The Ph.D. Bust, Pt. II: How Bad Is the Job Market for Young American-Born Scientists?

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On Wednesday, I argued that the job market for new science Ph.D.'s has been deteriorating for about a decade. In brief, we keep graduating more doctoral students in subjects like engineering, biology, computer science, and mathematics, and progressively fewer of them seem to be finding work by the time they have a diploma. The overwhelming majority these bright minds probably land good jobs eventually, but the chilly hiring environment seems to undercut the idea the U.S. is suffering from an overall shortage of scientists.

Unfortunately, I left a big question unanswered. Many of today's science Ph.D.'s aren't Americans. In 2011, 51.9 percent of engineering doctorates, 26.2 percent of life sciences doctorates, and 39.6 percent of physical sciences doctorates were awarded to foreign students living in the United States on temporary visas. Thanks to their immigration status, these graduates face obstacles that an aerospace engineer born in Iowa might not. 

Several readers asked: Is the job market truly terrible for everybody, or do Americans have an easier time of it? Indeed, it appears we do. But don't go and start prepping for the GRE yet. These numbers still aren't pretty.  

Sadly, The National Science Foundation's publicly available figures don't directly compare American and Immigrant Ph.D.'s. in individual fields, but I've tried to reverse-engineer some reasonable estimates.* Because of the data's limitations, I've had to break the graphs into only two categories: foreign Ph.D.'s living in the U.S. on temporary visas and a grab-bag group I refer to as the Americans+, which includes grads who were born in the United States, have a green card, or didn't identify their citizenship status. Ultimately, you should think of these figures as rough guides, not statistical gospel.

So let's start with the engineers, who include material sciences, aerospace, chemical, electrical and other sub-fields. As you can see on the left, 43.7 percent of the Americans+ category reported having a job offer, far better than temporary immigrants. But look to the right, and you'll see that more than a quarter either had no job offer, postdoctoral study appointment, or other firm post-graduation plans (a small sliver might be headed to yet another graduate education program, though the NSF isn't clear precisely how many).  

NSF_PhD_Emp_Cits_Engineering.PNG

For physical sciences grads -- including computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists, and chemists, among others -- members of the Americans+ club were more likely to have landed a job. Nonetheless, two-thirds were either still hunting, or stuck in a post-doc appointment, which often turns into a years-long ordeal as a lowly-paid research assistant. 

NSF_PhD_Emp_Cits_Physical_Sciences.PNG

Finally, here are the life sciences folks, who include Ph.D.'s in health sciences, biology, and agricultural sciences. No matter where you're born, the market looks pretty grim. But once again, the Americans+ category is doing better.

NSF_PhD_Emp_Cits_Life_Sciences.PNG

In some senses, I think these graphs raise more questions than they answer. Why do immigrant Ph.D.'s have such a tough time on the market? Are there not enough visas set aside to accommodate them? Is there not enough demand? Or are they simply less desirable to employers than their American counterparts?  

Here's what I do think is fair to conclude, though: While American-born Ph.D.'s seem to have it better than immigrants when it comes to their job prospects, they don't necessarily have it good. If companies were desperate to snap up competent scientists, these graphs would all look vastly different. 

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*The NSF reports how many Ph.D. recipients in each field are temporary visa holders, U.S. citizens and green card holders, or unidentified. It then offers detailed jobs data for all three groups combined, and for the temporary visa holders separately. Using the combined data and the numbers for the temporary visa holders, I derived percentages for the American+ group. 

Unfortunately, about 4 percent of students on temporary visas don't report their job status. For our purposes, I've treated them as not having one, which ultimately has the effect of making these estimates more favorable to the Americans and green card holders.

Another key point: About 30 percent of foreign Ph.D. grads reported planning to return to their home country. But those students were also asked about their job plans, so the immigration effect probably isn't skewing the figures. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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