College Guide


July 10, 2012 11:00 AM Even the Science PhDs Are in Trouble

By Daniel Luzer

Despite frequent assertions from politicians and pundits that the United States desperately needs more students studying science and math, the Washington Post reports that Americans with science degrees aren’t finding jobs.

According to an article by Brian Vastag:

Although jobs in some high-tech areas, especially computer and petroleum engineering, seem to be booming, the market is much tighter for lab-bound scientists — those seeking new discoveries in biology, chemistry and medicine.
“There have been many predictions of [science] labor shortages and robust job growth,” said Jim Austin, editor of the online magazine ScienceCareers. “And yet, it seems awfully hard for people to find a job. Anyone who goes into science expecting employers to clamor for their services will be deeply disappointed.”

Part of the reason for this would be familiar to regular readers of this blog: because colleges are trying to cut costs, there simply aren’t that many full-time jobs available in academia. But traditionally science PhDs could still obtain relatively lucrative positions in private industry. That’s not true anymore either. According to the article:

The pharmaceutical industry once was a haven for biologists and chemists who did not go into academia. Well-paying, stable research jobs were plentiful in the Northeast, the San Francisco Bay area and other hubs. But a decade of slash-and-burn mergers; stagnating profit; exporting of jobs to India, China and Europe; and declining investment in research and development have dramatically shrunk the U.S. drug industry, with research positions taking heavy hits.

The job market isn’t nearly as bad as that for humanities PhDs, but it’s not very good either. It’s perhaps time to reconsider how much we want to push this as a policy initiative. Science is important, but it’s not necessarily lucrative, or even stable.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • mcc on July 10, 2012 2:46 PM:

    Almost no one I know who graduated with a science degree in the last, like, ten years has actually gotten a job in their fields. Some of the people I'm thinking of have masters or PHDs and are doing stuff on the order of tech support or menial labor. It seems you can get a job as an engineer, period, and a non-engineering degree basically means having large student loans and no way to pay them off.

  • POed Lib on July 11, 2012 4:51 PM:

    H-1B. H-1B. H-1B. H-1B. L-1. L-1. L-1.

    The answer folks is the onslaught of cheap wetback labor using the H-1B, L-1, F-1, O-1, and so forth. THESE ARE NOT IMMIGRATION VEHICLES. These are TEMPORARY JOB VISAS. But they displace American workers.

    We need jobs for Americans, like my kids. We owe NOTHING to Chinese, Indians, Russians, whatever. We have told OUR CHILDREN for years that they should go into the sciences and now that they have, the H-1B, L-1, J-1, F-1, and other visas are used to flood the fields with unqualified foreign workers who cannot speak English. There are 2-3 advanced STEM workers for every job, and the H-1B visas provide more workers for the few jobs.

    End these programs NOW.

  • ArchTeryx on July 11, 2012 7:10 PM:

    This isn't any surprise to me, having been searching for a full time PhD-level science job for several years, and being told by contacts that one company I applied for had over a thousand "highly qualified" applicants for ONE Scientist I position.

    1000 applicants. One position.

    I tell that to anyone that dares tell me that we need more STEM PhDs. What we need are more STEM PhD *JOBS*, dammit.

  • angler on July 11, 2012 11:30 PM:

    I couldn't agree more with this piece or with Arch Teryx's point. As Dan points out this is the story in the humanities as well, worse even. Of course it's been worse for a long, long time. And for much of that time my colleagues in the lab sciences have acted like it was not their problem and just desserts for those foolish enough not to be them.

    We'll be on your side now, but we could have used you back then. Hopefully the entire academy will wake up to the fact that a Ph.D. makes you a worker, not a manager. Time to have solidarity with your fellow workers.

  • Allison on July 12, 2012 8:00 AM:

    Don't forget that the other employer for scientists is the part of the state and federal government that is not academia (national labs, natural resource protection agencies,DOE, for example) and you know how well that sector is doing.

  • Dylan on July 12, 2012 9:47 AM:

    As a biologist with a PhD, I can tell you that even in academia, a major issue for many scientists is lack of funding. Science can be very cut-throat at the best of times when it comes to grant applications and publications. But now, with the unsteadiness of NIH, NSF, DOE, etc. budgets, even incredible grant proposals are being underfunded and are lasting for shorter time periods (the NIH recently reduced many 5 year grants to 4 years), or are going unfunded all together. I am currently in Boston, a hot bed for biotech start-ups. The issue remains even there, that if a start-up with a great idea cannot even procure the funding necessary to initiate basic-level research, they will not be able to progress in producing a product that would draw independent investors.

  • IT on July 12, 2012 10:48 AM:

    Science is built on a pyramid scheme. it is unsustainable as it is, and we need to reconsider the rules of academic success. Alas, the lack of jobs and collapse of research funding means that many good ideas will never be explored, and increasingly money and jobs will be concentrated in just a few universities. As the academic pipeline for basic research and ideas dries up, pharma will also lose its innovation and we'll see a further collapse there.

    China and Singapore are investing hugely in research, while the US is cutting and cutting. We'll be seeing a dramatic shift in global dominance very soon unless we change our ways.

    I am one of the lucky ones (tenured professor) but my students increasingly don't want my job--they can see the writing on the wall. And in a society that doesn't value science, fewer and fewer will go into this field and the best will go somewhere else. It's a pretty grim forecast.