Friday, September 12, 2014

Naturejobs falls for the "PhDs have lower unemployment!" fallacy

Via Twitter, yet another alternative careers essay, this one from Annalise Smith, a graduate student at the University of Miami on the Naturejobs website:
...A Nature article published in 2011 contends that the academic positions for science PhD holders are decreasing and sectors outside of academia are unable to compensate. Yet the unemployment rate for PhD graduates in the life sciences remains at a low of 1.5%, much lower than the national unemployment rate in the United States. So are there too many PhDs? 
There are only too many PhDs if every PhD candidate envisions a career in academia....
A couple of things here:
  • First, it's clear that the purpose of the essay isn't to engage with the "Are there too many PhDs" question. That's fine, but then, why bring up the statistics as if they're refutation of the Ph.D. glut theory. 
  • The writer claims above that this is the unemployment rate for Ph.D. graduates in life sciences -- so far as I could tell, this is not actually true. The number "1.5%" and "life sciences" are not tied together anywhere in the report. Maybe I'm wrong. 
    • Interestingly, many of the unemployment stats for recent life scientist grads are still quite low -- the most relevant number I saw in the linked 2012 NSF report (which I have no reason to doubt) is 2.1% for recent life scientist (page 3-35)
    • However, my main critique of these numbers is that they're from 2008, which means that they were measuring pre-Great Recession graduates. You can see that the similar number in the newer 2014 report for 2010 recent life scientist graduates was 2.8%. (page 3-35)
  • My main issue is this portion of the sentence "much lower than the national unemployment rate in the United States." It is ridiculous to compare the unemployment rate of recent Ph.D. graduates in the sciences (any sciences) to the national unemployment rate. ~30% of the US population has a B.S. degree; college graduates make up around 47% of the workforce. We should not be comparing a group of 100% Ph.D.s to a national workforce where less than 5% of the workers have a Ph.D. It is a meaningless comparison. 
  • The better number to compare against is the overall unemployment rate for Ph.D.s, which was 2.2% for 2013. Of course, the problem with this is, we're now measuring all Ph.D. holders, including your tenured faculty adviser. 
Also, the writer does not consider wages or opportunity costs of getting a Ph.D. in the sciences (time-to-degree for life scientists? In 2012, 6.9 years, according to the 2014 NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates.) If you're spending two presidential terms in school, you should seriously think about whether it's worth your time, from a dollars and cents perspective. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. But those calculations weren't apparently covered in this essay.

Finally, I have a one-word answer for the writer as for why the unemployment rate of life scientists is so low: postdocs. Actually, I have another word: underemployment. If you have a Ph.D. biologist working as a QC temp at VWR, they're considered employed. 

For longtime readers of the blog, this is old hat. But for the editors at Naturejobs, apparently, this is news -- how disappointing. 


  1. Because they still want to encourage people to go to graduate school, so PIs can have slaves, especially those big names ( editors in Nature journals) want more slaves the better.

  2. Not surprising coming from Nature IMO. But Chemjobber, here's one on the plus side to brighten up your spirits a bit--a major website that politics junkies read a lot admits that "S" shouldn't really be included with the TEM disciplines in these discussions.

    1. I know! That paragraph could have been practically written by me.

  3. Who is in charge of contacting the gazillion people I know who moved out of the field because of the bleak job prospects? What about those who are unemployed and therefore, wont bother paying for the ACS membership dues themselves, because why would they? They are out of the survey too.

    Sounds like when the federal reserve tells us there is no such thing as inflation right now: if you don't factor in real estate, oil price, education, equities for the retired on fixed income, and just about anything that grows double digit every year, then no, there is no inflation.

    Nothing but self-serving BS from the worst professional organization in science and I am not even sure why people bother with anything the ACS says anymore.

  4. I'd like to see her re-visit this 6 years down the line as she's finishing her 2nd post-doc and still no job prospects.

    1. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if she eventually get affirmative action'ed into a well-paying job. I've seen it happening multiple times.

    2. Some people often pull the ‘affirmative action’ card to justify their inadequacies and shortcomings. Maybe, just maybe, they were actually qualified for the position...but wait, that would go against all you believe in, including your superiority complex and since of entitlement.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20