Its Official: The US Doesn’t Need Any More PhD Life Scientists

Posted in BioJobBuzz, Uncategorized

I have been blogging about the glut of life sciences PhDs in the US for the past five years. Sadly, not many people paid much attention to my claims despite repeated discussions with graduate students, postdocs and even tenured faculty members.  Recently, however, there has been a spate of lay media articles shedding light on this very recent phenomenon (yeah right).

One that caught my attention was written by Jordan Weissmann an associate editor at The Atlantic who also writes for the Washington Post and the National Law Journal.  Although the title “The Ph.D Bust:America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts” was not particularly inspiring, it does contain some very interesting data (provided by the National Science Foundation); and as we scientists know the data are incontrovertible (unless fudged or applied to certain esoteric statistical analyses).

Here are the highlights (unfortunately, lowlights for many of you).

First, the big picture view: employment opportunities for all American PhDs including those graduating from humanities, science, education, and other programs.

The pattern reaching back to 2001 is clear — fewer jobs, more unemployment, and more persons doing post-doc work — especially in the sciences.

Second, let’s take a look at employment rates for life scientists (including biologists, chemists, biomedical engineers etc) upon completion of their graduate training.

Since 1991 the number of PhD scientists who choose to engage in postdoctoral training has hovered around 45% (it just seems like the number should be higher).  Interestingly, the number of PhD scientists who were able to secure jobs at the completion of their training (without doing a postdoc) has dropped from a high of almost 30% in 2006 to roughly 19% in 2011. However, the most telling statistic is that the number of PhD scientists who are unable to find employment after receiving their degrees has skyrocketed from 27% in 2006 to almost 40% in 2011.  These data clearly indicate that there were many fewer job opportunities for PhD life scientists over the past five years.  Yep, I started talking about the life sciences PhD glut five years ago.

Finally, Georgia State University Professor Paula Stephan has broken down NSF data on biology Ph.D.’s five or six years after receiving their degrees.

As many of you may have heard, less than 1 in 6 are in tenure track academic positions. What is must troubling, however, is how low the overall employment rates were for most PhD trained scientists as far back as 2006 (before the recession began and US pharmaceutical companies began laying off hundreds of thousands of employees!)

The Bottom Line: There is a glut of PhD-trained life scientists (duh) and we do not need to mint anymore PhDs: there simply aren’t enough jobs. And supply side economics suggests that the only way to make PhD life scientists more valuable to prospective employers is to reduce their overall number.  Sorry guys, the data do not lie!

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!!!

  • Seth Nickerson

    So, your post is full of a lot of misinformation and fear-mongering. The NSF cleary has shown that PhD unemployment rates have been as low as 1.5% for much of the 90′s and some of the aught’s. Yet your graphs show “Nothing” as an outcome after graduation. What does nothing mean? Do you mean to suggest that >20% of PhDs are unemployed? If so, then you’re entire premise is flawed and you’re spreading essentially filth throughout the interwebs. Please have a conscience when you post about other peoples lives and prospects. and PLEASE cite your sources. Don’t just say NSF.

    • graddirector

      Well nothing can include unemployed by choice…. About 10% of our grads have chosen to be stay at home parents to their children. Our stats from our life sciences Ph.D. program graduates over the past 15 years find that none of our over 60 or so graduates are unemployed involuntarily (we track heavily). Those unemployed by choice are full time stay at home parents. Notably, one of our grads let me know in a panic that their company was closing a couple of weeks ago and they were looking to be unemployed. Notably, they sent me another email yesterday stating that they found a new equivalent position in the same area….

      I do agree with this blogger that the job market in the life sciences has been soft and folks are taking longer to land in their first position than they used to. At least our program outcomes do not reflect the very dire job stats for the life sciences presented here though. The answer is mostly to stop increasing the number of graduates, and we have scaled back admissions some in the past 3 years, as many programs have due to the very poor state of biomedical research funding. Thus the constriction is already happening, it just won’t show up in the stats for another 3-5 years. The first graph shown is a very true and critical issue for humanities disciplines though, but that largely results from a lack of non-academic opportunities for many humanities Ph.D.s. which is even more depressing in some fields with average times to degree that approach a decade.

      • Seth Nickerson

        This is an article about life sciences PhDs not humanities.

        • graddirector

          Yes, but the first graph is about all Ph.D.s, including those in the humanities. The remaining parts of the article are about life sciences Ph.Ds where there a very soft job market currently due to an expansion of Ph.D. programs in the late 1990s. These graduates are now finishing the Ph.D./postdoc and entering the job market. And yes, they are having trouble finding work. In fact, there may be an emerging glut of science Ph.Ds overall. See this article in C&E news about Chemistry Ph.Ds

    • JacquelynGill

      The statistics are “at graduation.” This means that >20% of PhDs don’t have a job right away though they certainly may get one later.

    • Cliffmz

      I presented information that was presented by other authors. The data are not mine. That said, I know many PhD life scientists who may not be unemployed but have been doing postdocs in excess of 5 years. While they may not be unemployed, they are under employed and their prospects of finding a full time job with pay that is consistent with their years of training is quite low.

      I have been counseling graduate students and postdocs for over 10 years and their job prospects have been diminishing not getting better. And , for the record the 90s were 14 years ago and the aughts were 4 years ago. The world changes very quickly outside of academia.

      • Stefani Elkort Twyford

        Cliffmz, how do you counsel the postdocs? I would like to talk with you about that as we are looking for a career coach.