bypass all navigation science and engineering Indicators Home Page HTML contents page PDF contents page Help Page Comments Page Print format page
Indicators 2002
Introduction Page Overview Page Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Appendix
Chapter Contents:
Profile of the U.S. S&E Workforce
Labor Market Conditions for Recent S&E Degree-Holders
Age and Retirement
Projected Demand for S&E Workers
The Global S&E Workforce and the United States
Conclusion and Summary
Selected Bibliography
Appendix Tables
List of Figures
Presentation Slides

Science and Engineering Workforce

Labor Market Conditions for Recent S&E Degree–Holders

Recipients of Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees
Recipients of Doctoral Degrees

Recipients of Bachelor's and Master's Degrees top of page

Recent recipients of S&E bachelor’s and master’s 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).[13] 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 bachelor’s or master’s 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 graduate’s field of study. Almost one-half of master’s recipients but only one-fifth of bachelor’s recipients were employed in their fields of study in 1999. Among both master’s and bachelor’s 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 bachelor’s and master’s degree- recipients. (See text table 3-10 text table.) In 1999, 63 percent of bachelor’s degree-recipients and 57 percent of master’s degree-recipients found employment in private, for-profit companies. The academic sector is the second largest employer of recent S&E graduates. Master’s degree-recipients were more likely to be employed in four-year colleges and universities (12 percent) than were bachelor’s degree-recipients (8 percent). The Federal sector employed only 5 percent of S&E master’s degree-recipients and 4 percent of S&E bachelor’s 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 bachelor’s and master’s 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 master’s degree-recipients are more likely than S&E bachelor’s degree-recipients to report having a career-path job. Approximately three-fourths of all master’s degree-recipients and three-fifths of all bachelor’s 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 bachelor’s and master’s degree graduates in computer and information sciences and in engineering reported that they had found career-path jobs.


Of recent bachelor’s 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 master’s degree graduates: master’s degree-recipients in computer and information sciences earned the highest median salaries ($58,000), as did those who earned master’s degrees in electrical/electronics, computer, and communications engineering ($60,000).

Recipients of Doctoral Degrees top of page

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 draft.

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 market expectations.

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 1–3 years after receipt of degree). Unemployment fell from 1.5 percent in 1997 to 1.2 percent in 1999. (See text table 3-11 text table.) 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 opposite directions.

Unemployment Rates

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.[14] 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).[15]

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.[16] 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).

Tenure-Track Positions

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 text table.) 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.[17] 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 text table.) 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 bachelor’s recipients. (See text table 3-14 text table.) 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 (22.4 percent).

Postdoctorate Appointments

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 have held.[18] 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.[19] 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 other fields.

Data from 1999 show a small decline from 1995 in the percentage of recent S&E Ph.D. recipients entering postdoctorate positions—from 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 text table.) Most respondents gave reasons consistent with the defined training and apprenticeship functions of postdoctorate appointments—e.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 their fields.

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 text table)—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 text table.) 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 text table. 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 bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. graduates (defined here as one to five years since receipt of degree) are shown in text table 3-19 text table. For all S&E fields, median salaries for recent Ph.D. recipients rose 4.7 percent from 1997 to 1999; for bachelor’s and master’s 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).


[13]  Data for this section are taken from the 1999 National Survey of Recent College Graduates. This survey collected information on the 1999 workforce status of 1997 and 1998 bachelor’s and master’s degree recipients in S&E fields. Surveys of recent S&E graduates have been conducted biennially for NSF since 1978. For information on standard errors associated with survey data, see NSF (forthcoming b).

[14] People are said to be unemployed if they were not employed during the week of April 15, 1999, and had either looked for work during the preceding four weeks or were laid off from a job.

[15] An unemployment rate of 0.0 does not mean that "zero" people in that field were unemployed; it means that the estimated rate from NSF’s sample survey was less than 0.05 percent.

[16] Individuals were considered IOF if they said their jobs were not related to their degree because no jobs in their field were available or if they were part-time because a full-time job was not available. The IOF rate is a percentage calculated by dividing the number of such individuals by the total number in that segment of the labor force.

[17]  See Computing Research Association (1997).

[18] It is clear, however, that the exact use of the term "postdoctorate" differs among academic disciplines, universities, and sectors that employ postdoctorates. These differences in usage have probably affected the self-reporting of postdoctorate status in the Survey of Doctorate Recipients.

[19]  This was measured cross-sectionally by looking at the percentage of those in each graduation cohort who reported ever being in a postdoc position.

Previous Section Top of Section Next Section
home  |  help  |  comments
introduction  |  overview  |  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  appendix tables