Friday, May 13, 2011

Six graphs answer questions about the PhD labor market

In my experience, getting an honest, straightforward answer about the post-PhD labor market from most professors in graduate school is about as easy as extracting teeth from the mouth of a sparrow.  Even when an answer is forthcoming, it is too often clouded by unrealistic expectations about the types of careers graduate students want and / or attempts to boost morale in order to increase research productivity.

Fortunately, no less an authority than the National Science Foundation has been conducting rigorous, nationally representative surveys on the US PhD labor market since 1993.  On top of that, the NSF has made the results from its biannual surveys open to the public, both in the form of raw data and in the form of summary statistics.  For a quantitative geek like me, the data are a little slice of heaven.

Thus, both to satisfy my own curiosity and for the benefit of other people who want hard data about PhD labor outcomes, I created the following six graphs with the goal of answering common questions about the STEM PhD labor market.  I will structure my graphs around three questions in particular:

(1) How successful are PhDs at finding the jobs they want?
(2) Where do PhDs go for their jobs and what do they do on the job?
(3) How well compensated are PhDs for the work they do?

The source data come the 2006 survey, which is the most recent dataset made available from the NSF.  A total of 42,955 people were surveyed, or about 5.5% of the total 2006 population of PhDs.  The response rate was 77.9%, which is typical for nationally representative surveys.

And now, on to the questions and graphs!!

Question 1:  How successful are PhDs at getting the jobs they want?

Graph #1: The estimated unemployment rate and rate of people forced to involuntarily take jobs outside their field broken down by PhD category.

Click for a larger image

As you can see from the above graph, the unemployment rates and involuntary out-of-field (IOF) rates varied considerably by PhD category in 2006.  Fortunately for STEM PhDs, the unemployment rates were all relatively low; considerably below the 4.6% for the labor force as a whole in August 2006.  The IOF rates ranged slightly higher than the unemployment rates, peaking at 5.4% for the physical sciences.  Fortunately for me and for my colleagues in psychology, the unemployment and IOF rates in psychology were actually quite low, at 1.3% and 1% each.

Graph #2: Percentage of employed PhDs at differing years since PhD by PhD category.

Click for a larger image

The above graph is an interesting counterpoint to the unemployment and IOF graph in that it suggests that the very fields that have higher unemployment and IOF rates were also relatively “topheavy” – they were fields that had relatively high proportions of people who earned their PhDs a long time ago and relatively low proportions of newly-minted PhDs.  In contrast, the fast-growing fields of computer science and health had proportions of newly minted PhDs that are quite high, at 26.8% and 27.9% each.

In sum, based on the data from 2006, the job prospects for STEM PhDs appear to be relatively bright.  However, job prospects are best for fields like computer science and health that appear to be enjoying strong growth in the labor market.

Question #2: Where do PhDs go for their jobs and what do they do on the job?

Graph #3: Percentage of employed PhDs in various job sectors by PhD category.

Click for a larger image

As shown in the above graph, STEM PhDs do a lot of different things once they are done with graduate school.  Although a large proportion the PhDs surveyed were in either a 4-year academic institution (43.7% of those surveyed in 2006) or another academic institution like a 2-year college (3.4%), 47.1% were in a job outside academia.  The high rates of non-academic jobs might come as a surprise to graduate students who, like me, are immersed in departmental cultures that are highly focused on academia.

Graph #4: Percentage of employed PhDs who reported working that the activity was one of two on which they spent the most time, broken down by PhD category.

Click for a larger image

The above graph illustrates yet again that, based on the 2006 survey, PhDs do a lot of different things once they earn their PhD.  With the exception of Psychology, research was the most frequently listed on-the-job activity across the disciplines; however, even in the most extreme of the research-focused disciplines, survey respondents listed other activities, such as management and administration, as taking a large portion of their time.

In sum, STEM PhDs go to many different employment sectors (both academic and non-academic) and, once there, engage in both research and non-research activities.

Question #3: How well compensated are PhDs for the work they do?

Graph #5: Median reported salary across three selected employment sectors (4-year university, private for-profit, self-employed), broken down by PhD category.

Click for a larger image

The overall median salary for all PhDs was \$85,900 in 2006; as a basis of comparison, the median household income in 2006 was \$48,201.  However, according to the above graph, the compensation a PhD receives varies at least in part with the job sector the PhD enters.  In particular, across all the STEM disciplines, taking an academic job is equivalent to accepting a (sometimes substantial) pay cut.  The size of this pay cut varies somewhat with the particular PhD category, but across the various PhD categories, PhDs in 4-year universities earn 67% of the salaries of their peers in the private for-profit sector.

Graph #6: Median reported salary by job activity and PhD category.

Click for a larger image

The above graph reinforces the point that as a PhD, your compensation depends on the specifics of your job. In particular, PhDs who listed management and administration as one of the activities on which they spent the most time were better compensated than their peers across the disciplines.  In contrast, PhDs who listed teaching as one of the activities on which they spent the most time consistently worse compensated than their peers across the disciplines.

In sum, based on the 2006 data, most PhDs in STEM disciplines are well-compensated, but the amount of compensation varies considerably with employment sector and the type of work the PhD does.

Hopefully the above graphs helped shed some light on the PhD labor market.  The situation is not all bleak, particularly if one is willing to explore options outside the traditional academic research career.  The trick seems to be figuring out how to translate the skills one earns over the course of the PhD into skills one can market to potential employers.


  1. Great post!

    Perhaps a fourth question or more detail on the third, but I'm also curious about the effects on salary and employment of PhD programs compared to MS and BS programs. Essentially, how much benefit does one gain in the workplace in exchange for the extra time, money, energy, etc that one invests in pursuing a PhD program?

  2. That's a great question, and one that, unfortunately, I wouldn't be able to answer using just the NSF data. However, there is a widespread and growing sense of dissatisfaction with the PhD system for exactly the concerns that you raise -- many people believe that the PhD is not worth the time and effort that it requires. For example, there's a series of articles from the journal Nature arguing for major reforms of the PhD system. Below is one of them:

    See also the following article in the Economist:

    After looking through the NSF data, I have come to the tentative conclusion that the criticisms to the PhD system are most applicable to PhDs in the humanities, where you don't earn skills that directly translate into jobs outside academia. The PhD system may still need broad reforms, but in the STEM disciplines, at least, most PhDs still seem to be getting the jobs they were trained for, and they're getting compensated reasonably well to boot.

  3. Psych PhDs make more than I would have figured. I did my undergrad in psych research and cognitive science (University of Toronto). I went to Rutgers thereafter for the cog psych PhD program but left 6-7 months in upon realizing that 1. I found doing the actual research to be really tedious (I found to be tedious during undergrad too, but I guess I just hoped that I'd mind it less if it was my main occupation rather than something I was doing in addition to classwork), and 2. the job market for cognitive psych is just awful.

    I actually applied to University of Wisconsin Madison with the goal of working with Mark Seidenberg and Jenny Safran - I was a big linguistic cognition guy. Mark was very optimistic that I would get in, but I didn't. He was apologetic about getting my expectations up. He said there were more applicants than normal that year.... Well, it was probably best for him and the department that I didn't get in, as I may well have flaked out there just as I did at Rutgers. I'm now an occupational therapist in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, and haven't doubted my departure from academic psychology once.

  4. Ron, the application process to grad school can definitely be grueling and competitive, especially considering how comparatively little you make once you're there. I think many people share your experiences of disillusionment -- after all, there's a nationwide attrition rate in PhD programs of 50%. When I dug into the data, it was nice to realize that your job prospects aren't as crappy as they seem if and when you make it out, though.

    1. Hi Patrick,

      This is Ron Brown, for the comment above. I'm finding myself having a really hard time making sense of how so many Psych PhDs are doing so well according to the data that you cited. So much of academic Psychology is so incredibly esoteric that it is hard to imagine that there would be a large amount of non-academic jobs out there. I suppose, however, that even though there are several thousands of Psych PhDs running around America outside of the university system, in a country of 300M people, even a small proportional market can create a few thousand jobs...

      A few other contributing factors that I speculate are affecting these numbers for Psychologists:

      1. Clinical, Forensic, Counseling, I/O and Psych-oriented Human Factors PhDs were presumably included in the tabulations. Each of these applied fields would offer much more in the way of non-academic application than what I was doing - studying how kids pick up their early social, cultural and linguistic knowledge.

      2. These numbers came before the most recent economic crisis;

      3. Many people in the survey had years to build up their seniority and skills on-the-job; it may have taken people up to the age of 40 to get to the $75,000 Psych avg;

      4. Many of the people in this survey working in the university sector probably came in before universities began to really ramp up their penny-pinching (e.g., increased reliance on sessional, adjunct, grad student and other non-tenured instructors, post-docs, and a general move away from tenure track hiring).

      I also wonder if academic psych grad school enrollment rates have gone up, down or stayed the same over the past few decades.

      I'm also interested in how academic psych phds of the last 5-7 years or so have fared...

      I'm gonna be doing a blog post on this in the next day or so, I estimate.

  5. I like to thank all of you who contributed to this discussion here. As a new PhD General psychology student
    with a concentration in I/O. I enjoyed reading your contributions. I know that there is a grueling work to
    do ahead in the PhD studies. I also believe that it's not for every person as a result. The world needs more PhDs to
    to help in research and development of our world. Great compensation is nice, and contributing to society,enjoying that fact will be more satisfying I believe.


  6. I know lots of people in my area struggling to get jobs with phd's. It's not what you know or how good you are as much as who you know. I hate to say it.