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Should Scientists Consider Health Care Careers?

CREDIT: Photodisc Professional Science

Last week, Science Careers published a short article on employment projections in computer science and related fields. (We also published, later in the week, this related article, an interview on computer science careers with computer science veteran Ed Lazowska.) In that first article, we compared job opportunities, as projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), with data on degrees awarded annually from the Science and Engineering Indicators report issued by the U.S. National Science Board. The conclusion: Between 2010 and 2020, the number of jobs projected to be available in computer occupations will exceed the number of computer science degrees granted by U.S. universities, from associate degrees through Ph.D.s, by about 40%. Strikingly, computer science jobs—all jobs organized under BLS code 15-1100—are projected to constitute 62% of all new jobs in the main science-related categories (BLS codes 15, 17, and 19).

The point of that article was to posit that fledgling scientists worried about the flagging employment prospects in many fields of science would do well to consider jobs in computer science. But that analysis was misleading in a couple of ways. For one thing, it did not account for the fact that many of those computer-related jobs can be done by people who don't have degrees in computer science. It's quite common, for example, for someone with a math or physics degree to take a computer-related job. And, as Lazowska noted in the interview, as computation becomes more important across a wider range of disciplines, many of those jobs will be filled by people who have strong computing skills but whose main expertise is in other fields. We'll have more on this important point in future Science Careers articles.

So, does it really make sense for scientists who are already far along in their training—postdocs and those still pursuing graduate degrees, for example—to consider transitioning into a health care career? If you're looking for alternatives, then, yes, it makes sense to consider it.

But even with those caveats, prospects in computer science are likely to dwarf those in other scientific fields: In the physical sciences, just 35,700 new jobs are projected to be created over 10 years. In the life sciences, the number is 58,300. In computer science? 758,800.

Looked at that way, computer science looks like a relatively safe career choice.

But there's a second way in which the analysis is misleading: As Lazowska pointed out in our e-mail interview, it left out a major category of science-related jobs. BLS code 29, "Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations," is projected to have even more new jobs than computer occupations. A lot more.

The idea of people with science-related degrees going into health care is nothing new. People with undergraduate chemistry and biology degrees have been going to medical school and entering other health professions for—well, for as long a there's been medical schools. But our readership consists primarily of people training to become, or already working as, scientific researchers. Most are at least in graduate school, and many already have their Ph.D.s. Does it make sense for them—for you—to consider changing course and pursuing a job in health care?

There are some negatives. You need a license and typically a vocational or professional degree. You need extra training, and it can be expensive. And then there's the fact that if you already have an advanced degree in science or are far along in pursuing one; in many ways you're overqualified for a job as a lab tech, say, or a dental hygienist. That combination—being overqualified but still needing additional training—is a good sign of a bad fit.

Maybe the idea of trading Nobel ambitions for cleaning teeth doesn't sound very appealing—but then, maybe a decent-paying 9-to-5 job, with a median salary of $68,250 (for dental hygienists), sounds OK if you're earning half that as a postdoc and your prospects for future employment don't look good.

Of course, we're not just talking about cleaning teeth. This category also includes physicians and surgeons—and if you become a doctor, your scientific expertise will be a big advantage (though probably more so for microbiologists than for astrophysicists). While M.D./Ph.D. dual-degree programs are on the rise, some people still earn both degrees the old-fashioned way: first one and then the other. Combined Ph.D. and M.D. degrees make a powerful package, and unlike most jobs in BLS category 29, this combination positions you perfectly to continue your career in research. And if the research career doesn't work out, the fallback—clinical medicine—is still very good.

How many jobs are we talking about? BLS predicts more than 3.5 million job openings between 2010 and 2020, including more than 2 million new jobs. That's more than twice as many new jobs as in the computer occupations category. Many of those jobs aren't appropriate for the typical Science Careers reader, but the category is so large that even a small slice is meaningful.

Here's what that pie chart looks like after we add in category 29.

When you add in health care jobs, they—not computer occupations—make up 62% of all new science-related jobs projected to be created between 2010 and 2020. Computer science occupations have fallen to just 24% of new jobs. Of course, that's still a big, important percentage, and it's much larger than the other science categories, as the pie chart shows. But including health care jobs does help to put things in perspective.

By including all of BLS category 29, we're casting a very wide net—but why shouldn't we? When you consider that during this 10-year period the number of physical science job openings is projected to be about half the number of physical science degrees granted by U.S. universities, occupations such as radiation therapy (median salary $74,980, according to BLS) and nuclear medicine technology (median salary $68,560) start to seem attractive. And when you consider that the number of life-science degrees is projected to outstrip the number of life-science jobs by a factor of 10:1, working as a registered nurse (median salary $64,960) or physician assistant (median salary $86,410) might sound pretty good, especially to those who are starting to crave a 9-to-5 job.

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