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From the archives—a surplus of PhDs

Okay, a couple of topics to cover today, and they are related.

First, if you haven’t done so already, you should check out The Watch Glass, a Tumblr which contains excerpts from the C&EN Archives. This endeavor is curated by recent JAEP guest poster, Deirdre Lockwood. Although The Watch Glass is only a couple of weeks old, there have already been some very interesting nostalgic snapshots of chemists and chemistry from the past.

This inspired me to have my own peek at the archives and see what interesting things I might find. It didn’t take long. I’d like to highlight one discovery in particular, a small article entitled “Ph.D. outlook: too many for too few jobs.” Hmmm, doesn’t that sound familiar?

Yes, but here’s the kicker. The publication date of this article: August 13, 1979.

“What? 1979? Surely there must be some mistake! That’s a current topic!” I hear you scream. That, or it’s just the voices. You know, the shrill ones in my head.

Okay, the C&EN archives are by subscription only. That is a bit problematic, because not all readers of this blog have access, whether they’re ACS members or not. I had to wait for the library to email a pdf from scanned microfiche (ask your parents or advisor). Fortunately, the article is short, and the abstract, which is viewable to all, contains roughly half the content, from which you can get the gist. It begins:

The fourth in a series of employment reports from the National Science Foundation has been issued. The report concludes that the number of science and engineering Ph.D.’s in the labor force will increase nearly 50% by 1987.

Well, that’s quite a large increase. That’s good, though, right? The result of a productive American education system. U-S-A! U-S-A!!

The only hitch is that the number of traditional employment positions available to these Ph.D.’s will increase only 35% over the same period.

Wait, that number’s smaller. Thank you, Señor Buzzkill. (Wait, was the  word buzzkill even used back then? Never mind.)

Thus, the trend of scientists and engineers with Ph.D.’s to work outside their fields appears to be increasing. In 1977, for example, only 25,000 or about 9% of the doctoral labor force held nontraditional jobs. By 1987, about 17% or 70,000 of the Ph.D.’s will be otherwise employed.

CEN 1979 snip

There’s that word—nontraditional. Although, back in 1979, a nontraditional science career seemed to mean anything outside of academia.  The article goes on to forecast more nontraditionalism to come:

Moreover, NSF’s projections for science and engineering doctoral degree holders who receive their degrees between now and 1987 indicate that even a larger number of these will find jobs in areas unrelated to their training. By 1987 it could be as high as 25%, NSF believes.

And that’s where the abstract ends. Here’s a table from the article (it’s okay to share that, right?), which gives some additional numbers.

This all struck me as very similar to what we’re seeing now. The much-debated glut of PhDs was recently verified by the ACS Presidential Commission report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences.”  So is what we’re seeing now really so new? The precise circumstances contributing to this are different, certainly, but the effect is the same, and has been recently likened to a pyramid scheme.

Also, the summer of 1979, when this article was published, was in between my freshman and sophomore years as an undergrad.  If I had read this story back then, would this information have dissuaded me from pursuing a chemistry career? I doubt it very much. It may have not even have concerned me. My ignorance did pay out in bliss later, with the industrial hiring boom that existed by the time I finished grad school. Unfortunately, that scenario is not seen to be a likely outcome by the end of this decade. I don’t recommend burying one’s head in the sand as I seem to have done back then, regardless of the favorable outcome I enjoyed.

But even if the economic circumstances and outlook which existed back then were exact copies of those existing today, I imagine I would have kept going along a similar path.

Would that have been so wrong?


  • Jan 25th 201313:01
    by Carmen Drahl

    I think I would’ve shared your presumed attitude of invincibility as a young chemist-in-training, Glen. Not sure how you change that.

    Oh, and I’ve used microfiche. I think my college still has the machines. Maybe that’s a small comfort.

  • Jan 25th 201315:01
    by ackers

    can we get a quantitative comparison of current status to the ’79 numbers both total phd labor-force and % non-traditional?

  • Jan 25th 201318:01
    by Christine Herman

    Neat finding, Glen! I think most people who choose a field, even if they know job prospects are poor, tell themselves they won’t be among the unfortunate ones who wind up not being able to get a job.

    Also, it’s interesting how the definition of “nontraditional” has changed. It makes me wonder if it would be more appropriate to refer to academic jobs as nontraditional since they are so rare!

    Regarding the graphic – I wonder how good those predictions made in 1979 were…

  • Jan 28th 201307:01
    by Gaythia Weis

    Sigh. Some of us are not only acquainted with microfiche, but also the year 1979. I received my MS Analytical Chemistry degree in 1981, and found employment in semiconductor manufacturing. Auger Electron microscopy was outside my intended area of geochemistry, but there was a tie-in to some scanning electron work I had done on in a previous summer internship. And although most of my work, in industrial quality assurance, was standard analytical laboratory stuff, this was definitely considered “outside the field” at the time. And have chemistry departments really gotten over the idea that their grad students ought to be headed to academic careers just like themselves? And as to the remark above as to industrial opportunities one decade out? My prediction is that we will define what we mean by industrial, but more will be done locally, and on a much smaller and more customized scale.

    The solution? The crystal ball installed in the offices of most academic chemistry departments is an inadequate source of possible career prediction information. Be flexible, and not blind. Try to take advantage of interdisciplinary opportunities. Some of my job interviews hinged on the oddest shreds of common ground. View and nurture your own skill set in as broad a frame as possible.

  • Jan 28th 201309:01
    by Glen Ernst

    Carmen – You’re right. It’s tough to counter how invincible you feel when you’re just starting out. That’s probably a good thing.
    The microfiche comment arose from a conversation in our group. Microfiche was mentioned, and a post-bac working with us (before he enters med school in a couple of years) said, “Microfiche? What’s that? Is it like a pdf?” The rest of immediately felt much older.

    Christine – The subjectivity in the term nontraditional is very interesting. I’ve had the impression that it’s still used to describe non-academic careers—even today. As far as the numbers, I intend to look at both NSF and BLS statistics to see if those predictions came to fruition. The fuzziness in the definition of nontraditional may make this a tough task.

    Gaythia – You make some great points. I agree that academic institutions and advisors need to do a better job of making undergrads and grad students more aware of what awaits them and their options. But you’re right, some responsibility lies with the student to look out for themselves and be flexible regarding opportunities. It’s often said that much innovation occurs at the boundaries of disciplines.

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