It Sure Looks Like There’s a PhD Glut, Especially If You’re a Young PhD

And especially if you’re interested in traditional industry or academia. Comrade PhysioProf, however, declares:

There is a big fucken snivel-fest going on over at DrugMonkey about how terrible it is for universities to increase the number of PhDs they award in the natural sciences and how morally correct it is for institutions to decrease their admission of PhD students, because there are not enough jobbes as faculty or other researcher positions for the number of PhDs produced. This is a total load of arrant bullshitte.

So, I went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and looked at how ‘medical scientists’ (code 19-1042) are doing, both in terms of wages and employment numbers. I chose this category because the biological sciences are quite large; the other reason is that this category is defined as requiring a PhD so we don’t have the problem of lumping together people with different degrees (besides, it’s my blog–if you want to look at something else, go ahead and blog it!).

In terms of salaries, at every level, once you adjust for inflation, salaries have remained constant from 2000 – 2011 (.xlsx file here). What hasn’t remained constant is employment (data are for 2002 – 2011, since that’s when the category breakdown begins):

(data here)

That’s a rapidly expanding base, and the marginal rate of growth certainly can’t keep pace as it did from 2002 – 2009: does anyone really believe we’ll have ~200,000 medical scientists in 2021? Also, it’s worth noting that the ‘traditional’ avenues of academic and corporate research have been whacked hard in the last few years–it would appear the ARRA funding simply lessened the bleeding.

But to return to the original question: is there a PhD glut? If you’re older, probably 45+, you made your way in a world with massive job growth. Life was good, with lots of opportunities. But if you’re a younger PhD–under 35–the job market has tightened in your professional formative years. And remember, we need to add jobs to employ newly minted PhDs.

This is what one might expect in a self-reinforcing hierarchical system with finite resources.

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9 Responses to It Sure Looks Like There’s a PhD Glut, Especially If You’re a Young PhD

  1. eskeptricalengineer says:

    As someone about to finish a PhD, I’m not sure that I want to look up the data for engineering!

    I’ve heard from students in the program at my school that corresponds to “medical science” that their department does a really poor job of preparing them for jobs outside the academy even though there simply aren’t enough faculty openings for all their graduates. Data like this reinforces their complaint, since you show that academic jobs have decreased since 2007, even as the total number of medical scientist jobs has increased.

  2. jw says:

    what is being shown on the y axis?

    as a plant/ag scientist, i haven’t seen a lot of opportunities aside from whoring for monsanto or similar companies. i’m not bitter though; i’ll probably just be a technician forever, phd notwithstanding. good thing i kept my job while getting my phd part time is all.

  3. Newcastle says:

    It is a horrible time to be a senior technician too. I’ve been doing this for 30 years now and my salary has been dropping as lab after lab has shutdown or been reduced to a technicianless state. You apply for a 50k/yr job and you find yourself up against a boatload of PhDs with several postdocs under their belts. 15 years ago a postdoc level person would never dream of applying for the position, not so much anymore. We have PhDs making 30k/year checking plugs & genotyping mice for a living.

  4. Charles Pye says:

    I’m really skeptical of that claim that PhDs have a 2.5% unemployment rate and $80,000 median income. Even if it was only restricted to engineering or natural science PhDs that seems high, and if you include humanities PhDs then it’s just laughably high.

    I think the main problem is that the BLS just isn’t a good source of information about small, niche fields like science. It’s designed more for tracking broad trends in the labor market, not for helping academics compare salaries. One thing I noticed before is that their definition of “physicist” carefully excludes grad students, post-docs, and professors, so they pretty much only count people employed at national labs, and I imagine they do a similiar trick with other science fields as well.

  5. johnV says:

    I’m 32, got my Ph.D. in microbiology 6.5 years ago and have had 1 stint on unemployment in between my 2 post-docs. I’m currently looking for work and damned if there aren’t really any jobs for bacteria people. Hell I even see technician jobs that specifically state that PhDs are not welcome to apply. Part of the perceived glut may end up being discipline specific as I see my current lab is going end up producing 5 new PhDs in a 2 year span.

    Of course, at the same time I see various government agencies suggesting a national security risk due to a lack of domestic science and technology PhDs but wtf there’s no jobs.

    I’m also looking forward to having to repay 3 months of my fellowship to the NIH if I can’t find appropriate work :p

  6. Art says:

    Talking to a good number of PhD holders, many are out of work, a lot of them are massively underemployed. Seeems there are a lot of PhDs but a shortage of compitent technicians. A couple of people I know with PhDs in chemistry are working as technicians and one of them got the job because he left the PhD off his application. The boss didn’t want a PhD for fear they would jump ship as soon as a beter job opened up. He has now had that job for two years.

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  8. isomorphismes says:

    I think the most important question to answer is: Will there be a high-paying job for me in industry, if I want it, after I slog through the Ph.D.? This is the traditional line students are fed: “Oh, you can always just go into [consulting / finance / law] and make millions of dollars. But we academics are so smart that we wouldn’t be satisfied unless we were hyperbending our minds every day.”

    Ideally, the numbers I’d want to know would be the expected value added by obtaining a Ph.D. (in industry) and the value-at-risk — my chances of being in a sh*tty situation even after working so hard to get the degree.

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