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."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
For young people interested in science and technology, the conventional wisdom has long been that more education is better - high school, college, graduate school. The country needs its best and brightest earned science Ph.D.s to become tomorrow's innovators. And for all their hard work, those young people were guaranteed good stable jobs. But that may no longer be true.
JOHN CHOINIERE: This is John Choiniere. And I'm currently unemployed but recently received my Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Washington. I really want to be able to support my family, and I thought, you know, getting a Ph.D. in chemistry would be a great way to do that. But so far, not a lot of luck with that.
LYDEN: It turns out Choiniere isn't alone. Jordan Weissmann is an editor at The Atlantic magazine. He recently took a look at the latest employment numbers for people like Choiniere. They're put out by the National Science Foundation. He found a startling statistic.
JORDAN WEISSMANN: 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. At the same time, the number that are ending up in postdoctoral studies, which are essentially, in the case of the sciences, kind of being a lab hand for a long time - you're essentially a research assistant. And, you know, it pays maybe $45,000 a year, which when you're in your mid-30s isn't a lot. People in those jobs have been increasing. And worse yet, people who have no job offer or firm plans yet have increased to above 30 percent at graduation.
LYDEN: The numbers paint a pretty bleak picture for the young people who spend a lot of time and money making what sounds in theory like a really good investment in their future. But if they don't get the right jobs out of school, are they destined for long-term chronic unemployment?
WEISSMANN: I don't think that's the case. I think you look at, like, the science and engineering fields in general, right? And across all age groups, they tend to have extremely low unemployment, you know, maybe 3 percent or so. I think the question isn't necessarily unemployment, but underemployment certainly is a very live issue in these fields.
LYDEN: President Obama has said that immigration reforms should include stapling a green card to these advanced degrees in science or engineering, what have you, and the idea being that America needs to attract these bright young innovators. But are there really jobs for immigrants with Ph.D.s or only sort of low-level lab tech jobs?
WEISSMANN: You know, a lot of people like to make high skill immigration into a kind of - they like to treat it like a no-brainer, as if, of course, we want more of these geniuses coming to our country. On the other hand, yeah, it seems like a lot of these people have trouble finding really meaningful well-paid work once they finish school. But I think part of the problem is that these people who graduate, they need a visa. And a lot of them want to stay.
I mean, you know, 80, 90 percent of Indian and Chinese Ph.D.s actually do stay in the country after graduation, but they do it by patching together all these temporary visas that - one after another. And oftentimes that means staying in a job where you're a lab hand. And if you just say you can stay permanently, it actually might alleviate some of that problem by giving them a little bit more leverage in the labor market, essentially, and a little bit more ability to choose.
LYDEN: Let me ask you about American-born Ph.D.s. I'm curious if they're doing better than immigrant workers with Ph.D.s.
WEISSMANN: They are doing better, it appears. They are more likely to be employed. They are less likely to be postdocs. They are more likely to have an actual job coming out of school. But it's not as if everything's rosy for them. If there was really a shortage of scientists, you'd probably be seeing much lower levels of unemployment and graduation or much lower levels of taking postdocs than you currently do.
LYDEN: Jesse Engleberg(ph) is himself a Ph.D. in bioengineering. He's been doing postdoc work since he got his degree in 2009. Engleberg hopes to move into a higher-paying job, but he says he's trying to be realistic about the possibilities.
JESSE ENGLEBERG: I'm probably going to not look for additional postdoc positions, if I can, or professorships. I honestly, you know, I see a lot of people who work very hard for very little money. And I, you know, it makes me kind of sad, to be honest.
LYDEN: But Jordan Weissmann says that even with all that uncertainty and frustration, young scientists like Jesse and John will see the benefits of their investments in the long run. But he says that for now, they may just want to adjust those expectations a little.
WEISSMANN: I think it's still valuable, but realize you're probably not going to end up a professor somewhere wearing tweed. You know, you're going to have to be really creative about what kind of job you're willing to seek and really flexible and realize that it's a - kind of a long arduous road that the payoff is a little bit uncertain.
LYDEN: Jordan Weissmann is an editor at The Atlantic magazine. You can see more about the job market for Ph.D.s at our website, npr.org.
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.