
Skapinker concludes:
Can companies, particularly science-based companies, encourage those attitudes? Sending their people into schools as mentors could help, the study says. So could other forms of interaction between poorer students and those working in science companies. Many companies offer internships and work experience. The problem, as other studies have shown, is that the best-connected often grab most of the opportunities. Where are the companies ready to declare that their internships will go to those who need them most?
I put this comment on FT.com:
The “high achievers from poor families” don’t just lack material resources, but also, as the article implies, face a shortfall in “social capital” including access to networks, contacts and internships. In these circumstances, studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths), where what you know matters rather than who you know, may be a better strategy than taking softer options with a more uncertain access to employment.

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