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%).
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.