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Chapter 3. Science and Engineering Labor Force

S&E Labor Market Conditions

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.[15] 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 3-8). At the same time, the official unemployment rate reported by BLS for the entire U.S. labor force was about twice as high, 9.0%.[16] According to the NSCG, the unemployment rate for all college graduates was 5.1% in the same period. Thus, joblessness among scientists and engineers compares favorably with the rates for the labor force as a whole and the college-educated labor force.

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 3-8). Advanced degree holders are less vulnerable to unemployment than those with only bachelor’s degrees (appendix table 3-8). Nonetheless, a comparison of SESTAT data from 2006, before the onset of the economic downturn, and from 2010, after the downturn ended, shows clear evidence that the SESTAT population of scientists and engineers were affected by the broader economic conditions: unemployment rates for comparable groups were generally higher in 2010 than in 2006.[17] For example, between 2006 and 2010, the unemployment rate among scientists and engineers with a highest degree at the bachelor’s level rose from 2.9% to 4.9%; among those with a doctorate, the rate rose from 1.6% to 2.6%. During the same period, unemployment rates nearly doubled among engineers (from 2.4% in 2006 to 4.6% in 2010) and among scientists and engineers employed in non-S&E occupations (from 3.0% in 2006 to 5.6% in 2010).

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 3-16). As workers strengthen their skills by acquiring labor market experience and adding on-the-job knowledge to their formal training, their work situations become more secure. However, among scientists and engineers in the later stages of their careers (about 35 or more years after obtaining their highest degree), the unemployment rates are higher than for those who are in the early- to mid-career stages. This suggests that over time scientists and engineers either become more selective about the work they are willing to do or find their skills becoming obsolete, which results in higher unemployment toward the later stages of their careers.

CPS data allow for analysis of unemployment rates over the past three decades.[18] CPS data indicate that workers employed in S&E occupations have historically experienced lower unemployment rates than the overall labor market (figure 3-17). CPS data for the period 1983–2012 indicate that the unemployment rate for college-educated individuals in S&E occupations ranged from a low of 1.3% to a high of 4.3%, which contrasted favorably with rates for the entire college-educated labor force (ranging from 1.8% to 7.8%). The unemployment rate for S&E technicians and computer programmers ranged from 2.1% to 7.4%; in comparison, the unemployment rate for the entire labor force ranged from 4.0% to 9.6%.

During the economic downturn that began in late 2007, unemployment rates among workers employed in S&E occupations generally followed the historic pattern (figure 3-18). Unemployment peaked at 5.7% in S&E occupations and 6.1% in the broader STEM occupations, which include S&E occupations as well as computer programmers, technicians, and S&E managers. In comparison, peak unemployment in all occupations was considerably higher (10.5%). In addition to lower rates, unemployment in S&E occupations began declining earlier than in all occupations. As of early 2013, however, unemployment rates among all workers (7.7%) as well as S&E workers (3.0%) were still higher than in the beginning of 2008 (5.4% and 2.1%, respectively).

Broader Measures of Labor Underutilization

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 3-12), which provide narrower (U1 and U2) or broader (U4–U6) measures of unemployment than the standard measure (U3). These additional measures, called “alternative measures of labor underutilization,” provide additional detail about differences in employment patterns between the S&E labor force and the overall labor force (appendix table 3-9).

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 3-19). In addition to lower U3, workers in S&E occupations experienced lower long-term unemployment (U1), defined as unemployment lasting 15 weeks or longer, throughout the economic downturn. Although U1 in S&E occupations stabilized and began gradually declining in the latter part of 2009, U1 in all occupations continued to rise until the beginning of 2010. Beginning around the end of 2009, the rate of long-term unemployment in the general labor force exceeded the rate of standard unemployment for those in S&E occupations.

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 3-9). This suggests that underutilized workers—that is, those who work part time but would like to obtain full-time employment or those who would like to work but have stopped looking for employment—are a more significant factor among the general labor force than among those in S&E occupations.

Involuntarily Working Out of One’s Field of Highest Degree

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 3-13). Advanced degree holders are less likely to work involuntarily out of field than those with bachelor’s degrees only: in 2010, the IOF rate was 2.9% for the SESTAT population with doctorates, 4.0% for those with master’s degrees, and 8.8% for those with bachelor’s degrees only. However, among bachelor’s degree holders, IOF rates gradually decline across career stages up to mid- to late career points, and then gradually rise (figure 3-20). In comparison, among holders of master’s degrees and doctorates, IOF rates remain stable over the long term.


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 3-14). This is not surprising given the level of formal education and overall technical skills associated with S&E occupations. The difference in average (mean) earnings was less dramatic but still quite wide, with individuals in S&E occupations earning considerably more on average ($82,930) than workers in all occupations ($45,790). Median S&E earnings ranged from $67,660 among social scientists to $86,500 among engineers. The 2009–12 annual growth in mean and median earnings for S&E occupations were generally similar to those for all employed U.S. workers in the OES data.

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 3-15). Within each broad degree field, however, those employed in S&E occupations earn more than those in non-S&E occupations. For example, among individuals with a highest degree in a non-S&E field, the annual median salary for those employed in an S&E occupation ($70,000) is more than for those employed in a non-S&E occupation ($50,000); among individuals with a highest degree in an S&E or S&E-related field, those employed in an S&E or S&E-related occupation earn more than those employed in a non-S&E occupation.

The earnings premium enjoyed by college-educated individuals with an S&E or S&E-related degree is present at all career stages. Figure 3-21 presents data on median salaries for groups with S&E, S&E-related, or non-S&E highest degrees at comparable numbers of years since receiving their highest degrees. Although median salaries are similar in the beginning for S&E and non-S&E degree holders, both of which are lower than that for S&E-related degree holders, the rise in earnings associated with career progression is much steeper among individuals with S&E degrees.

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 3-22).

S&E highest degree holders earn more than non-S&E highest degree holders at the master’s degree and doctoral levels (figure 3-23). Among professional degree holders, in contrast, non-S&E degree holders earn more than S&E degree holders.

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.”)

Recent S&E Graduates

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.

General Labor Market Indicators for Recent Graduates

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 3-16).

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 3-16). In all degree fields for which reliable estimates are available, the IOF rate was lower for advanced degree (master’s) holders than for those with bachelor’s degrees only.

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 3-16). Recent master’s degree recipients had a median salary of $55,000, and recent doctorate recipients had a median salary of $60,000.

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 3-10). In particular, among recent master’s degree holders, the unemployment rate was higher for the group receiving degrees between 2008 and 2009 than the group receiving degrees between 2005 and 2007; among recent bachelor’s degree holders, the IOF rate was higher for the group receiving degrees between 2008 and 2009 than the group receiving degrees between 2005 and 2007. The doctorate population in these two groups reported similar unemployment rates and IOF rates in 2010.

Recent Doctorate Recipients

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 3-17) for SEH doctorate recipients up to 3 years after receiving their doctorates was almost identical to the unemployment rate for all SEH doctorates (2.4%); it was considerably lower than the unemployment rate of the civilian labor force in general (9.0%) and the unemployment rate for the entire SESTAT population regardless of level or year of award of highest degree (4.3%).

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 3-17). This compared favorably with the IOF rate for the entire SESTAT population (6.4%).

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 3-18). Across the broad SEH fields, this proportion varied significantly, from about 7% to 8% among recent doctorates in life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering to about 41% among those in the social sciences.

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 3-18). The extent of the increase varies across the broad areas of training. In the social sciences, for example, a relatively large percentage of individuals get into a tenure or tenure-track position within 3 years of obtaining their doctorate, and the increase associated with 3 to 5 years of labor market exposure is not as dramatic as in some other fields, such as physical sciences or mathematics and statistics. (See chapter 5 for a discussion of trends in tenure-track positions as a proportion of all academic positions.)

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 3-18). One of the steepest declines occurred in computer sciences despite the high demand for computer sciences faculty.

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 3-19). Between 2008 and 2010, a period marked by the economic downturn and its immediate aftermath, median salaries for recent recipients of doctoral degrees in most SEH areas either stayed the same or declined slightly (the median salary for recent SEH doctorate recipients in 2008 was $67,000).

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 3-20). Each sector, however, exhibited substantial variation depending on SEH fields of training.

Postdoctoral Positions

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.[19] 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).[20]

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 3-11). SDR data indicate that in 2010 about half of those who had received their doctorates in the previous 3 years in biological/agricultural/environmental life sciences (53%) or physical sciences (47%) were employed in postdoc positions, compared to only 11% in the social sciences (figure 3-24). Within physical sciences, chemistry and physics have particularly strong postdoc traditions.

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 3-21). This proportion ranged from about half among individuals with doctorates in engineering (48%) and computer and information sciences (50%) to about three-quarters among those with doctorates in social sciences (69%) and mathematics and statistics (76%).

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.

[15] The Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research is generally the source for determining the beginning and end of recessions or expansions in the U.S. economy. See for additional information.
[16] The Bureau of Labor Statistics civilian unemployment rate for persons 16 years and over, not seasonally adjusted, is available at (accessed 4 December 2012).
[17] Social scientists were exceptions. The change in the unemployment rate from 2006 to 2010 among social scientists was not statistically significant.
[18] The CPS is the source of the official unemployment rate.
[19] Although the formal job title is often postdoc fellowship or research associate, titles vary among organizations. This chapter generally uses the shorter, more commonly used, and best understood name, postdoc. A postdoc is generally considered a temporary position that individuals take primarily for additional training—a period of advanced professional apprenticeship—after completion of a doctorate.
[20] NSF is currently developing a data collection strategy as part of its Early Career Doctorates Project (ECDP) to gather in-depth information about postdoc researchers and other early career doctorates. The ECDP will collect information related to educational achievement, professional activities, employer demographics, professional and personal life balance, mentoring, training and research opportunities, and career paths and plans for individuals who earned their doctorate in the past 10 years and are employed in an academic institution or a research facility.