Science Careers Blog

December 17, 2012

Disturbing Employment Trends in NSF Doctorate Recipient Report

The newest annual report from the National Science Foundation on recipients of doctorates from American universities reveals disturbing employment trends among scientists and engineers: Fewer are finding jobs and more are doing postdocs.

Issued on 12 December, the report covers degrees awarded in 2011. The percentage of new Ph.D.s who reported having nailed down "definite commitments for employment or postdoctoral (postdoc) study fell in every broad science and engineering (S&E) field in 2011, the second consecutive year of decline," the report states. The percentages stood "at or near the lowest level of the past 10 years."  In life sciences, the field with the lowest percentage of new Ph.D.s getting definite commitments, the number was down 10 full percentage points from 10 years before, to 62.5%.  In physical sciences, the field with the highest level of commitments, the percentage declined from 72.9% to 69.3% in the same interval. 

In engineering, where commitments dropped from 72.5% to 64% over the past 10 years, another statistic was rapidly rising: the percentage of new Ph.D.s doing postdocs.  Long recognized as a form of disguised unemployment, postdocs were now the first post-degree positions for 41% of new Ph.D. engineers, more than doubling from 18.9% a decade before.  58.5% of the physical scientists were doing postdocs, up from 44.7% in 2001, as were 69.3% of the life scientists, up 10 percentage points in a decade.

New engineering postdocs earned salaries averaging $44,000, far below the $95,000 average for first jobs in industry and $71,000 for first jobs in academe.  For physical scientists the figures were $47,000 for postdocs, $100,000 in industry, and $54,000 in academe.  For life scientists, always the lowest-paid, they were $39,000 for postdocs, $89,000 in industry, and $65,000 in academe.

The report is here.

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