In tough economy, PhD appears to help

But being employed doesn't always mean having a full-time job.

U.S. residents holding PhD’s in science, health and engineering were considerably more likely to be employed during late 2008 (the most recent period for which data are available) than were Americans generally, according to a just-released National Science Foundation report.

In October of that year, the national unemployment figure was 6.6 percent, compared to just 1.7 percent for the 662,600 people with PhD’s in these technical fields who wished to be working (meaning they weren’t retired, ill or deliberately taking time out to raise children).

Among individuals who had obtained their PhD at least two years earlier, younger scientists and engineers were just as likely to be employed as were older ones, data show.

Differences did emerge, however, by discipline, with employment rates greatest for computer and information scientists (96.8 percent) and lowest for physical scientists (84.9 percent) and mathematicians/statisticians (84.7 percent). What these composite numbers also hide is the share of scientists who lacked full time employment. Computer and information scientists were more likely to have full time jobs (91.4 percent), for instance, compared to psychology PhDs (67.3 percent).

Women, representing 30.7 percent of U.S. PhD recipients, were as likely as men to have jobs: 89.7 percent versus 87.4 percent. They were, however, twice as likely as men to hold part-time jobs (14.7 percent versus 7.4 percent), meaning their overall compensation suffered. In academia, a lot of these will have been adjunct professors — teachers with little job security and often few if any benefits.

Non-hispanic whites hold three-quarters of PhDs in the sciences and engineering, with Asians the next largest group at 18 percent. The remaining 6.4 percent constitute underrepresented minorities — blacks, native Americans, Hispanics and Pacific islanders. PhD researchers from these minority groups were more likely than Non-hispanic whites to hold full-time jobs.

As anyone who has worked in science knows, the American research enterprise benefits from a substantial number of visiting and immigrant researchers. In 2008, 3.6 percent of U.S. PhD recipients held temporary visas.

Academia employed more than 40 percent of PhD researchers in science, health and engineering. Close behind: private commercial firms, which employed another third of all PhD researchers, especially engineers.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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