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Are There Too Many Ph.D.s And Not Enough Jobs?

Mar 10, 2013 (All Things Considered)

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Our country needs more people with science, math and engineering degrees — at least, that's the common refrain among politicians and educators.

American students lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to math and science test scores, and the president and others have called for a change in immigration laws that would make it easier for people who come to the U.S. to get technical degrees to stay in the country permanently.

But job numbers released by the National Science Foundation show that people with doctoral degrees in those technical fields are struggling to find work in their industries.

Jordan Weissmann, an editor at The Atlantic, analyzed the latest NSF figures. Upon graduation, he says, "Ph.D.s in general have a less than 50 percent chance of having a full-time job, and that percentage has been decreasing for about 20 years."

Worse yet, as of 2011, approximately one-third of people graduating with a doctoral degree in science, technology, math or engineering had no job or post-doctoral offer of any kind.

These figures are not surprising to many young scientists and engineers who feel the employment squeeze.

John Choiniere, who lives in Seattle, earned a doctorate in analytical chemistry in December. Now, he's unemployed.

"I really want to be able to support my family, and I thought getting a Ph.D. in chemistry would be a great way to do that, but so far, not a lot of luck with that," he says.

But, Weissmann says, there is a silver lining: Those who earn doctoral degrees in technical fields are not likely to face chronic, long-term unemployment.

"I think you look at the science and engineering fields in general, and across all age groups they tend to have extremely low unemployment. You know, maybe 3 percent or so," he says. "I think the question isn't necessarily unemployment, but underemployment certainly is a very live issue in these fields."

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