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Three Can't-Miss Science Careers

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CREDIT: Gulustan, distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite frequently made claims in the national news media, and from university and industry officials, the job market for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professionals as a whole is not booming. A decade of flat funding by federal agencies, declines in in-house research programs in industry, and an academic research culture that relies upon an ever-increasing number of trainees to execute research have flooded the market with highly trained scientists competing for few permanent positions that would utilize their skills.

There are, however, a few bright spots among the gloom, fields in which a degree virtually guarantees solid career prospects. Science Careers identified three such fields and explored recent hiring and salary trends.

"If [physician-scientists] want to be employed, as far as we know, they are all employed." —Robinna Lorenz

Ph.D. computer scientist

According to the Computing Research Association's annual Taulbee Survey, more people earned Ph.D.s in computer science in 2012 than in any previous year, which could mean more competition for jobs. But there's no evidence that job opportunities are worsening, says Stuart Zweben, who directs the survey and authors the associated reports. "It's not obvious that [jobs] are becoming rarer," he says.

Stuart Zweben

Stuart Zweben

Courtesy of Purdue University

Courtesy of Purdue University
Stuart Zweben

Indeed, of the 1443 computer science Ph.D.s included in the most recent Taulbee Survey, only six were unemployed—an unemployment rate of 0.4%. "[T]hat suggests that doctoral students aren't having difficulty getting employment," Zweben says.

Where are these computer science jobs? They are mostly in industry, Zweben says. The Taulbee report confirms that more than half of recent computer science Ph.D.s found jobs outside academia in 2012. "Industry appears to recognize the value that Ph.D.s give to their organizations," Zweben says. The subfields with the strongest hiring are networking, cybersecurity, and software engineering, according to the report. More broadly, Zweben says the trend toward using "big data" techniques to fish for novel correlations and patterns in enormous data sets is driving hiring of computer scientists in many fields.

The Taulbee survey doesn't track salaries for industry jobs, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median annual salary for computer research scientists at $100,800. Entry-level salaries will of course be lower, with most sources indicating that an entry-level software developer or software engineer can expect to make between $50,000 and $70,000 a year.

How's the academic job market in computer science? It's likely healthier than most scientific fields at the moment. Universities are adding tenure-track posts. The Taulbee survey indicates that tenure-track assistant professors annually earn between $85,000 (at smaller public universities) and $100,000 (at large private universities). However, computer science is encountering a worrisome trend: a steady rise in the ratio of postdocs to faculty hires. As pointed out in a February article in Communications of the ACM [Association for Computing Machinery], in 2003, more than twice as many recent Ph.D.s took tenure-track faculty positions as took postdocs. In 2012 that ratio was reversed.

Still, for a computer scientist with a Ph.D., Zweben says finding a job that utilizes your computer science training is the norm. "Every place I've talked to is saying, 'Yeah, our graduates are finding jobs.' "

Geoscientist (especially petroleum engineer)

The energy industry is among the largest in the United States in terms of profits and revenues, and that translates into lots of jobs. Energy companies need geoscientists to hunt down new fossil fuel and alternative energy sources, improve extraction and refinement techniques, and develop more efficient ways of storing and transporting energy. The recent boom in new methods for fossil fuel extraction is adding to the demand for petroleum scientists.

A 2011 report issued by the American Geophysical Union (AGU), Status of the Geoscience Workforce, argued that based on graduation rates of geoscience graduate students (approximately 1500 per year) and job-growth numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be a U.S. workforce "shortfall" estimated at 30,000 geoscientists by 2018. Most of those jobs will be in the oil and gas industries, where the workforce is quite old. The report states: "Even in oil and gas companies, which typically offer the highest salaries of all geoscience employing industries, the supply of new geoscientists is short of replacement needs." That could mean numerous, well-paying opportunities for young geoscientists entering the field, the workforce report argues:

How well do these opportunities pay geoscientists? According to data from the American Geosciences Institute Geoscience Workforce Program, the mean annual salary for a petroleum engineer is $120,000. An April Wall Street Journal article reports the starting salary for petroleum engineers is around $93,500 a year. The University of Texas, Austin's Engineering Career Assistance Center breaks down average starting salary by degree for its grads: those with a bachelor's degree average $89,259 a year and those with a Ph.D. earn $118,500 a year. Such high salaries suggest that in petroleum engineering, overcrowding hasn't pushed down wages.

Employment opportunities in academia aren't bad, either, although the positive outlook depends on impending retirements, which tend to be delayed in academia. The AGU report says the academic workforce is top-heavy with "the older generation of geoscientists who will retire within the next 15 years." Still, full professors outnumber assistant and associate professors by about 30%, the report says, suggesting that as older faculty phase out, a healthy number of tenure-track spots will come available. We'll see. The average annual salary for academic geoscientists is around $80,000.

Not all geoscientist jobs are created equal. While careers in the oil and gas industry appear to be booming, demand for environmental scientists, hydrologists, and mining and geological engineers isn't nearly as high, and in those fields, salary growth lags behind the national average for all professions.


One of the longest academic career paths also offers one of the highest chances for career success. Physician-scientists combine medical investigator and clinical practitioner roles. These days, most new physician-scientists have dual degrees (usually M.D.-Ph.D.), and the majority of M.D.-Ph.D. programs pay full tuition and a stipend to accepted students, so dual-degree physician scientists aren't saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of debt, like most M.D.s are. (Some scientists still earn M.D.s and Ph.D.s separately instead of through a dual-degree program, and it's possible to become a physician-scientist with only an M.D., although both of these paths are becoming rarer. If you go either of those routes, you'll probably end up paying for medical school.)

Between 85% and 90% of physician-scientists take jobs in academic medical centers. "That's what we train you for, that's what we're good at training you for, so that's the expectation, that if you're going into this program, you're going to want to become a part of an academic medical center," says Robinna G. Lorenz, who is an M.D.-Ph.D. professor of pathology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham School of Medicine. 

Robinna Lorenz

Robinna Lorenz

Courtesy of the University of Alabama, Birmingham

Courtesy of the University of Alabama, Birmingham
Robinna Lorenz

After receiving their dual degrees, some leave academia and pursue careers in clinical medicine, which tends to pay more. Lorenz doesn't think of that as a fallback option for M.D.-Ph.D.s, however. "If push comes to shove, in this type of environment where grants are tight, certainly the advantage of getting the dual degree is that you can at any time go back and forth between those pathways," she says. But, even though funding is tight, "our numbers going into private practice seem to be pretty much stable." Over the past 50 years, the percentage of M.D.-Ph.D.s who wind up in private practice has held steady at 10-15%.

Unemployment? Virtually unheard of among physician-scientists, Lorenz says. Maybe for that reason, statistics are hard to come by: the rates are too low to be interesting. "If they want to be employed, as far as we know, they are all employed."

Salaries for physician-scientists tend to be higher than for Ph.D.s without a medical degree, Lorenz says, because they are most commonly placed in academic clinical departments where pay is based on M.D. salaries.

A recent trend among physician-scientists is the emergence of "alternative" Ph.D. paths. Historically, the most common Ph.D.s earned as part of a dual-degree program were in fields with obvious medical relevance: biochemistry, developmental biology, pathology, or genetics. But recently, more dual-degree scientists have been earning research doctorates in other fields: computer science, bioinformatics, public health, and engineering have all ticked up, Lorenz says. "They get the fact that big data is coming, or in some cases is already here," she says. "In order to take care of patients, or to do really any type of research, you're going to have to be able to take large amounts of data and sift through that data, analyze, and come out the other end with actionable items, either in your research program or to take care of a patient. It's coming that we're going to have full genome sequencing of every patient in the hospital. … They realize that they're going to position themselves very well if they have that type of background."

Which brings this short sampling of can't-miss science careers full circle.