Labor Market Conditions for Recent S&E Graduates

Compared with experienced S&E workers, recent S&E graduates more often bring newly acquired skills to the labor market and have relatively few work or family commitments that limit their job mobility. As a result, measures of the success of recent graduates in securing good jobs can be sensitive indicators of changes in the S&E labor market.

This section looks at a number of standard labor market indicators for recent S&E degree recipients at all degree levels, and 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 reflect 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.

General Labor Market Indicators for Recent Graduates

Some basic labor market statistics are summarized for recent (defined here as those between 1 and 5 years since degree) recipients of S&E degrees in table 3-15table. Across all fields of S&E degrees in 2003, there was a 4.7% unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders who received their degrees in the previous 1–5 years. This ranged from 4.0% for physical sciences degree recipients to 5.1% for social science degree recipients. Although individuals often change jobs more often and have higher unemployment early in their careers, all of these values are less than the unemployment rate for the full labor force in 2003 of 6.0%. For doctorate recipients across all fields of degree, the unemployment rate was 2.8%.

A more subjective indicator of labor market conditions is the percentage of recent graduates who report that they sought, but could not find, full-time employment related to their field of degree. The IOF employment rate is a measure unique to NSF’s labor force surveys. Because highly educated people are usually able to find employment of some kind, the IOF rate is sometimes a more sensitive indicator of changing conditions in the S&E labor market than the unemployment rate. At the bachelor’s degree level, across all S&E fields, the IOF rate was 11.5%, but ranged from 3.6% for recent engineering bachelor’s graduates to 15.7% in the social sciences. In all fields of degree, the IOF rate decreases with level of education, reaching 2.9% for recent doctorate recipients.

Average salary for recent S&E bachelor’s degree recipients in 2003 was $40,900, ranging from $34,300 in the life sciences to $53,500 in engineering. Recent master’s recipients had average salaries of $55,200 and recent doctorate recipients only about $5,000 more at $60,300. This reflects in part the relatively low postdoc salaries of some recent doctorate recipients (see discussion in next section) and the greater employment of doctorate holders in academia.

Employment and Career Paths for Recent Bachelor’s and Master’s Recipients

Although 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 path 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 (figure 3-32figure.). 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.

Recent 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 opens 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. Some doctoral degree holders also face an additional period of low earnings while in a postdoc position. In addition, some doctoral degree holders do not obtain the jobs they desire after completing their education.

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 highly trained and motivated graduate students to aid university-based research. These programs have not only provided individuals with detailed, highly specialized training in particular areas of research, they have also cultivated a general ability to perform self-initiated research in more diverse areas.

The career rewards of highly skilled individuals in general, and doctoral 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 reflect the state of the doctoral S&E labor market. Some of the available labor market indicators, such as unemployment rates, IOF employment, satisfaction with field of study, employment in academia versus other sectors, postdoc positions, and salaries, are discussed below.

Aggregate measures of labor market conditions for recent (1–3 years after receipt of degree) U.S. S&E doctoral degree recipients in 2006 show improvement from the already generally good rates found when last measured in 2003: unemployment fell from 2.3% to 1.3% and IOF rates fell from 3.3% to 1.3% (table 3-16table.). There was also an increase in the percentage of the most recent graduates entering tenure-track programs at 4-year institutions—from 17.8% in 2003 to 19.2% in 2006.


The 1.3% unemployment rate for recent S&E doctoral degree recipients as of April 2006 was even lower than other generally low 2006 unemployment rates. The 2006 unemployment rate for all civilian workers was 4.6%, with lower rates of 2.2% for those with a bachelor’s degree or above and 1.6% for those in S&E occupations.

The highest unemployment rates were for recent doctoral degree recipients in mechanical engineering (3.0%) and sociology/anthropology (2.4%). Unemployment in both fields (which also had the highest unemployment rates in 2003) fell from 5.8% and 5.0%, respectively, in 2003.

The unemployment rate for recent S&E doctoral degree recipients in computer sciences, the field with the third highest unemployment rate in 2003, fell from 4.4% to 1.7% in 2006.

Involuntarily Working Outside Field

In addition to unemployment, another 1.3% of recent S&E doctoral degree recipients in the labor force reported in 2006 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 and 3.3% in 2003. 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 chemical engineering (9.8%), physics/astronomy (5.9%) and sociology/anthropology (4.8%).

Tenure-Track Positions

Most S&E doctoral degree holders ultimately do not work in academia, and there has been a long-term decline in this proportion, as academic opportunities grew slower than those in other sectors of the economy. In recent years, however, the proportion of all recent doctorate recipients in the labor force who are in tenure-track academic jobs (the tenure-track rate) has increased. Increases in the rate of new doctorate holders entering tenure-track positions at 4-year academic institutions were observed in NSF surveys between 2001 and 2003, and again between 2003 and 2006. As a result, in 2006, tenure-track rates for both those 1–3 years after degree and 4–6 years after degree returned roughly to the same rates found in 1993 (figure 3-33figure. and table 3-17table.). The rate for those 1–3 years since degree rose from 17.8% to 19.2% and the rate for those 4–6 years since degree increased from 23.5% to 25.8%. (See chapter 5 for a discussion of trends in tenure-track positions as a proportion of all academic positions.)

Academia is just one possible sector of employment for S&E doctorate holders, but the availability of tenure-track positions is an important aspect of the job market for individuals who seek academic careers. Changes over time in tenure-track employment reflect availability of tenure-track job opportunities in academia and the availability of nonacademic employment opportunities. For example, one of the quickest declines in tenure-track employment occurred in computer sciences, from 51.5% in 1993 to 23.6% in 2001, despite many discussions about difficulties that computer science departments were having finding faculty (figure 3-33figure.).

Salaries for Recent S&E Doctoral Degree Recipients

In 2006 for all fields of degree the median annual salary for recent S&E doctoral degree recipients 1–5 years after their degrees was $52,000. Across various S&E fields of degree, median annual salaries ranged from a low of $46,000 in the life sciences to a high of $70,000 in engineering (table 3-18table.).

By type of employment, salaries for recent doctoral degree recipients range from $40,000 for postdoc positions to $80,000 for those employed by private for-profit business (table 3-19table.).

Postdoc Positions

The growing number of recent doctoral graduates in postdoctoral appointments, generally known as postdocs,[12] has become a major issue and concern in science policy. Neither the reasons for its growth, nor the effect of the growth on the health of science, are well understood. Are new doctoral degree recipients more likely to enter postdoc positions because of increased competition for tenure-track academic research jobs? Are postdoc positions needed more than in the past because of the increasing team nature of research and the increased need for training?

Although individuals in postdoc positions perform much cutting-edge research, there is a concern that time spent in a postdoc position is time added onto the already long time spent earning a doctorate, thereby delaying their career advancement. Because postdoc positions usually pay much less than these highly educated individuals could make in other employment, forgone earnings add significantly to the costs of a doctoral education and may discourage doctoral-level careers in S&E.

Postdocs by Academic Discipline

Around half (49%) of U.S.-educated S&E doctorate recipients in postdoc positions in April 2006 had doctorates in the biological sciences, well above the 23% they represented of all S&E doctorates awarded in 2005 (figure 3-34figure.). The high representation among postdocs of biological sciences doctorates reflects both the field’s high rate of entering postdocs (about three-fifths of the 2002–05 graduation cohort) and the relatively long periods these individuals spent in postdoc positions. Other fields with high rates of entering postdocs (psychology, chemistry, and physics) make up another one-quarter of postdocs. The remaining quarter come from all other fields of S&E, most of which do not have strong traditions of a postdoc position being a normal part of a doctoral career path.

How Many Postdocs Are There?

No single data source measures the entire population of postdocs, and some parts of the population are not systematically measured at all. Two NSF surveys, the Survey of Doctorate Recipients and the Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS), include data bearing on the number of postdocs in the United States.

SDR covers U.S. residents who have earned S&E and health doctorates from U.S. schools (MDs and other types of degrees with "doctor" in the name are not included). Thus, postdocs who received doctorate degrees from foreign institutions are not included in SDR. In 2006, SDR collected data on the dates of current and past postdoc positions, allowing an estimate to be made of the number of postdocs in fall 2005, the same period as the most recent GSS data. Unlike SDR, which collects data from individuals, GSS surveys academic departments. GSS asks departments that offer graduate programs in S&E and specific health-related fields for counts of all of their postdocs, regardless of whether their degrees were earned in the United States or abroad. However, unlike SDR, it does not gather data on people in nonacademic positions or academic units that lack graduate programs, including many academic research organizations and affiliated nonprofit research centers.

Table 3-20table. shows the estimates that SDR and GSS provide for those parts of the U.S. postdoc population that they measure. Estimates for many, but not all, parts of the postdoc population can be derived from these data sources and used to piece together an overall national estimate for fall 2005. However, any overall estimate involves numerous uncertainties and assumptions.

Academic Postdocs. SDR estimates that 22,900 U.S. citizens and permanent residents were in academic postdoc positions in the fall of 2005.[13] The 2005 GSS estimate (16,200) is substantially lower, in part because postdocs affiliated with some non-degree-granting academic departments and research centers are not captured on GSS. In addition, the individuals surveyed by SDR and the departments surveyed by GSS may have somewhat different views on whether an individual should be classified as a postdoc.

Not surprisingly, GSS reports a much larger number of academic postdocs with temporary visas (26,600) than SDR (7,700). The most likely explanation for this gap is that GSS, unlike SDR, includes people with doctorates from non-U.S. universities in its counts.[14]

Other Postdocs. Neither survey includes data on the number of foreign-educated postdocs. SDR estimates that 29% of U.S.-educated postdocs, 13,000 total, are in industry, nonprofits, government, and other types of educational institutions. There is no reason to believe that the proportions of U.S. and foreign-educated postdocs in nonacademic positions are similar.

Using these data, one might, for example, estimate as follows:

  • 22,900 U.S. citizens and permanent residents in academic postdoc positions (SDR estimate).
  • 26,600 persons on temporary visas in academic postdoc positions (GSS estimate).
  • 13,000 U.S.-educated persons in postdoc positions not covered by GSS (SDR estimate).
  • 26,500 postdocs on temporary visas and in positions not covered by GSS (estimate derived by assuming that the proportion of temporary visa postdocs in other sectors and other parts of academia is the same as in the portion covered by GSS).

This estimate yields a total of 89,000 postdocs but other, comparably plausible assumptions lead to a substantially different total.

Increase in the Likelihood and Length of Postdoc Positions

Among holders of U.S. S&E doctorates received before 1972, 31% reported having had a postdoc position earlier in their careers (figure 3-35figure.).[15] This proportion has risen over time to 46% among 2002–05 graduates. This increase over time occurred both in fields in which postdocs have been traditionally important and in those in which only a small number of doctoral degree recipients went on to postdoc positions. In the high postdoc fields such as the life sciences (from 46%–60%) and the physical sciences (from 41%–61%), a majority of doctoral degree recipients now have a postdoc position as part of their career path. Similar increases were found in mathematical and computer sciences (19%–31%), social sciences (18%–30%), and engineering (14%–38%). The increasing use of postdoc positions in engineering is particularly noteworthy, with recent engineering doctoral degree recipients now being almost as likely to take a postdoc position as physical sciences doctoral degree recipients were 35 years ago.

There have also been increases in the average length of time spent in a postdoc position, most notably in the life sciences (figure 3-36figure.). The median length of time spent in postdoc positions for life science doctoral degree recipients grew from 24 months for pre-1972 graduates to 46 months for 1992–96 graduates. Although the median length of time in a postdoc position for those who completed postdoc positions falls for later graduation cohorts, this in part reflects some individuals who did not enter a postdoc position immediately after graduation and were still in the position in April 2006. The increase in the time spent in postdoc positions in the physical sciences was more modest, rising from a median of 21 months to 30 months for 1992–96 graduates. In contrast, in psychology, which is a high-postdoc rate discipline, median months in postdoc positions has remained essentially the same for the 20 years from the 1972–76 graduation cohort (23 months) to the 1992–96 graduation cohort (22 months). In all other areas of S&E taken together, the estimated median months in postdoc positions has also shown little growth, and is never higher than the 23 months estimated for the 1972–76 cohort. In these nontraditional postdoc fields, the growing importance of postdoc positions is driven by the increased rate of entering postdocs, and not by the length of the postdoc appointment.

Postdoc Pay and Benefits

Low pay and fewer benefits for postdocs are frequently raised as concerns by those worried about the effect of the increasing use of postdocs on the attractiveness of science careers. The median academic postdoc salary is one-third less than the median salary for nonpostdocs 1–3 years after receiving their doctorates, as shown in table 3-21table. By broad field, this ranges from a 44% pay gap with recent engineering doctoral degree recipients to a 25% gap for doctorate holders in the social sciences. Nonacademic postdocs have better pay than academic postdocs, but the medium salary is still 20% less than for nonpostdocs.

Most individuals in postdoc positions in 2006 did have employment benefits. Indeed, across all S&E fields, 90% of postdocs reported having medical benefits and 49% reported having retirement benefits. It is not possible to know from the survey how extensive medical benefits may be, or how transferable retirement benefits are. In the social sciences, medical benefits are somewhat less available, with only 75% of postdocs reporting that they had medical benefits.

The perception that postdocs do not receive employee benefits does have a historical basis. As shown in figure 3-37figure., among former postdocs who received their S&E doctorates before 1972, only 59% of biological science postdocs and 60% of postdocs in all other fields reported having medical benefits, and only 16% and 18%, respectively, reported having retirement benefits. The prevalence of both types of employment benefits for postdocs has risen fairly steadily over time.

Postdocs as a Sign of Labor Market Distress for Recent Doctoral Degree Recipients

Former postdoc position holders were asked about the reason they accepted a postdoc appointment. Most respondents reported reasons consistent with the traditional view of postdoc appointments as a type of apprenticeship, such as seeking "additional training in doctorate field" or "training in an area outside of doctorate field." However, 9% of respondents in a postdoc position in April 2006 reported that they took their current postdoc position because "other employment not available." This reason was given by 5% of postdocs in the life science; 8% in computer and mathematical sciences; 10% in the physical sciences; 14% in the social sciences; and 16% in engineering.

A cohort trend for former and current postdocs who reported taking their first postdoc position because no other employment was available is shown in figure 3-38figure.. Across all S&E fields, this proportion has a peak at 12% for both the 1972–76 and the 1992–96 graduation cohorts (5% in 1992–96 if looked at as a proportion of all doctorate holders). Both peaks roughly coincide with periods of relative difficulty for S&E doctorate holders, in the first case following an oil crisis and recession, and in the second following the end of the Cold War.

Postdoc Outcomes

There are several differences in the career patterns of former postdocs and nonpostdocs. However, available data do not permit definitive judgments about whether the experience gained in a postdoc position produced these differences. For example, those who entered postdoc positions may have already been more interested in research careers, and may have already given employers a reason to believe they have the ability and aptitude for such a career.

Most former postdocs report that the postdoc experience was helpful to their career, and the proportion of former postdocs saying this is remarkably constant over different doctorate graduation cohorts (figure 3-39figure.). Across all S&E fields and cohorts, 53%–56% of former postdocs said that their postdoc experience "greatly helped" their careers. Across all cohorts, an additional 33%–38% said that their postdoc experience "somewhat helped" their careers. The proportion of those completing postdoc positions who said that it was no help to their careers ranged from only 8% for the 2002–05 graduation cohort to 12% for the 1987–2001 cohort.

Nonetheless, there are only modest differences in many measures of the career status of former postdocs and nonpostdocs in 2006. For example, among 1997–2001 recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates, 31% of those who had a postdoc position were in tenured or tenure-track positions at a 4-year postsecondary institution, compared with 25% of those not in postdoc positions. The differences between the tenure-track rates were larger for computer and mathematical sciences (a 21 percentage point difference), and for engineering and the physical sciences (each with a 14 percentage point difference between former postdocs and nonpostdocs in the proportion in tenure track). However, in the life sciences, where it is often said that a postdoc position is a requirement for an academic career, there is only a 5 percentage point difference between former postdocs and nonpostdocs in tenure-track employment. In the social sciences, nonpostdocs are actually slightly more likely to be in a tenure-track position, but this may be because many postdoc positions in psychology provide primarily clinical training.

Changes in the proportion in 2006 tenured or tenure-track positions can be seen in figure 3-40figure.. In the life sciences, the tenure-track rate has generally declined for more recent graduation cohorts for both former postdocs and nonpostdocs, with the largest gap of 12 percentage points occurring in the oldest graduation cohort, those receiving their doctorate prior to 1972. In contrast, in the physical sciences, the tenure-track rate is relatively constant across graduation cohorts for former postdocs, with former postdocs being 18 percentage points more likely than nonpostdocs to be in a tenure-track position among the newest, not the oldest, cohort. In psychology, there is a similar proportion going into tenure-track positions among most graduation cohorts. In all other S&E fields, there is a higher tenure-track rate for former postdocs that varies greatly by graduation cohort and ranges from 3 to 18 percentage points above the rate for nonpostdocs.

The 1997–2001 graduation cohort is the most recent to be almost entirely finished with postdoc experiences. In this cohort, the additional proportion in tenure-track positions for former postdocs ranged from 21 percentage points in the mathematical and computer sciences to minus 5 percentage points in the social sciences, where nonpostdocs have higher tenure-track rates (figure 3-41figure.).

Former postdocs are also more likely than nonpostdocs to have R&D as a major work activity, defined here as reporting that basic research, applied research, design, or development is the work activity on which they spend the greatest, or second greatest amount of time. In the 1997–2001 graduation cohort, 73% of former postdocs had R&D as a major work activity in 2006, compared with 59% among those who never has a postdoc position (figure 3-42figure.). This increased likelihood to do R&D exists for all broad S&E fields of degree, and ranges from 7 percentage points in the social sciences to 21 percentage points in the life sciences.

Former postdocs are also somewhat more likely to report that their job is closely related to their degree. Although over 90% of S&E doctorate holders report that their job is at least somewhat related to their degree, smaller proportions report that it is closely related. In the 1997–2001 graduation cohort, 73% of former postdocs reported that their job was closely related to their degree in 2006, compared with 65% among those who never had a postdoc position (figure 3-43figure.). The difference in reporting of a job closely related to degree ranged from 5 percentage points in the life sciences to 17 percentage points in engineering and the physical sciences.

Taking a postdoc position delays an individual’s entry into a career path with a more permanent employer, but also may provide the individual with valuable experience and skills. Figure 3-44figure. shows the difference in the 2006 salary of former postdocs and nonpostdocs by field of degree and sector of employment. For this purpose, an older cohort, 1992–96 doctoral degree graduates, is used for comparison to allow somewhat more time for former postdocs to demonstrate their performance with an employer. In all fields of degree, former postdocs working for a private noneducational employer earned less than nonpostdocs in the same sector. In mathematical and computer sciences, former postdocs earned 8% less, and in all other fields former postdocs earned 10% less in the private sector. In the three fields in which enough postdocs enter government service to allow measurement—the physical sciences, life sciences, and engineering—a positive salary differential is associated with having been a postdoc, ranging from 3% in engineering to 9% in the life sciences. A more ambiguous salary differential appears among former postdocs in the educational sector, who earn more than nonpostdocs in the physical sciences, computer and mathematical sciences, and engineering, but earn less in the social sciences and life sciences.

In summary, postdocs in S&E fields are associated with a greater likelihood to be engaged in research, hold a tenure-track position, and report that their job is closely related to their degree. Having had a postdoc position is associated with a moderate disadvantage in salary within private noneducational employment, and a moderate advantage in government employment. A majority of former postdocs from all graduation cohorts said that their postdoc positions were a great help to their career, and only about one-tenth said that a postdoc position was of no help to their careers.


[12] Although the formal job title is often postdoctoral fellowship or research associate, many different titles are used. This chapter will generally use the shorter, more commonly used, and best understood name, "postdoc." A postdoc has traditionally been defined as a temporary position, after completion of a doctorate, taken primarily for additional training—a period of advanced professional apprenticeship.

[13] Some part of the citizen and permanent resident postdoc population in the fall of 2005 will not be counted even in SDR. Excluded are summer 2005 graduates who may be in postdoc positions in the fall of 2005, doctorate holders who may have left the country before April 2006, and those who have foreign doctorates.

[14] A 2003 survey conducted by the Sigma Xi honor society, which was nonrepresentative and likely to undercount foreign postdocs, found that 46% of responding postdocs had received their doctorate from a non-U.S. institution.

[15] Respondents also had to be under age 76 and resident in the United States in April 2006. In a similar retrospective question on the 1995 SDR, 25% of those earning their doctorates before 1964 reported having had postdocs.

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