PhD Scientist Glut (Not POLITICAL Scientist; We Already Knew That)
Calls for more American kids to pursue STEM careers ignores the hiring realities.
Jordan Weissmann details “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 Education 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.
I’ll not repost all seven of his charts here but the overview graphic, which aggregates all PhD graduates regardless of field, is interesting by itself: Less than 40 percent have a job upon graduation and some 35 percent have neither a job nor a postdoctoral study program lined up.
The no job number is high across the board: Above 30 percent for life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering. What’s more shocking is this:
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).
That’s right: Humanities PhDs are actually more likely to have gainful employment upon finishing their degree than their counterparts in the STEM fields.
Of course, job/no job isn’t the only meaningful question.
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.
For humanities and social science PhDs, the inability to get a tenure track job amounts to failure for most. Some social scientists intentionally get their degrees with careers in government and public policy careers in mind, but presumably most everyone majoring in English literature, Medieval History, or Women’s Studies did so with an intention of becoming a tenured professor.
In the STEM fields, there are obviously plenty of more lucrative alternatives to teaching undergraduates. Still, the notion of finishing a grueling doctoral program in the hard sciences and not being able to find commensurate employment is disheartening, indeed.