President Obama and the National Science Foundation have pushed U.S. universities to produce more scientists, but there many not be enough jobs for those future STEM graduates.
Obama has made science education a priority, launching a White House science fair to get young people interested in the field.
But it’s questionable whether those youths will be able to find work when they get a PhD. Although jobs in some high-tech areas, especially computer and petroleum engineering, seem to be booming, the market is much tighter for lab-bound scientists — those seeking new discoveries in biology, chemistry and medicine.
“There have been many predictions of [science] labor shortages and . . . robust job growth,” said Jim Austin, editor of the online magazine ScienceCareers. “And yet, it seems awfully hard for people to find a job. Anyone who goes into science expecting employers to clamor for their services will be deeply disappointed.”
Academic and research positions have become harder to find.
One big driver of that trend: Traditional academic jobs are scarcer than ever. Once a primary career path, only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years, according to a 2009 NSF survey. That figure has been steadily declining since the 1970s, said Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University who studies the scientific workforce. The reason: The supply of scientists has grown far faster than the number of academic positions.
The pharmaceutical industry once was a haven for biologists and chemists who did not go into academia. Well-paying, stable research jobs were plentiful in the Northeast, the San Francisco Bay area and other hubs. But a decade of slash-and-burn mergers; stagnating profit; exporting of jobs to India, China and Europe; and declining investment in research and development have dramatically shrunk the U.S. drug industry, with research positions taking heavy hits.
Since 2000, U.S. drug firms have slashed 300,000 jobs …
Employment numbers are healthy for physicists and physicians, but not for biologists and chemists.
… for the much larger pool of biologists and chemists, “It’s a particularly difficult time right now,” Stephan said.
One reason: A glut of new biomedical scientists that entered the field when the economy was healthier. From 1998 to 2003, the budget of the National Institutes of Health doubled to $30 billion per year. That boost — much of which flows to universities — drew in new, young scientists. The number of new PhDs in the medical and life sciences boomed, nearly doubling from 2003 to 2007, according to the NSF.
The many (3831 by my last count) comments to this story are filled with condemnations of capitalism, criticism of the NSF, complaints of too many H-1B visas, despair about the dumbing down of education, pleas for more government intervention, and more.
There is also mention that trained scientists often go on to various other types of careers where their background proves valuable. That would describe me, having spent many years in the financial services industry after receiving a STEM degree and working as a scientist in the oil business. And it’s certainly not only STEM majors who end up working in fields unrelated to their area of study. So here are some of my takeaways.
- Be very careful about committing years and money to obtain a PhD in any field because the payoff may not be worth it.
- While our country needs to maintain a level of scientific expertise and innovation for purposes of national (economic) security, I am suspicious of the ability of government bureaucrats to successfully micromanage career choices for our citizens.
- You’ve got to learn to roll with the flow. With the boom and bust of our economy, today’s thriving career sector can be tomorrow’s slump. Think ahead of what your options would be in various scenarios, and try to be flexible in your outlook on how you can earn your living.
- Think about you are developing the core skills and traits that help make you employable in different industries and scenarios.