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In a first, U.S. private sector employs nearly as many Ph.D.s as schools do

The job market for U.S. science and engineering Ph.D.s is about to pass a long-anticipated milestone. For decades, educational institutions have been the largest employer of Ph.D.s. In 1997, for instance, they eclipsed private sector employment by 11 percentage points, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) biennial Survey of Doctorate Recipients. But the academic job market has not kept pace with the supply of graduates, and the equivalent data for 2017—released last month—reveals a very different picture: For the first time, private sector employment (42%) is now nearly on par with educational institutions (43%).

The trend is particularly striking in the life and health sciences, the fields that award the most Ph.D.s. In 2017, only 23% of these Ph.D.s held a tenured or tenure track position in academia—a drop of 10 percentage points since 1997. Only math and the computer sciences have seen a larger drop, from 49% to 33%. Those 20-year shifts outpace changes in psychology and the social sciences (35% to 30%), engineering (23% to 16%), and the physical and earth sciences (22% to 19%).

A changing career landscape

Over the past 20 years, the portion of U.S. life and health sciences Ph.D.s employed as tenured and tenure track faculty has declined—while the number of Ph.D.s awarded in these fields has grown.

’97 ’99 ’01 ’03 ’05 ’07 ’09 ’11 ’13 ’15 ’17 5 10 15 thousand ’97 ’99 ’01 ’03 ’05 ’07 ’09 ’11 ’13 ’15 ’17 0 10 20 30 40 Private sector Educational institution, tenured and tenure track Educational institution, other Public sector Other % 0 Ph.D.s awarded Employment sector
(Graphic) K. Langin/Science; (Data, top to bottom) Survey of Doctorate Recipients/NSF; Survey of Earned Doctorates/NSF

The numbers understate the impact on today’s academic job seekers, says Paula Stephan, a labor economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta who studies the scientific workforce. That’s because NSF’s data include all U.S.-trained Ph.D.s under 76 years of age who are employed full time in the United States. Newer cohorts are less likely to secure the tenure track position that many covet, Stephan says. “We’re in a system where … lots of really smart people are going to get faculty jobs and lots of really smart people aren’t,” adds Gary McDowell, executive director of Future of Research, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, California, that advocates on behalf of early-career researchers.

Some universities are beginning to adapt to this reality by collecting data on the career outcomes of their own Ph.D. graduates, which can vary significantly between institutions. This more granular data can help universities improve programming for current students and guide prospective attendees. For example, when the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), found that many of its students go on to work at biotech companies, it began to expose students to those careers earlier by offering internships, networking opportunities, and other hands-on experiences, says Elizabeth Watkins, dean of UCSF’s graduate division. More broadly, she says, “We owe transparency to our prospective students. … It’s truth in advertising.”

Watkins is the co-leader of the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science—a group of institutions committed to collecting and disseminating data on Ph.D.s and postdocs using agreed-on standards, announced in 2017. So far this year, the 10 founding institutions have released data online about the career outcomes of their Ph.D. recipients. (Despite the coalition’s name, it tracks careers outside the life sciences, too.) Twenty-five more institutions are set to release their data by the end of next year, with data on postdocs’ career outcomes to follow.

“It’s a huge first step—huge,” says Stephan, who isn’t involved in the coalition but has advocated for such a data collection initiative for decades. “It’s like 25 years too late … but it’s wonderful.”

Institution-level data can be “very enlightening for a lot of early-career folks,” McDowell agrees. “You’re always surrounded in academia by people who have made it as academics; [but] you never see” the people who left, so it’s hard to appreciate how numerous they are.

The data also serve as “a reality check” for faculty members who otherwise still assume that tenure track positions are the standard path for today’s trainees, says Reinhart Reithmeier, director of professional development and alumni engagement at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Medical Science in Canada. He spearheaded a similar initiative to collect data on Ph.D. recipients at his institution, which he and his colleagues published in PLOS ONE in January.

Given how few young scholars are securing tenure track positions, it’s clear that the traditional apprenticeship model, as Reithmeier describes it—“I’m a successful scientist; just do what I did and you’ll be successful, too”—is outdated, he says. He now teaches a professional development course for graduate students—helping them develop transferable skills such as communication and giving them tips for searching and applying for jobs.

Barbara Knuth, dean of the Graduate School at Cornell University, which was a founding member of the coalition, has noticed some faculty members aren’t interested in mentoring students who don’t want to pursue an academic career path. She calls the attitude a “pernicious cultural problem” but says it persists mainly among faculty who haven’t seen data on recent graduates.

Watkins is now working to convince more universities to collect similar data. To encourage them, she and her UCSF colleagues put together a “toolkit” for other institutions and posted it on the bioRxiv preprint server last month. “We hoped that people could learn from all of our missteps and mistakes,” she says. “The more we know about where our students are going, the more we can think about whether we are … preparing them for those careers.”