The news about Ph.D. jobs is all doom and gloom these days, with troubling statistics about Ph.D.s who just can’t find a job anywhere. But it’s not as bad as you might think. We’re not saying everything is fine, but, if only for a moment, let’s take a look at the bright side of things. Many Ph.D.s enjoy a lower unemployment rate than the national average, there’s still growth in professorships, and there’s a job for practically everyone, even if it’s not a tenured research position.
We realize this doesn’t sound comforting at first, but bear with us. The glut of Ph.D. graduates is nothing new. In fact, there’s been a surplus of Ph.D.s for more than 40 years. As experts point out, this is normal and to be expected under the current government-funded system of research. No need to panic now; grads have been making it work for nearly two generations.
Contrary to popular belief, the job market for Ph.D. graduates in tenure track positions is not at an all-out standstill. It’s still growing, with 16,000 new professorships created between 2005 and 2009. The problem is, in that same period of time, 100,000 new Ph.D.s graduated to compete for those 16,000 new professorships. Still, even though the odds are not great, there are jobs out there for the lucky few to snatch up.
100,000 new grads competing for 16,000 jobs sounds daunting, but that’s only if we’re assuming that all 100,000 of those Ph.D.s actually want to compete for those jobs. It turns out, they don’t. Only about 50,000 of them do. A 2012 study surveyed biology, chemistry, and physics Ph.D. students, asking them to rate a range of careers. In this survey, only about 50% gave the highest rating to an academic research career. Other areas of high interest include research jobs in the private sector and working for startups.
Although the job market is not great, the payoff for science Ph.D.s is there for those who find a position. Ph.D.s will earn 26% more than those who do not have the same level of degree. It is worth noting, however, that a master’s degree is associated with a 23% increase, nearly just as much.
The current overall unemployment rate is 7.9% of the job force. Compare that to just 4.6% of chemists who are unemployed. And that 4.6% is the highest it’s been for chemists in 40 years. Although some may have trouble finding positions, it’s certainly not terrible out there for everyone, and it’s better to have a chemistry Ph.D. than join the ranks of the 7.8% unemployed.
According to NIH, only 2% of U.S. trained biomedical Ph.D. graduates from 2008 are unemployed. That’s incredible. Instead of the unemployment predicted for Ph.D.s of their kind, these graduates have gone on to do academic research or teaching, industrial research, and science-related non-research, among other things. Thirty percent of them even skipped doing a postdoc and still got a job.
Sure, unemployment stats can be misleading. Everyone knows that these chemists are counted as “employed” whether they’re working for a research university or Starbucks. Even if chemists are not finding jobs in their area of choice, they’re putting their knowledge and degrees to good use in paid work. Some science Ph.D.s have been hired as journalists and even investment bankers.
The NIH studied the career paths of U.S.-trained biomedical Ph.D.s, discovering that only 23% end up in tenured or tenure-track positions. Not surprising. But about the same amount are still in research of some kind, with 18% researching in industry, and 6% in government. For those who are not working in research, they are still often part of the scientific enterprise, working in industry, government, and other settings that require graduate training in biomedical science.
Recognizing that many students will not go on to take on research jobs, schools have begun to mull over the idea that perhaps, they shouldn’t have to spend years upon years on research. If they’re not going to spend their careers in research, why have them go through all of that work? That’s why some schools are considering an alternative Ph.D. path that divides scholars from teachers, offering different versions of the doctorate. Instead of a research doctorate, students would have the option to take on a professional doctorate for teaching jobs and many of the other positions popular with Ph.D.s outside of the scope of academia and research.
Physicians are typically acknowledged as having one of the safest jobs in the world. There’s always room for more doctors, right? It’s true, and 82% of doctors will go on to practice non-research patient care. But 2.3% of them will be unemployed. A low figure for sure, but one that’s edged out by that of biomedical Ph.D.s, who enjoy a similarly low (but slightly better) unemployment rate of just 2%.