The Avenue

Better Living through Chemistry Majors


Are jobs requiring scientific knowledge scarce, relative to other fields? That is the conclusion reached in last Sunday’s Washington Post, in an article headlined “Scientists heeded call but few can find jobs.” Yet, while there are legitimate points raised about the post-doc system, and fluctuations in federal R&D spending, the story incorrectly implies that the labor market for scientists, and especially chemists and biologists, is particularly bleak.

The reality is that the vast majority of science majors and practicing scientists are excelling on every major indicator of labor market success, in comparison to their peers.

First of all, people with science degrees in chemistry and biology have very low unemployment rates. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey has the largest sample of any survey on the subject. Limiting the sample to working age adults (25 and 65) living in metropolitan areas to make people more comparable, the data show that those with a chemistry or biology bachelor’s degree have unemployment rates of 3.4 percent, compared to 4.8 percent for those with any bachelor’s degree and 8.4 percent for all adults. Chemistry or biology degree holders with Ph.Ds (in any field) have an unemployment rate of 2.2 percent. For the newest PhD students (those 35 or younger), the rate is even lower still, at 1.7 percent.

Those who study chemistry and biology are finding work more readily than their peers, but the article raises another concern: Many with science degree are forced to work “out-of-field” or in low-wage post-docs. The article mentions a low and declining share of science Ph.D. holders working outside of academia.

There is some truth to this. Academia is highly competitive, and many baby boomers are holding on to positions as professors long after the typical retirement age seen in more physically demanding professions; this makes it difficult for young graduates to get the most desirable jobs at universities. This trend will soon pass, via a process of biological inevitability, if nothing else.

Yet, reporter Brian Vastag mistakenly interprets the declining share of jobs in academia as a sign that chemists and biologists can’t find meaningful and remunerative work in their field. The declining share of jobs in education fields reflects the extraordinary growth in the demand for scientists in other industries, especially the research and development service industry, but also the federal government and energy sector, where they earn higher average wages than in the education sector. In fact, this growth has not come at the expense of education sector jobs, which increased for scientists from 2000 to 2011.

Whatever the industry, chemistry and biology majors earn wages that are 34 percent higher than other workers with bachelor’s degree or more education, and their wages, at $84,000 per year in 2010, are more than double the average worker, with any education. The article gets one thing right: Youth is penalized heavily in science. A year of age is worth $1,028 in annual income for chemistry and biology degree holders compared to just under $271 for all workers, but it is still better to be a young worker with a science degree than a young worker without one.

Another concern is that science students are forced out of the profession by the competitiveness of academic jobs, or declining industry prospects. Here, there is some truth. 71 percent of those with a B.S. in chemistry work outside chemistry fields, compared to 51 percent of all bachelor’s degree earners. Still, that share is just 38 percent for biology majors, which are more common, and chemistry majors are much more likely to be working in field than psychology, history, or English majors, according to my analysis of Census data and Department of Education field codes. Moreover, for undergrad majors in chemistry or biology who went on to earn Ph.Ds, only 23 percent are working out-of-field.

Finally, the article suggests massive layoffs for scientists; in reality, research jobs for physical and life scientists, as classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, grew 65 percent from 2000 to 2011, compared to 6 percent growth for jobs in all occupations. During the recession, from May 2008 to May 2011, growth for these science jobs has also been much higher2 percent, compared to -5 percent for all jobs.

It is understandable that, in the midst of one of the worst recessions in years, many practicing scientists and recent Ph.D. students are frustrated. It’s clear that this recession has set back or even quashed the aspirations of many, and I certainly know people with Ph.Ds who are settling for suboptimal work. In this context, it is understandable that science advocates would emphasize that the situation is bleak, in order to garner more funding for basic science, which may very well be needed, or to shelter their compatriots from competition.

Yet, when deciding what to study and what career paths to take, the comparison with how others are doing is essential to consider. It is still the case, that people who pursue higher education in science increase their probability of success relative to just about any alternative. Probabilistic reasoning is helpful when negotiating the difficult life choices one faces in the midst of a recession, and here the data used in the Washington Post story is inadequate and misleading. The reality is that scientific skills are extremely valued in today’s labor market, and there is no reason to think that this value will decrease or even level off, as human society advances ever further toward the integration of its scientific knowledge and applications into our lives.

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