Daniel Lametti is a budding science writer (and a neuroscience graduate student at McGill); he has written an essay for Slate entitled "Is a Science Ph.D. a Waste of Time?" Here's a link to the essay -- please read it. A summary might be as follows:
- Media accounts (like Brian Vastag's article in The Washington Post) are alarmist; scientist unemployment is not that bad,
- Not all scientists want to be academics.
- Ph.D. scientist unemployment is low.
- Ph.D. chemist unemployment is not that bad, really!
- Opportunity costs don't matter, because grad school is fun and you get a doctorate!
Let's start with my critique of the one NSF number that he relies upon:
A science Ph.D. is still an attractive credential outside of the university. According to a 2008 survey by the NSF (a summary is available here), there were about 662,600 work-ready science Ph.D.s in the United States, and only 11,400 of those people were unemployed. That’s an unemployment rate of 1.7 percent.
The number that Mr. Lametti relies upon is not without fault. It is old; based on numbers from October 2008, it likely does not take into account the increase in unemployment that was seen in early 2009 and beyond. It is too broad: by using this number, Lametti cannot distinguish between biology Ph.D. holders (1.9% unemployment) and physical science Ph.D. holders (2.4%) or computer and information science Ph.D. holder (an enviable 1.1% unemployment rate.) Finally, it is too academic: both professors (from the mightiest tenure-track holder to the poorest adjunct) and postdoctoral fellows would be counted as employed in NSF's Survey of Doctorate Recipients.
[To be sure, I don't think anyone knows the actual, current unemployment rate of STEM Ph.D.s, a group of people that is so encompassing as to be useless. These fields are not interchangeable, which is one of the reasons that I don't go for broad-brush statements. But I digress.]
What is more frustrating is his subsequent dismissal of chemist unemployment:
Of course, some of those jobs have disappeared since the NSF survey was taken. The pharmaceutical industry, the Washington Post reported, has cut scores of chemists. Even so, the American Chemical Society told me the unemployment rate among its Ph.D. members is 3.4 percent this year, down from 3.9 percent last year. During these rough economic times, the unemployment rate of scientists in one of the hardest hit fields is less than half the national average. Why? Because scientists learn more in graduate school than how to peer into microscopes and pour chemicals ever so carefully from one Erlenmeyer flask to another. As one biologist told me, the statistics and computer programming she learned during her degree can be applied just about anywhere. More generally, scientists know how to solve complex problems, and finishing a doctoral dissertation shows that you can get things done.Sigh. Where to start? (Pardon me, readers, if I repeat myself.)
The pharmaceutical industry has laid off 300,000 employees since 2000; a number better compared to the battle of Antietam as opposed to Lametti's pedestrian "some." Of those, chemists are a significant portion; "scores" should be more like "thousands", with at least an estimated 16,000 chemist jobs disappearing since 1998. Lametti seems to have missed the sub-headline of the article he linked to: "unemployment rate of 4.6% for ACS members in 2011 is highest on record" is apparently not worth mentioning to his readers. These facts apparently don't bear repeating.
Readers of this blog know that the Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment number for chemists is 6.1%, quite a bit higher than the ACS unemployment number. (Strangely, Lametti also fails to note the accompanying number in the Brian Vastag article -- that of his young peers in chemistry, only 38% of them have managed to find full-time employment.) Of course, there are the other problems with ACS member unemployment numbers as a proxy for actual Ph.D. chemist unemployment: the response rates are low, that unemployed ACS members only have 2 years of unemployment waivers and are thus likely to drop off the member rolls, that it (once again) folds in academic chemists and postdocs.
(Oh, and that "less than half the national average" bit, where there's a link to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website? You wouldn't happen to be comparing the unemployment rate of a national labor force with less than a third college graduates against a subfield where a majority of the practitioners have a Ph.D., would you?)
But apparently there's no point in focusing on the problems with these numbers for Lametti -- apparently his anecdotes are far more compelling:
As one biologist told me, the statistics and computer programming she learned during her degree can be applied just about anywhere. More generally, scientists know how to solve complex problems, and finishing a doctoral dissertation shows that you can get things done.
A mathematician who graduated in 2010 told me he was hired by the investment bank Goldman Sachs after a short search. Many of his colleagues, he said, have doctorates in math, physics, or computer science; his bonus can be a multiple of his salary. A biologist was offered a position as a medical writer seven days before graduating last year. A chemist got a job at a battery company two years ago after a short stint as a postdoctoral researcher, doubling his salary.Transferrable skills! Alternative careers! I'm less that convinced that a doctoral dissertation shows that "you can get things done" to employers overall; I'm much more convinced that it means that you've completed a project, and convinced a small group of professors that you're ready to leave. I'm also less than convinced that Ph.D. biologists want to be medical writers, that Goldman Sachs is really the example that you want to use for an article about how a science Ph.D. is worth it and that earning double your postdoc salary is anything to crow about. Finally, these anecdotes are not proof that a science Ph.D. is actually a substitute entry-level credential for whatever non-laboratory position that a new graduate might be looking for.
I find Mr. Lametti's essay very frustrating. It is suffused with youthful optimism, which is no substitute for a cold look at the facts. I am surprised at the apparent non-existence of the unemployed scientist, and that there doesn't appear to be anybody older than 35 or so in his essay. Wrestling with the damage caused by layoffs or outsourcing don't seem to be worth his time; you got your Ph.D.! Isn't that wonderful? (You should be able to find another job in a snap!) Delving deeper into the facts of scientist unemployment or finding anecdotes of those Ph.D.s who are (or have been) unemployed weren't worth it, either. What a shame.
Rather, instead, the reader is told that "science Ph.D.s are just about the last group of people the media should be worrying about." I'm not one for written indictments, but to speak for such a huge group of people with such disparate fields and varying problems smacks of ignorance, if not arrogance.