The Ph.D Bust: America's Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts

Politicians and businessmen are fond of talking about America's scientist shortage -- the dearth of engineering and lab talent that will inevitably leave us sputtering in the global economy. 

But perhaps it's time they start talking about our scientist surplus instead.  

I am by no means the first person to make this point. But I was compelled to try and illustrate it after reading a report from Inside Higher Ed on this weekend's gloomy gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In short, job prospects for young science Ph.D.'s haven't been looking so hot these last few years, not only in the life sciences, which have been weak for some time, but also in fields like engineering. 

The graphs below, drawn from National Science Foundation data and some of my own calculations, depict Ph.D. employment at graduation. It's not a perfect measure of the labor market for young science talent -- ideally we'd have data on graduates nine months or a year out of school, since some people need a little extra time to job hunt. But looking at these figures over time, it seems pretty obvious that there's no great run on trained scientists in this country. 

First, the big picture. Here is the entire market for Ph.D.'s, including those graduating from humanities, science, education, and other programs. The blue line tracks students who have a job waiting for them after graduation. The green line tracks those signed up for a post-doctorate study program. The red line stands for the jobless (though a sliver of them are heading to another academic program). 

NSF_PhD_Emp_3.PNG

The pattern reaching back to 2001 is clear -- fewer jobs, more unemployment, and more post-doc work -- especially in the sciences. A post doc essentially translates into toiling as a low-paid lab hand (emphasis on low-paid as shown below.) Once it was just a one or two-year rite of passage where budding scientists honed their research skills. Now it can stretch on for half a decade . 

NSF_PhDs_Salary_2011.PNG

Now let's break out the science and engineering fields. In life sciences, such as biology, graduates now have a far better chance of being unemployed when they get their diploma than of having a full-time job. 

NSF_PhD_Employment_Life_Sciences.PNG

In disciplines like physics and chemistry, the percentage of employed have also fallen just below the unemployed. 

NSF_PhD_Employment_Physical_Sciences.PNG

And in engineering, it's hanging on just above. 

NSF_PhD_Employment_Engineers.PNG

And finally, the humanities Ph.D.'s -- the few, the proud, the Romantic literature buffs who are practically assumed to be unemployable upon graduation. Thanks to the relative lack of postdoctoral spots, these scholars are both more likely to have a job upon graduating than any of their peers in the sciences and more likely to be searching for employment. All told, their fate isn't all that much worse than the lab geeks' (though their pay, should they land a gig, certainly is). 

NSF_PhD_Employment_Humanities.PNG

We have precious little up-to-date information about Ph.D. job outcomes once they leave school. But Georgia State University Professor Paula Stephan has broken down NSF data on biology Ph.D.'s five or six years post-doctorate, and her findings offer both a bit of hope and discouragement (as well as an extraordinarily messy graph; apologies in advance). She doesn't identify hoards of unemployed biologists burning their lab coats for warmth. But she does find that fewer than 1 in 6 are in tenure track academic positions -- smaller than than the number still stuck in post doc positions (in green). A full 10 percent are out of the labor force or working part-time, though at least some in that group are likely women raising children. 

Paula_Stephan_Biological_Sciences_PhDs.PNG

Most of these Ph.D.'s will eventually find work -- and probably decently compensated work at that. After all, the unemployment rate for those with even a college degree is under 4 percent, and in 2008, science and engineering doctorate holders up to three years out of school had just 1.5 percent unemployment. But next time you hear a politician talking about our lack of science talent, remember all those young aerospace engineers, chemists, physicists who will still be casting around for a gig after they're handed a diploma. There's no great shortage to speak of.

UPDATE: Feb. 22

Since more than half of Ph.D.'s in some science disciplines are immigrants who face job hurdles such as the need for a visa, some readers have asked whether American-born scientists might be faring better than these numbers suggest. I take a look at that question here.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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