Chapter 3: Science and Engineering Labor Force

Labor Market Conditions for Recent S&E Graduates

The labor market activities of recent S&E graduates often serve as the most sensitive indicators of changes in the S&E labor market. This section looks at a number of standard labor market indicators for bachelor's and master's degree recipients, and also examines a number of other indicators that may apply only to recent S&E doctorate recipients.

In general, NSF's data on recent graduates in 2003 reflects the economic downturn that started in 2001 and its unusually large effect on R&D expenditure, state government budgets, and universities, all areas of importance for scientists and engineers.

Bachelor's and Master's Degree Recipients

Recent recipients of S&E bachelor's and master's degrees form an important component of the U.S. S&E workforce, accounting for almost half of the annual inflow into S&E occupations. Recent graduates' career choices and entry into the labor market affect the supply and demand for scientists and engineers throughout the United States. This section offers insight into 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 Sectors

The private for-profit sector employs the majority of recent S&E bachelor's and master's degree recipients (table 3-9 table.). In 2003, 57% of recent (1–5 years after degree) bachelor's degree recipients and 49% of recent master's degree recipients found employment with private for-profit companies. Government was the second most important employer—employing 12% of both recent S&E bachelor's degree and recent S&E master's degree graduates.

Employment and Career Paths

Although it is a very subjective measure, one indicator of labor market conditions is whether recent graduates feel that they are in "career-path" jobs. Most recently in 1999, the National Survey of Recent College Graduates asked new S&E bachelor's and master's degree recipients whether they had obtained employment in a career track job within 3 months of graduation.

As one might expect, more S&E master's degree holders reported having a career-path job compared with S&E bachelor's degree holders. Approximately two-thirds of all S&E master's degree recipients and one-half of all S&E bachelor's degree recipients held a career-path job in 1999 (see figure 3-29 figure.). Graduates with degrees in computer and information sciences or in engineering were more likely to hold career-path jobs compared with graduates with degrees in other fields: about three-quarters of recent bachelor's and master's degree graduates in engineering or computer and mathematical sciences reported that they held career-path jobs.


In 1999, recent (1–3 years since degree) bachelor's degree recipients with degrees in computer and information sciences earned the highest median annual salaries ($44,000) among all recent science graduates. For recent graduates with degrees in engineering, individuals receiving degrees in electrical/electronics, computer, and communications engineering earned the highest median annual salaries ($46,000). The same pattern held true for recent master's degree recipients: individuals receiving degrees in computer and information sciences earned the highest median annual salaries ($58,000) among science graduates. Among engineering graduates, individuals who received master's degrees in electrical/electronics, computer, and communications engineering earned the highest median annual salaries ($60,000).

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Doctoral Degree Recipients

Analyses of labor market conditions for scientists and engineers holding doctorate degrees often focus on the ease or difficulty of beginning careers for recent doctoral degree recipients. Although a doctorate degree creates more career opportunities both in terms of salary and type of employment, these opportunities come at the price of many years of foregone labor market earnings. Many doctorate degree holders also face an additional period of low earnings while completing a postdoc. In addition, some doctorate degree holders may not find themselves in the type of employment they desired while in graduate school.

Since the 1950s, the federal government has actively encouraged graduate training in S&E through numerous mechanisms. Doctorate programs have served multiple facets of the national interest by providing a supply of more highly trained and motivated graduate students to aid university-based research. These programs have provided individuals with detailed, highly specialized training in particular areas of research, and paradoxically, through that same specialized training, generated a general ability to perform self-initiated research in more diverse areas.

The career aspirations of highly skilled individuals in general, and doctorate degree holders in particular, often cannot be measured by just salary and employment. Their technical and problem-solving skills make them highly employable, but they often attach great importance to the opportunity to do a type of work they care about and for which they have been trained. For that reason, no single measure can satisfactorily describe the doctoral S&E labor market. Some of the available labor market indicators, such as unemployment rates, working involuntarily out of the field (IOF) outside of their field, satisfaction with field of study, employment in academia versus other sectors, postdocs, and salaries, are discussed below.

As between 1999 and 2001 (see NSB 2004), aggregate measures of labor market conditions changed only moderately between 2001 and 2003 for recent (1–3 years after receipt of degree) S&E doctoral degree recipients. The most notable increase in a measure of labor market distress was unemployment rates: across all fields unemployment for recent S&E doctoral degree holders increased from 1.3% to 2.1% (table 3-11 table.). However, a smaller proportion of recent doctoral degree recipients reported working IOF because jobs were not available, decreasing from 3.4% to 1.9%. However, these aggregate numbers mask numerous changes, both positive and negative, in many individual disciplines.


The 2.1% unemployment rate for recent S&E doctoral degree recipients as of October 2003 was low, compared with the April 2003 unemployment rate for all civilian workers of 6.0%. The highest unemployment rates were for recent doctoral degree recipients in sociology and anthropology (7.7%), mechanical engineering (6.7%), and mathematics (4.0%).

Involuntarily Working Outside Field

Another 1.9% of recent S&E doctoral degree recipients in the labor force reported in 2003 that they could not find (if they were seeking) full-time employment that was "closely related" or "somewhat related" to their degrees, which was a decline from 3.4% in 2001. 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, it is best to use both the IOF rate along with unemployment rates and other measures as different indicators of labor market success or distress.

The highest IOF rates were found for recent doctoral degree recipients in political science (8.7%) and in physics and astronomy (6.8%). The lowest IOF rates were found in electrical engineering (0.0%), geosciences (0.0%), and the biological sciences (0.7%).

Tenure-Track Positions

Most S&E doctorate degree holders ultimately do not work in academia and this has been true in most S&E fields for several decades (see chapter 5). In 2003, among S&E doctorate degree holders who received their degree 4–6 years previously, 19.8% were in tenure-track or tenured positions at 4-year institutions of higher education, essentially the same as the 19.2% in 2001 (table 3-12 table.). Across fields, rates of tenure program academic employment for individuals who had received their degree 4–6 years previously ranged from 8.4% in chemical engineering to 50.4% in political science. In contrast, among doctorate degree holders who received their degree 1–3 years previously, only 9% were in tenure programs, a drop from 16.2% in 2001. In part this may reflect diminished employment opportunities at the time of graduation for recent doctorate degree recipients. This rate also reflects the continuing employment as post-docs of recent doctoral degree recipients in many fields.

The longer-term trend (1993–2003) for obtaining tenure-track positions is down for both cohorts of recent doctorate degree recipients. For those 1–3 years since degree, tenure-track positions declined from 18.4% to 9.0%. For those 4–6 years after degree, the decline was more modest from 26.6% to 19.8%.

Although S&E doctorate degree holders must consider academia as just one possible sector of employment, the availability of tenure-track positions is an important aspect of the job market for individuals who seek academic careers. Decreases over time in tenure-track employment reflect the availability both of tenure-track job opportunities in academia and of alternative employment opportunities. For example, one of the largest declines in tenure-track employment occurred in computer sciences, from 51.5% in 1993 to 29.4% in 2003, despite many discussions about difficulties that computer science departments were having finding faculty. It is worth noting that computer science also has one of the largest rates of increase in the percentage of recent doctorate degree recipients entering tenure-track positions between 2001 and 2003, which was a period of particular stress for others in computer-related employment.

However, the attractiveness of other alternatives is less likely to explain smaller but steady drops in tenure program employment rates in fields that show other measures of distress, such as physics (with an IOF rate of 6.8%) and biological sciences (which has low unemployment and IOF rates, but shows other indications of labor market distress such as low salaries). Between 1993 and 2003 several fields registered an increase in tenure program rates for individuals who received their doctorate 4–6 years previously, including geosciences (increasing from 26.2% to 34.2%) and agriculture (increasing from 27.0% to 33.0%).


The definition of postdocs differs among the academic disciplines, universities, and sectors that employ them, and these differences probably affect self-reporting of postdoc status in the Survey of Doctorate Recipients. Researchers often analyze data on postdoc appointments for recent doctoral degree recipients in relation to recent labor market issues. Although some of these individuals want to receive more training in research, others may accept temporary (and usually lower-paying) postdoc positions because of a lack of permanent jobs in their field.

Science and Engineering Indicators – 1998 (NSB 1998) included an analysis of a one-time postdoc module from the 1995 Survey of Doctorate Recipients. This analysis showed a slow increase in the use of postdocs in many disciplines over time. (This rate was measured cross-sectionally by looking at the percentage of individuals in each graduation cohort who reported ever holding a postdoc position.) In addition, in physics and biological sciences (the fields with the most use of postdocs), median time spent in postdocs extended well beyond the 1–2 years found in most other fields.

Reasons for Taking a Postdoc

In 2003 for all fields of degree 11.6% of postdocs gave "other employment not available" as their primary reason for accepting a postdoc, essentially the same as the 11.5% that gave this reason in 2001. However, in 1999, 32.1% of postdocs said that the primary reason was "other employment not available (NSB 2002, 2004) (table 3-13 table.). Most respondents gave reasons consistent with the defined training and apprenticeship functions of postdocs (e.g., 31% said that post-docs were generally expected for careers in their fields, 18% said they wanted to work with a particular person, 22% said they sought additional training in their fields, and 14% said they sought additional training outside their specialty). In 1999, a high proportion of postdocs in the biological sciences (38%) and physics (38%) had reported "other employment not available" as the primary reason for being in a postdoc, but in 2003, both fields had below-average rates for this particular indicator of labor market distress. In contrast, nearly a third of engineering postdocs in 2003 reported "other employment not available" as the primary reason for their postdoc.

What Were 2001 Postdocs Doing in 2003?

Of individuals in postdocs in April 2001, 32.9% remained in a postdoc in October 2003. This is a small reduction from the 36.5% of 1999 postdocs still in such positions in 2001 (NSB 2004). In addition, 23.2% had moved from a postdoc in 2001 to a tenure-track position at a 4-year educational institution in 2003, up from 12.3% for the previous period; 23.7% had found other employment at an educational institution; and 20.3% had found some other form of employment (figure 3-30 figure.).

No information is available on the career goals of individuals in postdoc positions. It is often assumed that a postdoc is valued most by academic departments at research universities. However, only about one-quarter of postdocs transitioned to a tenure-track position over the 2-year period.

Salaries for Recent S&E Doctoral Degree Recipients

In 2003 for all fields of degree the median annual salary for recent S&E doctoral degree recipients 1–4 years after their degrees was $52,000. Across various S&E fields of degree, median annual salaries ranged from a low of $39,400 in the life sciences to a high of $75,000 in engineering (table 3-14 table.). Among all doctoral degree recipients, individuals in the top 10% of salary distribution (90th percentile) earned a median annual salary of $100,000. At the 10th percentile, representing the lowest pay for each field, salaries ranged from $20,000 for recent doctoral degree recipients in social sciences to $44,000 for individuals receiving degrees in engineering.

By type of employment, salaries for recent doctoral degree recipients range from $40,000 for postdocs to $80,000 for those employed by private for-profit business (table 3-15 table.).

National Science Board.