Government pushes for training more scientists, but where are the jobs?

by Grace

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.

Five skills that will help you find and keep a job after college
Liberal arts skills are profitable for college graduates

12 Comments to “Government pushes for training more scientists, but where are the jobs?”

  1. Am I wrong in thinking that spectacular scientific fraud disproportionately involves Asian researchers? There was a story recently of a Japanese anaesthesiologist who totally fabricated 172 papers over two decades.

    There’s a pretty good probability that the sort of unusual internal conditions that produce China’s ghost cities could easily produce something very similar in Chinese scientific research.


  2. Grace, one point that I don’t see made often enough is that graduate students should be very careful in which faculty they choose to work under. Some professors are much better mentors and have better records at getting their students into academic positions than others. I know that I didn’t thoroughly consider this myself, or how the life stage and personality of a mentor can affect the mentee. (For instance, does the professor have tenure or not, are they likely to retire soon, are they prone to getting into public wars with other academics?) Some changes are outside a student’s ability to anticipate, but they could usually look into a professor’s record at mentoring students instead of only considering whether the research was cool or interesting.

    Also, grad students might also consider whether their faculty advisors will be at all helpful in landing industry jobs. Most aren’t, but some can be and a student who might want to work in industry could look for someone suitable.


  3. “What is a ghost city? I am not familiar with that term. Do you mean the way that villages in the interior have hollowed out as adults migrate to the cities, leaving behind children and grandparents?”

    The ghost cities are one of the most interesting stories in the international news. China has quite a number of shiny new cities that are almost totally empty because there’s little reason for anybody to move there.

    I’m not sure about the financial underpinnings of these developments (who built them with whose money), but the second article says China is planning on building 20 cities a year for the next 20 years. The first article says that some estimates say that half of Chinese GDP is connected to real estate. This sort of thing raises a lot of questions about China’s 10% annual growth and whether it isn’t also a Potemkin village.

    I’m kind of a real estate nut and have followed the US bubble for nearly 6 years now, so the ghost cities really get my attention. It’s like those empty Arizona, California, Florida and California exurban developments, except on the scale of the Three Gorges Dam.


  4. Deleted it. I agree WordPress is a bit unfriendly for commenting, but I’ve also had similar experiences with other host sites. The worst, IMO, are the ones that require you to use Facebook to comment.


  5. It sounds pretty bad for the future of US research, and I wonder if our high corporate tax rate is a factor. I know various tax breaks for R&D are part of the system, but I wonder if a lower overall rate would be a better incentive.


  6. kcab, I would think that ability of mentors to help with future employment opportunities would be one of the most important considerations for graduate students, but I can see how some don’t think this through and also it is simply not always in their control.


  7. I don’t know the numbers, but maybe corporations prefer to fund research at universities rather than doing research in house? And once you accept the option of outsourcing to a university, offshoring is just one step further.

    kcab said:

    “Grace, one point that I don’t see made often enough is that graduate students should be very careful in which faculty they choose to work under. Some professors are much better mentors and have better records at getting their students into academic positions than others.”

    That is so true. Of course, a lot of that becomes more obvious in retrospect, when it’s too late either way. My husband had the good fortune of meeting up with a very generous and energetic mentor early in his graduate career in philosophy. They co-wrote stuff and this mentor very competently oversaw the department’s placement efforts, missing no tricks and placing the seemingly unplaceable. A few years later, and this mentor moved on to a different university and retirement. From what I’ve seen of graduate life outside the sciences, there’s huge variation in how professors view their responsibilities to their graduate students.


  8. I just realized that Russia is a cautionary example against training a lot of people in technical fields and hoping for the best. Starting under the Soviets, they put tremendous effort into training scientists, engineers and technicians and their traditional school curriculum in math and in the sciences is so much stronger than the US curriculum that there’s really no comparison. And what about the practical results of all that? They did very well in producing a lot of math research, they supplied the 3rd world with Migs and various weaponry and they currently have more of a space program than we do. So, not a bad showing. Still, there’s a huge mismatch between the vast pool of available Russian technical talent and what Russia has managed to do with it. Without the petroleum industry, things would be pretty miserable–the Russian Federation would be a sort of supersized Romania. The Russian example suggests that there is a lot more to being a technological powerhouse than just training a lot of scientists and engineers. Unfortunately, current thinking in the US sounds a lot like this:

    1. Train engineers.

    2. ????

    3. Profit!


  9. “I suspect Russia would have been far worse off if they didn’t have all those trained people. They were a very poor country and that military-industrial capability was all that kept them going economically for a while. Plus, if they didn’t have that capability, they might have lost control of their own petroleum production, as has happened in many other countries. But I agree that more is needed than having the trained technical people to have a good economy. However, I also think that having the people is necessary too.”

    It’s certainly not a bad place to start.

    One of the freaky things about Russia is the weird mismatch between the showy high-level achievements and the low-level incompetence. For instance, at the same time that the Soviet government was building nukes and going into space, they never quite got around to providing telephone service for the average Russian household or indoor plumbing for the villages. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Russia in the mid/later 90s, the normal way to communicate with each other was to send a telegram, because almost none of us had home phones (and the apartment I lived in was circa 1960s). It was somehow impossibly difficult to put in the infrastructure for land lines for everybody. The cell phone eventually made a huge difference, just as it did in the developing world. The same sort of thing came up in medicine, too. A normal Soviet woman might easily have had a dozen abortions and Soviet dentistry was infamous. At the same time, Soviet medicine was coming up with revolutionary eye surgery techniques.

    Since the end of the Soviet Union, the birthrate and the life-expectancy of Russian men (about 60) has been a continuing disaster. On the other hand, on the individual level, a lot of stuff is better than it has ever been, thanks to free market solutions. There’s fruit year-round, there are cell phones, there are alternatives to abortion, there’s better and more humane dentistry, etc.

    Anyway, it’s very striking to look at what kind of misery and deprivation the Soviet government was willing to leave ordinary people living in while lavishly funding various show pieces. I conclude that a flourishing advanced society needs at least 1) trained people and 2) some freedom (so people can publicly express what they want) and 3) an environment where they can readily use their talents (namely, economic freedom).


  10. “They were a very poor country”

    Yes and no. On the one hand, the Soviets did create a very well-trained population. On the other hand, Russia is the biggest country on the planet, covers 9 time zones, has only half the US population, and is sitting on enormous natural resources. With such a profusion of resources and engineers and scientists, was this really the best they could do?


  11. “I believe our tax rates were higher in the heyday of corporate research, so no, I don’t think that is the answer.”

    They probably were higher, but a difference is that today they’re higher relative to other countries. Apparently other countries have been cutting their corporate rates more aggressively than the US has. Combined with new competition from China and elsewhere, this could be a factor in reduced research by American corporations.

    Corporate Tax Rates:

    US 50%
    Average non-US OCD 30 countries 49%

    US 39%
    Average non-US OCD 30 countries 30%


  12. “Their social fabric is abysmal – people drink themselves into an early grave. I really don’t know what is wrong with them.”

    There’s an alcoholism-friendly male culture, where it’s unmanly and anti-social not to keep up with their peers. (The stereotypical thing for a guy to say when twisting somebody’s arm to have another drink with him is, “Do you respect me?” as if that had anything to do with it.) That’s been around forever and was one of the things Gorbachev was fighting with his attempt at prohibition. The transition to a market economy was especially hard on men. So many Soviet entities (big smoke belching factories that made stuff nobody wanted) disappeared. Unfortunately, the world over, men identify very strongly with their professions, and deprived of a work title, they don’t really have a lot to live for. While it’s very understandable what a useful (indeed, indispensable) person a Russian pensioner grandma is, there’s no such clear role for a Russian grandpa. Also, thanks to a high divorce rate (the world’s highest some years), fathers tend to have left the picture years earlier. The prospect of eventual single parenthood in a very difficult environment is one explanation for the tiny birthrate. One bright, energetic woman can raise one child pretty well on her own in that environment, but two is a totally different situation. (I once knew a very nice Russian single mother and her very nice mom who were going out of their minds living together in a one-bedroom apartment with two toddlers.)

    “They had no middle class at all when the Soviets took over, and never seemed to develop one.”

    I think the Soviets really did develop a fairly large middle class (teachers, doctors, engineers, etc.), but it was operating at a much lower economic level than we are accustomed to think of as middle class. When I lived there in the 90s, for instance, government doctors might make $40 a month. As I recall, at the time, that was enough to purchase 6 kilos of imported New Zealand apples–for the month. (A friend’s mother was a doctor and she left practice to sell shoes for a living because the doctor’s pay was so miserable.) My impression is that under Putin and the Russian oil boom he presided over, government salaries are no longer as laughable as they used to be in the 90s.


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