This section looks at a variety of labor market indicators to assess the overall health of the labor market for scientists and engineers. Indicators of labor market participation (such as rates of unemployment and involuntarily working out of one’s degree field) and earnings provide meaningful information on economic rewards and the overall attractiveness of careers in S&E fields. Many labor market indicators are lagging indicators, which change some time after other indicators show that the economy has begun to follow a particular trend. For example, although the most recent recession officially began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, unemployment rates continued to rise after the recession had officially ended. Rates of unemployment, rates of working involuntarily out of one’s field of highest degree, and earnings should all be considered in this context.
In general, those who hold S&E degrees or work in S&E occupations have had lower rates of unemployment than the broader labor force. However, the S&E workforce is not exempt from unemployment due to overall business cycles or to specific events affecting individuals in their fields. In October 2010, an estimated 4.3% of the broad SESTAT population were unemployed (appendix table
In 2010, scientists and engineers employed in non-S&E occupations generally had a higher unemployment rate (5.6%) than those employed in S&E occupations (unemployment rates ranged from 2.3% among social scientists to 4.6% among engineers) (appendix table
The extent of unemployment also varies by career stages. Scientists and engineers in the early- to mid-stages of their career cycles (about 5 to 30 years after obtaining their highest degree) are less likely to be jobless than those at earlier points in their careers (figure
CPS data allow for analysis of unemployment rates over the past three decades. CPS data indicate that workers employed in S&E occupations have historically experienced lower unemployment rates than the overall labor market (figure
During the economic downturn that began in late 2007, unemployment rates among workers employed in S&E occupations generally followed the historic pattern (figure
The most commonly cited unemployment measure is the percentage of people who are not working but who have looked for work in the preceding 4 weeks. This is the official unemployment rate (U3). In addition to U3, BLS reports five other measures (table
Trends in indicators of labor underutilization during the economic downturn that began at the end of 2007 consistently indicate that workers whose most recent job was in an S&E occupation experienced lower underutilization rates than the general labor force (figure
The most comprehensive labor underutilization indicator (U6) includes various kinds of workers who are not employed full time but would like to be. More than the standard unemployment rate, this indicator captures the difference between workers’ labor market aspirations and outcomes. The gap between this measure and the standard unemployment rate among workers in S&E occupations is substantially smaller than the comparable gap in the general labor force (appendix table
SESTAT data provide information on the relevance of individuals’ educational background for their principal job. SESTAT also provides data on why individuals obtain employment outside of their field of highest degree. The SESTAT population of scientists and engineers who reported that a lack of suitable jobs in their field of highest degree was the reason for their working out of field are identified as those who are working involuntarily out of field (IOF). The size of this group as a proportion of all employed scientists and engineers is considered the IOF rate.
Of the nearly 22 million employed scientists and engineers in 2010, almost 1.4 million reported working out of the field of their highest degree because of a lack of suitable jobs in their degree field, indicating an IOF rate of 6.4%. SESTAT respondents were allowed to report more than one reason for working out of field. Other reasons included pay and promotion opportunities (reported by 2.1 million individuals), change in career or professional interests (1.8 million), working conditions (2.1 million), family-related reasons (1 million), job location (1.9 million), and other reasons (400,000). When asked about the single most important reason for working in a job not related to their field of highest degree, pay and promotion opportunities were cited by most, followed by change in career interests and lack of a suitable job in their field of highest degree.
IOF rates vary by degree fields and levels. Scientists and engineers with a highest degree in engineering and computer and mathematical sciences display lower IOF rates than those with physical, life, or social sciences degrees (table
Based on the OES survey, the estimated annual earnings of individuals in S&E occupations are considerably higher than those of the total workforce. Median annual earnings in 2012 in S&E occupations (regardless of education level or field) was $78,270, which is more than double the median for all U.S. workers ($34,750) (table
According to SESTAT, the annual median salary for individuals trained or employed in S&E ($65,000) is higher than that for all college-educated individuals ($56,000). The 2010 NSCG data indicate that the annual median salary for college-educated workers with a highest degree in S&E ($65,000) or S&E-related fields ($68,000) is more than for those with non-S&E degrees ($50,000) (table
The earnings premium enjoyed by college-educated individuals with an S&E or S&E-related degree is present at all career stages. Figure
Earnings vary by degree levels. In 2010, the annual median salaries among scientists and engineers with bachelor’s or master’s as highest degree levels were $57,000 and $68,000, respectively. Those with doctorates ($85,000) or professional degrees ($116,000) earned significantly more. The pattern by degree level holds across career stages (figure
S&E highest degree holders earn more than non-S&E highest degree holders at the master’s degree and doctoral levels (figure
Among employed individuals without a bachelor’s degree, S&E occupations provide stable jobs with competitive salaries relative to those workers in non-S&E occupations. (See sidebar, “The U.S. S&E Workforce Without a Bachelor’s Degree.”)
In today’s knowledge-based and globally integrated economy marked by rapid information flow and development of new knowledge, products, and processes, demand for certain skills and abilities may change fast. The employment outcomes of recent graduates are an important indicator of current changes in labor market conditions. Compared with experienced S&E workers, recent S&E graduates more often bring new ideas and newly acquired skills to the labor market. This section examines the employment outcomes of recent recipients of S&E bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.
Table 3-16 summarizes some basic labor market statistics in 2010 for recent recipients of S&E degrees; recent here is defined as between 1 and 5 years since receiving the degree. Among the nearly 22 million employed SESTAT respondents in October 2010, about 1.8 million are recent S&E degree recipients. Overall, the unemployment rate among these recent graduates was 6.6%, higher than the 4.3% unemployment rate seen among the entire SESTAT population of scientists and engineers. However, none of the recent graduating groups by S&E degree field or level exceeded the unemployment rate of 9.0% for the entire U.S. labor force.
Among recent bachelor’s degree holders, the unemployment rate averaged 7.7%, ranging from 5.2% for those with physical sciences degrees to 8.8% for those with social sciences degrees. Overall, unemployment was generally lower for those with doctorates than for those with less advanced degrees. Early in their careers, as individuals gather labor market experience and on-the-job skills, they tend to have a higher incidence of job change and unemployment, which may partially explain some of the higher unemployment rates seen among those with a bachelor’s degree as their highest level degree.
A useful but more subjective indicator of labor market conditions for recent graduates is the proportion who report that their job is unrelated to their highest degree field because a job in their degree field was not available (working involuntarily out of field or IOF rate). Of the 1.8 million employed scientists and engineers who received their highest degree in an S&E field in the previous 5 years, 10.8% indicated working involuntarily out of field (table
A larger proportion of recent S&E degree recipients reported working out of field because a suitable job was not available (10.8%) compared to the overall SESTAT population of scientists and engineers (6.4%). When asked about the single most important reason for working out of field, the most frequently cited reason by recent S&E degree recipients was lack of a suitable job in their degree field (cited by 29% of recent S&E degree recipients working out of field), followed by pay and promotion opportunities (20%) and change in career or professional interests (13%). The responses provided by the entire SESTAT population working out of field (regardless of graduation year) were similar, but the factors were ranked differently: the most commonly cited reason was pay and promotion opportunities (cited by 26% of all SESTAT respondents working out of field), followed by change in career or professional interests (21%) and lack of a suitable job in their degree field (19%).
Among recent bachelor’s degree holders, the IOF rate in 2010 averaged 13.5%, but it ranged from 4.1% for recent engineering graduates to 18.0% for recent graduates in the social sciences (table
The median salary for recent S&E bachelor’s degree recipients in 2010 was $35,000, ranging from $30,000 in life sciences and physical sciences to $57,000 in engineering (table
In 2010, among recent S&E degree recipients, those who received their degrees in 2008 or 2009, after the economic downturn began, had higher unemployment rates and IOF rates (7.4% and 12.6%, respectively) than those who received their degrees between 2005 and 2007 (6.0% and 9.5%, respectively) (appendix table
The career rewards of highly skilled individuals in general, and doctorate holders in particular, often extend beyond salary and employment to the more personal rewards of doing the kind of work for which they have trained. No single standard measure satisfactorily reflects the state of the doctoral S&E labor market. This section discusses a range of relevant labor market indicators, including unemployment rates, IOF employment, employment in academia compared with other sectors, employment in postdoctoral positions, and salaries. Although a doctorate opens both career and salary opportunities, these opportunities may come at the price of many years of lost labor market earnings. For some doctorate holders, an ensuing postdoctoral position can further extend this period of low earnings.
Unemployment. As of October 2010, the 2.3% unemployment rate (table
Working involuntarily out of field. About 1.8% of the employed recent SEH doctorate recipients reported that they took a job that was not related to the field of their doctorate because a suitable job in their field was not available (table
Tenure-track positions. Although many science doctorate recipients aspire to tenure-track academic appointments (Sauermann and Roach 2012), most end up working in other positions and sectors. In 2010, about 15% of those who had earned their SEH doctorate within the previous 3 years had a tenure or tenure-track faculty appointment, a proportion that has held broadly steady since 1993 (table
The proportion of SEH doctorates who hold a tenure or tenure-track faculty appointment increases the more time has passed since earning their doctorate. In 2010, the proportion of SEH doctorates with tenure or tenure-track appointments who had been in the labor market for 3 to 5 years was higher (20%) than the rate among those who had completed their doctorate within 3 years (15%) (table
The availability of tenure-track positions may be counterbalanced by the availability of desirable nonacademic employment opportunities. Although the proportion of individuals who obtain tenure or tenure-track employment within 3 years of completing their doctorates has remained broadly stable since 1993, the proportion of graduates with tenure or tenure-track positions within 3 to 5 years of receiving their doctorates has declined since 1993 in most broad areas of SEH training (table
Salaries for recent SEH doctorate recipients. For all SEH degree fields in 2010, the median annual salary for recent doctorate recipients within 5 years after receiving their degrees was $66,000. Across various SEH degree fields, median annual salaries ranged from a low of $50,000 in biological sciences to a high of $94,000 in computer and information sciences (table
By type of employment, salaries for recent doctorate recipients ranged from $42,000 for postdoctoral positions in 4-year institutions to $90,000 for those employed in the business sector (table
A significant number of new S&E doctorate recipients take a postdoctoral appointment (generally known as a postdoc) as their first position after receiving their doctorate. Postdoc positions are defined as temporary, short-term positions, primarily for acquiring additional training in an academic, government, industry, or non-profit setting. This section looks at employment characteristics of postdocs.
The incidence of SEH doctorate holders taking postdoc positions during their careers has risen over time. Among U.S. SEH doctorate holders who received their doctorate before 1972, 31% reported having had a postdoc position earlier in their careers; this proportion rose to 46% among 2002–05 graduates (NSB 2010). Although individuals in postdoc positions often perform cutting-edge research, these positions generally offer lower salaries than permanent positions, which essentially adds to the costs of doctoral studies and has the unintended consequence of making science careers less desirable to potential graduate students. The growing number of postdoc positions, as well as the rise in average postdoc tenure, has received much attention in science policy in recent years (e.g., NIH 2012). Neither the reasons for this growth nor its effects on the state of scientific research are well understood. However, possible contributing factors include increases in competition for tenure-track academic research jobs, the need for collaborative research in large teams, the influx of graduate students in SEH areas with strong postdoc traditions, and the need for additional specialized training. (See sidebar, “Employment of Biomedical Sciences Doctorates.”)
Number of postdocs. In October 2010, NSF’s Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR) estimated that 30,800 U.S. SEH doctorate recipients were employed in postdoc positions. The vast majority of these postdoc positions were in 4-year academic institutions (75%), with the remainder in industry (16%) and government (10%). The fall 2010 and fall 2011 estimates from NSF’s Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, which covers academic postdocs, were 63,400 and 62,900, respectively (NSF/NCSES 2013a and 2013b). These estimates cover different segments of the postdoc population. The Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering gathers information on postdocs from U.S. academic graduate departments, regardless of where these individuals earned their doctorates. It does not cover individuals in nonacademic employment, at some university research centers, or at academic departments that lack graduate programs. In contrast, the SDR covers U.S. residents with research doctorates in SEH fields from U.S. universities, but not those with doctorates from non-U.S. universities. As a result, the SDR omits a large number of postdocs who are foreign trained. The two survey estimates overlap in some populations (U.S.-trained doctorates and those working in academia), but differ in others (the Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering covers foreign-trained doctorates, but not those in the industry or government sectors). In addition, the titles of postdoc researchers vary across organizations and often change as individuals advance through their postdoc appointment; both of these factors further complicate the data collection process (NIH 2012).
Postdocs by academic discipline. Although postdocs are increasingly common in SEH fields, the extent to which a postdoc appointment is part of an individual’s career path varies greatly across SEH fields. In the field of life sciences, for example, postdocs have historically been more common than in other SEH fields. According to NSF’s Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), the proportion of new doctorate recipients in 2011 indicating that they would take a postdoc appointment after graduation ranged from nearly 70% in life sciences (including agricultural sciences/natural resources, biological/biomedical sciences, and health sciences) to 37% in the social sciences (appendix table
Postdoc compensation. Low compensation for postdocs is frequently raised as a concern by those who are worried about the effect of the increasing number and length of postdoc positions on the attractiveness of science careers. In 2010, the median salary for postdocs who had received their doctorate within the past 5 years was just over half (57%) the median salary paid to non-postdocs (table
Among recent graduates, similar proportions of postdocs and non-postdocs have access to certain employer-provided benefits, such as health insurance (95% of postdocs and 92% of non-postdocs) and paid vacation, sick, or personal days (87% of postdocs and 86% of non-postdocs). However, a much smaller proportion of recent graduates in postdoc positions have access to employer-provided pensions or retirement plans (56% of postdocs and 84% of non-postdocs). Information on the quality of these benefits—for example, the coverage and premium of health insurance plans, number of personal days offered by employer, and type of retirement benefits—is not available.
Reasons for taking postdoc positions. The 2010 SDR asked individuals in postdoc positions to report their reason for accepting these appointments. When asked about the primary reason, most responses were consistent with the traditional objective of a postdoc position as a type of advanced apprenticeship for career progression, such as “postdoc generally expected in field,” “additional training in PhD field,” “additional training in an area outside of PhD field,” or “work with a specific person or place.” However, 13% of those in postdoc appointments reported lack of other employment as the primary reason for accepting these positions. In life sciences and physical sciences, the two broad fields with relatively high levels of postdoc appointments, the proportions of those reporting lack of other employment as the primary reason for accepting a postdoc position were low (11% and 17%, respectively) compared with the proportion of those in the social sciences (30%), an area where postdocs are typically not as common.