WaPo: Not enough jobs for science PhDs

Tomorrow's frontpage of The Washington Post will run an article by Brian Vastag (Twitter, WaPo bio) on the employment challenges facing science PhDs. The difficulties are no secret to our readers - whether you are a freshly-minted PhD or a 50-something subjected to downsizing - but I believe that this is the highest profile treatment of the subject in the US print media. The article even cites the closure of the Roche campus in Nutley that we discussed two weeks ago and, below, employment numbers from the annual ACS survey.
“Scads and scads and scads of people” have been cut free, [former Sanofi-Aventis scientist Kim] Haas said. “Very good chemists with PhDs from Stanford can’t find jobs.” Largely because of drug industry cuts, the unemployment rate among chemists now stands at its highest mark in 40 years, at 4.6 percent, according to the American Chemical Society, which has 164,000 members. For young chemists, the picture is much worse. Just 38 percent of new PhD chemists were employed in 2011, according to a recent ACS survey. Although the overall unemployment rate of chemists and other scientists is much lower than the national average, those figures mask an open secret: Many scientists work outside their chosen field.
What amazes me are the number of comments already. I already followed Vastag on Twitter and when he tweeted about the article at 4:44 this afternoon, it had 22 comments. Right now, at 9:50 on Saturday night, the article has accumulated 504 comments. Some of these are nonsensical or non-sequiturs but the bulk are robust and on-topic. I can imagine that the sober assessment of PhD training vs. job market demands will be discussed far and wide on Sunday and in the coming week. One thing missing from the article was a discussion of the so-called alternative career paths where one uses PhD training but not in an academic or industrial setting. Even a typical non-lab career of science writing is becoming extremely competitive, both for salaried positions and freelancers. I hesitate to say this without complete data but we may indeed be reaching a point where more PhDs are being produced than can be absorbed by both academia/industry and non-laboratory positions. Source: Vastag, Brian. U.S. pushes for more scientists but the jobs aren't there. The Washington Post. 8 July 2012.

Author: David Kroll

Share This Post On


  1. This has been the case for many years. I moved from organic chemistry to computer science in the early ’80s rather than go to grad school. I would have loved to stay in chemistry, but jobs were rare and the pay not so good for PhD chemists. Everything on my list of pros and cons for grad school were in the cons side of the ledger.

    It turns out that I made a very good decision. It seems that grad students provide inexpensive labor to universities. The unis have no reason to change that and every reason to keep it the same. For grad students, it might be a good idea to have a plan B.

    Frankly, the same ideas addressed by the WaPo article could be said of the BS and MS levels in science as well. There are probably more jobs, but there are many more people.

  2. NSF, NIH, etc need to move away from creating more grad students and post-docs, and towards creating more full-time jobs with benefits. This could take the form of full-time university research staff or expanded national labs, for example.

    It should be self-evident that we shouldn’t be creating more scientists than the job market is mopping up. If we are creating too many, we need to shift our resources towards hiring the ones we created rather than creating more.

  3. After reading articules in C&E back in 1996 about time to get out of chemistry, that is what I did after 15+ years doing hard core analytical(GC, GC/MS, LC/MS/MS, LC etc..) to support R&D and moved into network engineering with retraining rather than go back to graduate school. I am now a Global Director of IT, making way more money, but not as happy as I was back doing Analytical. I moved on because I could not survived in Chemistry living in NJ.

  4. October 4 marks the 55th anniversary of the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union, one of the root causes of the current job crisis in the sciences. The US was frightened and reacted by passing the National Defense Education Act in 1958 to increase the number of scientists to catch up with and surpass the USSR. This came right at the time when Baby Boomers were approaching college age. Colleges and universities went on a building spree in the late 1950s and early 1960s to accommodate these new students.
    Then, after reaching the Moon before the Soviets, America lost interest in space and Federal spending for education (and for everything else except defense) decreased. Private industry lost its drive (or out-sourced it.) So there are fewer jobs for today’s graduates.
    Eventually people currently employed will retire and demand for scientists will increase.

    • I don’t agree with the end conclusion. As the boomers retire, more US universities are building campuses overseas right now to allow the already present phd’s (trained in US, then moved back home) to teach in them to train the next generation of scientists. This keeps the jobs from comming back for good.

  5. If ever an issue deserved more real data it is this one. I’ve been through enough of these cycles to be real skeptical as to whether things are really different than before.

    We are going through, by my count, our third scientific labor “crisis” since the early 80’s.

    What differs today is that there appears to be an ongoing tectonic shift in pharm R&D, and then of course there is the Great Recession, and finally the tea party’s anti-public investment hysterics.

    So this current “crisis” may reflect a more perfect storm of lost opportunity due to a wider economic malaise and political ill-will than in prior cycles.

    It wasn’t all that long ago that a newly minted biomedical PhD going to a “non-traditional” track could earn 3 to 4 times what a postdoc position would pay, and so it was very difficult to keep newly minted science PhD’s in basic research.

    • @me:

      I’m not aware of *any* time in recent history when a newly minted biomedical PhD had many opportunities that lucrative, in traditional or non-traditional fields, except perhaps at the peak of the biotech bubble in the ’90s. Are you saying that, say, 5 years ago a fresh PhD could make 65-85K in a non-traditional track? I’m very skeptical.


  1. When policy collides with reality – not a shortage of scientists but a shortage of jobs | Coldstreams.com by Edward Mitchell - [...] WaPo: Not enough jobs for science PhDs(cenblog.org) [...]
  2. The STEM PhD Glut Makes the Mainstream Media | Mike the Mad Biologist - [...] Unlike those in the system–especially those who have succeeded within the current system–any objective observer of the post-doc system…
  3. “What are you going to do after you get your PhD?” « Amasian Science - [...] Others might take different routes into science writing and communication. But as David Kroll points out, “Even a typical…