A 'misleading' jobs report from NSF?

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Credit: G. Grullón

“Unemployment among Doctoral Scientists and Engineers Remained Below the National Average in 2013,” proclaims the headline of a report issued 12 September by the National Science Foundation (NSF). While this certainly sounds like good news, it is in fact “definitely misleading, for a number of reasons,” writes University of California, Davis, computer scientist Norman Matloff, who has written extensively about tech-industry employment, in his Upon Closer Inspection blog.

Reason number one: Ph.D. scientists have long had unemployment rates lower than the national average, so it would be news only if that were no longer true. “[H]ighly-educated people tend to be resourceful types, who will find some kind of job,” Matloff notes. “But WHAT kind?” That answer provides Matloff’s reason number two: In his own field of computer science (CS), for example, “nearly 7% of CS PhDs are either working part-time or are unemployed (but seeking employment). That’s a rather high rate, considering that the industry PR [public relations] people say CS is such a red-hot field.” According to the 2013 Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), which Matloff cites and which provides the report’s data, 11.3% of doctoral computer scientists were working “involuntarily out-of-field.”

The NSF is in the research business, so by holding Ph.D. wages down, they ‘get more bang for the buck.’

—Norman Matloff

“Things then get worse” in the report table showing overall Ph.D. joblessness by years since receiving the doctorate, Matloff notes. “[S]adly, the table shows employment for PhDs declines markedly with age,” from 96.2% at less than 2 years from the Ph.D. to 89.7% for 21 to 25 years out, when most people are very likely still well below traditional retirement age.

The overall unemployment rate for Ph.D. scientists and engineers, which stood at 2.1% in 2013, has declined slightly since 2010, from 2.4%, the report shows. That, however, is still 61% higher than in 2001.  Among life scientists, the unemployment rate doubled between 2001 and 2013, from 1.1% to 2.2%—not very encouraging considering that SDR counts postdoctoral appointments (which have also grown) as employment.

Why would NSF slant its coverage to emphasize the positive? It would do so in order to make science careers look as attractive as possible, enticing more young people in hopes of keeping salaries low, Matloff suggests. “The NSF is in the research business, so by holding Ph.D. wages down, they ‘get more bang for the buck,’ ” he tells Science Careers in an e-mail. And, in fact, the agency has a well-known history of exaggerating demand for that very reason.

While tracking jobs, the report makes no mention of salaries, which, according to other reports, have stagnated in nominal dollars and declined in real dollars in recent years. Long considered an extremely reliable barometer of demand, wages show that the job market, though better for science Ph.D.s than for the mythic average worker, still isn’t all that hot.

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