Recipients of Bachelors and Masters Degrees
Recipients of Doctoral Degrees
Recipients of Bachelor's and Master's Degrees
Recent recipients of S&E bachelors and masters
degrees form a key component of the U.S. S&E workforce: they
account for almost one-half of the annual inflow to the S&E
labor market (NSF 1990). Recent graduates career choices
and entry into the labor market affect the supply and demand for
scientists and engineers in the United States. This section offers
insight into the labor market conditions for recent S&E graduates
in the United States. Topics examined include graduate school enrollment
rates, employment by level and field of degree, employment sectors,
and median annual salaries.
Employment Versus Graduate School
In 1999, approximately one-fifth of 1997 and 1998 graduates who
earned bachelors or masters degrees were enrolled full
time in graduate school. Students who had majored in physical and
life sciences were more likely to be full-time graduate school students
than were graduates with degrees in computer and information sciences
and engineering. (See appendix table 3-45.)
Employment Related to Level and Field of Degree
Success in the job market varies significantly by level and field
of degree. One measure of success is the likelihood of finding employment
directly related to a graduates field of study. Almost one-half
of masters recipients but only one-fifth of bachelors
recipients were employed in their fields of study in 1999. Among
both masters and bachelors recipients, students who
had received their degrees in either engineering or computer sciences
were more likely to be working in their fields of study than degree
recipients in other S&E fields, whereas students in social sciences
were less likely than their counterparts in other S&E fields
to have jobs directly related to their degrees.
Sector of Employment
The private, for-profit sector is the largest employer of recent
S&E bachelors and masters degree- recipients. (See text table 3-10 .) In 1999, 63 percent of bachelors degree-recipients
and 57 percent of masters degree-recipients found employment
in private, for-profit companies. The academic sector is the second
largest employer of recent S&E graduates. Masters degree-recipients
were more likely to be employed in four-year colleges and universities
(12 percent) than were bachelors degree-recipients (8 percent).
The Federal sector employed only 5 percent of S&E masters
degree-recipients and 4 percent of S&E bachelors degree-recipients
in 1999. Engineering graduates are more likely than science graduates
to find employment in the Federal sector. Other sectors employing
small numbers of recent S&E graduates include educational institutions
other than four-year colleges and universities, nonprofit organizations,
and state and local government agencies. Very small percentages
of engineering bachelors and masters recipients were
self-employed (1 and 2 percent, respectively).
Employment and Career Paths
Career-path jobs are those that will help graduates fulfill their
future career plans. As one might expect, S&E masters
degree-recipients are more likely than S&E bachelors degree-recipients
to report having a career-path job. Approximately three-fourths
of all masters degree-recipients and three-fifths of all bachelors
degree- recipients found a career-path job in 1999. Graduates with
degrees in computer and information sciences or in engineering are
more likely to find career-path jobs than graduates with degrees
in other fields; about four-fifths of bachelors and masters
degree graduates in computer and information sciences and in engineering
reported that they had found career-path jobs.
Of recent bachelors degree-recipients in sciences, in 1999,
those with degrees in computer and information sciences earned the
highest median annual salaries ($44,000); for graduates with degrees
in engineering, those with degrees in electrical/electronics, computer,
and communications engineering earned the highest salaries ($46,000).
The same pattern was true for masters degree graduates: masters
degree-recipients in computer and information sciences earned the
highest median salaries ($58,000), as did those who earned masters
degrees in electrical/electronics, computer, and communications
Recipients of Doctoral Degrees
Analyses of labor market conditions for Ph.D.-holding scientists
and engineers often focus on the ease or difficulty of beginning
careers for new Ph.D. recipients. Several recent developments have
contributed to these concerns, including demographic changes (which
have slowed the growth of undergraduate enrollment), reductions
in defense and research funding, growth in the importance of Ph.D.
programs at foreign schools, and rates of Ph.D. production that
approach or exceed the high levels realized at the end of the Vietnam
Since the 1950s, the Federal Government has actively encouraged
graduate training in S&E through numerous mechanisms. However,
widespread unemployment or involuntary departure from S&E by
many new Ph.D.-holding scientists and engineers could adversely
affect the quality of scientific research in the United States.
If labor market difficulties are real but temporary, promising students
may be discouraged from pursuing degrees in S&E fields. To the
extent that doctoral-level training provides higher level skills,
this circumstance could eventually reduce the ability of industry,
academia, and government to perform R&D. If labor market difficulties
are long term, graduate education may need to be restructured to
both maintain quality research and better prepare students for their
real career options. In either case, when much high-level human
capital goes unused, society loses potential opportunities for new
knowledge and economic advancement, and individuals become frustrated
with their careers. Of course, that some highly skilled individuals
become either unemployed or employed IOF because they are unable
to secure desired employment may reflect their unrealistic labor
Most individuals who complete an S&E doctorate are looking
for more than steady employment at a good salary. Their technical
and problem-solving skills make them highly employable, but opportunity
to do the type of work they want and for which they have been trained
is important to them. For that reason, no single measure can satisfactorily
describe the S&E labor market. Some of the available labor market
indicators, such as unemployment rates, out-of-field and in-field
employment, satisfaction with field of study, employment in academia,
postdoctorate appointments, and salaries, are discussed below.
Aggregate measures of labor market conditions changed only slightly
for recent doctoral degree-recipients in S&E (defined here as
13 years after receipt of degree). Unemployment fell from
1.5 percent in 1997 to 1.2 percent in 1999. (See text table 3-11 .)
Likewise, the portion of recent Ph.D. recipients reporting that
they were either working outside their fields because jobs in their
fields were not available or involuntarily working part time decreased
slightly from 4.5 to 4.2 percent. These aggregate numbers mask numerous
changes, both positive and negative, in many individual disciplines.
In addition, IOF and unemployment rates in many fields moved in
Even for relatively good labor market conditions in the general economy, the 1.2 percent unemployment rate for recent S&E Ph.D. recipients is very low; the April 1999 unemployment rate for all civilian workers was 4.4 percent. In 1997, recent graduates in several Ph.D. disciplines had unemployment rates above 3 percent, which was still low but unusually high for a highly skilled group. Between 1997 and 1999, unemployment rates fell for recent Ph.D. recipients in most disciplines; the largest decrease was in chemistry, in which the unemployment rate fell from 3.5 to 0.5 percent. Unemployment rates of less than 1 percent were found in civil engineering (0.0 percent), mechanical engineering (0.3 percent), electrical engineering (0.76 percent), mathematics (0.7 percent), computer sciences (0.9 percent), physics and astronomy (0.0 percent), and economics (0.5 percent).
Involuntarily Working Outside Field
Another 4.2 percent of recent S&E Ph.D. recipients in the labor force reported that they could not find (if they were seeking) full-time employment that was "closely related" or "somewhat related" to their degrees. Although this measure is more subjective than the unemployment rate, the IOF rate often proves to be a more sensitive indicator of labor market difficulties for a highly educated and employable population. However, this tool is best used along with the unemployment rate as measures of two different forms of labor market distress.
The highest IOF rates were found for recent Ph.D. graduates in sociology and anthropology (11.8 percent) and political science (11.6 percent). These two fields also had unemployment rates that were among the highest. The lowest IOF rates were found in computer sciences (1.8 percent) and civil engineering (0.0 percent).
Most S&E recipients do not ultimately work in academia, and in most S&E fields, this has been true for several decades. See chapter 10, "The Academic Doctoral S&E Workforce." In 1999, for S&E Ph.D.-holders four to six years since receipt of degree, 22.2 percent were in tenure-track or tenured positions at four-year institutions of higher education. (See text table 3-12 .) Across fields, tenure-program academic employment for those four to six years since receipt of Ph.D. ranged from 6.5 percent in chemical engineering to 50.7 percent in political science. For Ph.D.-holders one to three years since receipt of degree, only 13.7 percent were in
tenure programs, but this rate reflects the increasing use
of postdoctoral appointments (or postdocs) by recent Ph.D.-holders in many fields.
Although academia must be considered just one possible sector of employment
for S&E Ph.D.-holders, the availability of tenure-track positions
is an important aspect of the job market for those who seek academic
careers. The fall in rate of tenure-program employment for those
four to six years since receipt of Ph.D. from 26.6 percent in 1993
to 22.2 percent in 1999 reflects both job opportunities in academia
and alternative opportunities for employment. For example, one of
the largest declines in tenure-program employment occurred in computer
sciences (from 51.5 percent in 1993 to 31.6 percent in 1999), in
which other measures of labor market distress are low, and computer
science departments report difficulties recruiting faculty.
The attractiveness of other employment may also explain drops in
tenure-program rates for several engineering disciplines. However,
it is less likely to explain the smaller but steady drops in tenure-program
employment rates in fields showing other measures of distress, such
as physics and mathematics (both of which have large IOF rates)
and biological sciences (which have low unemployment and IOF rates
but show other indications of labor market distress). Between 1993
and 1999, small increases in tenure-program rates for Ph.D. recipients
four to six years since receipt of degree were found in chemistry,
geosciences, psychology, and sociology and anthropology.
Relation of Occupation to Field of Degree
By strict definition of occupational titles, 17 percent of employed
recent Ph.D. recipients were in occupations outside S&E, often
performing administrative or management functions. When asked how
related their jobs were to their highest degrees achieved, only
a small portion of recent Ph.D. recipients employed in non-S&E
occupations said that their jobs were unrelated to their degrees.
(See text table 3-13 .) By field, the percentages ranged from 1.5
percent for recent Ph.D. graduates in psychology to 14.2 percent
for recent Ph.D. graduates in physics and astronomy.
Satisfaction With Field of Study
One indicator of the quality of employment available to recent graduates
is simply their answers to this question: "If you had the chance
to do it over again, how likely is it that you would choose the
same field of study for your highest degree?" When asked of
those who received S&E degrees one to five years after their
previous degrees, 16.6 percent of Ph.D. recipients said they were
"not at all likely" compared with 20.2 percent of bachelors
recipients. (See text table 3-14 .) This regret of field choice is lowest for recent Ph.D. recipients
in computer sciences (6.8 percent), electrical engineering (9.8
percent), and social sciences (12.5 percent). The regret is greatest
in physics (24.4 percent), chemistry (23.9 percent), and mathematics
A postdoctorate appointment (or postdoc) is defined here as a temporary
position awarded in academia, industry, or government for the primary
purpose of receiving additional research training. This definition
has been used in the Survey of Doctorate Recipients when asking
respondents about current and past postdoctorate positions they
Data on postdoctorates are often analyzed in relation to recent
Ph.D. labor market issues. Besides wanting to receive more training
in research, recent Ph.D. recipients may accept temporary and usually
lower paying postdoctorate positions because permanent jobs in their
fields are not available.
Science and Engineering Indicators 1998 included an analysis of
a one-time postdoctorate module from the 1995 Survey of Doctorate
Recipients that showed a slow increase in the use of postdocs in
many disciplines over time.
Additionally, in physics and biological sciences (fields with the most use of postdocs), median time spent
in postdocs extended well beyond the one to two years found in most
Data from 1999 show a small decline from 1995 in the percentage
of recent S&E Ph.D. recipients entering postdoctorate positionsfrom
32.7 percent of 1994 graduates in 1995 to 31.5 percent of 1998 graduates
in 1999. However, in the biological sciences, which account for
about two-thirds of all postdocs, the postdoc rate one year after
receipt of degree increased slightly from 59.6 to 61.2 percent.
At the same time, physics, the other traditionally large postdoc
field, experienced a decline in the incidence of postdocs one year
after receipt of degree from 57.1 percent in 1995 to 47.0 percent
in 1999. In fields other than physics or biological sciences, the
postdoctorate rate one year after receipt of degree continued a
slow decline from 21.2 percent in 1995 and 19.9 percent in 1997
to 18.9 percent in 1999.
Reasons for Taking a Postdoc
Postdocs in 1999 were asked to state their reasons for taking their
current postdoctorate appointments; for all fields of degree, 32.1
percent gave "other employment not available" as their
primary reason. (See text table 3-15 .) Most respondents gave reasons
consistent with the defined training and apprenticeship functions
of postdoctorate appointmentse.g., 20.2 percent said that
postdocs were generally expected for careers in their fields, 17.6
percent said they were seeking additional training in their fields,
and 11.1 percent said they were seeking additional training outside
What Were 1997 Postdocs Doing in 1999?
Of those in postdoctorate positions in April 1997, 33.8 percent remained in
a postdoctorate position in April 1999 (See text table 3-16 )a small
reduction from the 38.0 percent of 1995 postdocs who were still
postdocs in 1997 (Science and Engineering Indicators 2000).
Only 15.1 percent transitioned from a postdoctorate to a tenure-track
position at a four-year educational institution (down from 16.5
percent in 1997); 16.1 percent found other employment at an educational institution; 25.0 percent were at a for-profit firm; 6.0 percent were employed at a nonprofit institution or by government; and 1.4 percent were unemployed.
No information is available on the career intentions of those in postdoctorate positions, but it is often assumed that a postdoc is valued most by academic departments at research universities. However, more postdocs in each field accept employment with for-profit firms than obtain tenure-track positions, and many tenure-track positions are at schools where a research record is not of central importance.
Salaries for Recent S&E Ph.D. Recipients
For all fields of degree, the median salary for recent S&E Ph.D. recipients in 1999 was $49,000, a change of 13.5 percent from 1997. By field, salaries ranged from a low of $34,000 in biological sciences to a high of $75,000 in electrical engineering. (See text table 3-17 .) For all Ph.D. recipients, those in the top 10 percent of salary distribution (90th percentile) earned $80,000. The 90th percentile salaries varied by fields, from a low of $60,000 for those in sociology and anthropology to a high of $101,000 for those in computer sciences. At the 10th percentile, representing the lowest pay for each field, salaries ranged from $24,000 for those in biology to $51,000 for those in electrical engineering.
Salaries for recent S&E Ph.D. recipients by sector of employment are provided in text table 3-18 . In 1999, the median salary for a postdoc one to three years since receipt of degree was $30,000, less than one-half the median salary for a recent Ph.D. recipient working for a private company ($68,000). Many of the salary differentials between S&E fields are narrower when examined within employment sector. For those in tenure-track positions, median salaries ranged from $38,000 for chemistry to $61,000 for chemical engineering. At private, for-profit companies, median salaries ranged from $54,000 for sociology and anthropology to $82,000 for computer sciences.
Changes in median salaries for recent bachelors, masters, and Ph.D. graduates (defined here as one to five years since receipt of degree) are shown in text table 3-19 . For all S&E fields, median salaries for recent Ph.D. recipients rose 4.7 percent from 1997 to 1999; for bachelors and masters degree graduates, median salaries rose 0.0 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively. Several individual disciplines reflected larger increases for Ph.D. recipients, including double-digit increases in physics (10.4 percent), mathematics (12.5 percent), computer sciences (12.0 percent), and economics (10.3 percent). A decline in median salaries occurred in biology (-3.7 percent).