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Chapter 3. Science and Engineering Labor Force

S&E Labor Market Conditions

Labor market conditions for scientists and engineers affect the attractiveness of S&E fields to both students and those already in the labor force. In general, holders of S&E degrees have higher rates of pay and lower rates of unemployment than other college graduates. However, this does not exempt them from unemployment due to overall business cycles or specific events affecting individuals with training in their fields. This section looks at both long-term and recent trends using NSF, Census Bureau, and BLS data.


The estimated annual wages of individuals in S&E occupations, based on BLS's OES survey, are considerably higher than the average of the total workforce. Median annual wages in 2007 (regardless of education level or field) in S&E occupations were $70,600, more than double the median ($31,410) for total U.S. employment (table 3-15 ). The spread in average (mean) wage was less dramatic but still quite wide, with individuals in S&E occupations again earning considerably more on average ($74,070) than workers in all occupations ($40,690). Mean S&E wages ranged from $66,370 for social science occupations to $81,050 for engineering occupations. Mean annual wages for technology occupations ranged from $53,165 for technicians and programmers to $114,470 for S&E managers.

The 2004–07 growth in mean wages for both the S&E and STEM occupation groups (3.4%) was slightly greater than that for all workers included in the OES survey (3.2%). Among S&E occupations, those in physical S&E occupations experienced the highest wage growth (3.7% average annual rate) and those in social science occupations experienced the lowest (3.1% average annual rate).

Workers with S&E degrees also have higher earnings than those with degrees in other fields. Figure 3-37 shows estimates of median salary at different points in life for individuals with a bachelor's degree as their highest degree in a variety of fields. Except in the first 4 years after earning their degrees, holders of S&E bachelor's degrees earn more than those with non-S&E degrees at every year since degree. Median salaries for S&E bachelor's degree holders in 2003 peaked at $65,000 at 15–19 years after receiving their degree, compared with $49,000 for those with non-S&E bachelor's degrees. Median salaries of individuals with bachelor's degrees in S&E-related fields (such as technology, architecture, or health) peaked at $52,000 at 25–29 years after degree, but were higher than those for non-S&E bachelor's degree holders at most years since receiving their degree.

Earnings at Different Degree Levels

Figure 3-38 illustrates the distribution of median salaries earned by individuals with S&E degrees at various levels. (The distributions are heavily skewed, making the median a preferred summary statistic.) Not surprisingly, salaries are higher for those with more advanced degrees. In 2003, 11% of S&E bachelor's degree holders had salaries higher than $100,000, compared with 28% of doctorate holders. Similarly, 22% of bachelor's degree holders earned less than $30,000, compared with 8% of doctorate holders.[14]

Figure 3-39 shows a cross-sectional profile of median 2003 salaries for S&E degree holders over the course of their career. Median earnings generally increase with time since degree, as workers add on-the-job knowledge to the formal training they received in school. For holders of bachelor's and master's degrees in S&E, average earnings adjusted for inflation begin to decline in mid to late career, a common pattern that is often attributed to "skill depreciation." In contrast, earnings for S&E doctorate holders continue to rise even late in their careers. Median salaries in 2003 peaked at $65,000 for bachelor's degree holders, $73,000 for master's degree holders, and $96,000 for doctorate holders.

Unemployment in S&E Occupations

Along with higher salaries, relatively low unemployment rates are among the labor market rewards of the S&E labor force. Historically, unemployment rates in S&E occupations have tended to be lower than those for college-educated workers generally and much lower than those for workers with less than a bachelor's degree, although the present recession, like that of the early 2000s, is a partial exception to these patterns. Unemployment rates in S&E occupations are also generally less volatile than unemployment rates for these other groups (figure 3-40 ). The Census Bureau's Current Population Survey data for 1983–2008 indicate that the unemployment rate for all individuals in S&E occupations ranged from 1.3% to 4.0%, which contrasted favorably with rates for all U.S. workers (ranging from 4.0% to 9.6%) and all workers with a bachelor's degree or higher (from 1.8% to 7.8%). The rate for S&E technicians and computer programmers ranged from 2.1% to 5.8%. During most of the period, computer programmers had an unemployment rate similar to that of S&E occupations, but greater volatility (from 1.2% to 6.7%).

Data on the economic downturn that began in late 2007 initially fit with long-term trends. In 2008, workers in S&E occupations or S&E technician and computer programmer occupations had lower unemployment rates (2.1% or 3.9%, respectively) than all workers (5.8%). College-educated S&E workers had lower unemployment rates (2.1%) than all college graduates (2.8%). However, in the 3-month period ending in September 2009, the unemployment rate of college educated S&E workers rose to 5.5%, approximately the same rate as for all college graduates (5.4%). S&E technicians and computer programmers continued to experience a considerably lower unemployment rate (7.6%) than that of the general labor force (9.7%) (figure 3-41 ).

In most economic downturns, workers with advanced S&E degrees have been less vulnerable to changes in economic conditions than individuals who hold only S&E bachelor's degrees. Figure 3-42 compares unemployment rates over career cycles for persons with S&E bachelor's degrees and doctorates, regardless of their occupation, for 1999 and 2003—periods of relatively good and relatively difficult labor market conditions, respectively. The relatively difficult 2003 labor market had a greater effect on bachelor's degree holders: for individuals at various points in their careers, the unemployment rate increased by between 1.6 and 3.5 percentage points between 1999 and 2003. Labor market conditions had a smaller effect on doctorate holders, but some increases in unemployment rates affected individuals in most years-since-degree cohorts.

Similarly among those who said they were working involuntarily out of the field (IOF) of their highest degree, labor market conditions from 1999 to 2003 had a greater effect on the proportion of bachelor's degree holders than on doctorate holders (figure 3-43 ). These rates ranged from 7% to 12% for bachelor's degree holders in 2003 versus 2% to 5% for those with doctorates. IOF rates for doctorate holders changed little between 1999 and 2003.

Although S&E qualifications may help workers weather recessions, they do not make them immune from adverse labor market conditions. The estimated 4.3% unemployment rate for S&E occupations in April 2009, although low relative to other occupations, was the highest in 25 years.

Recent S&E Graduates

Compared with experienced S&E workers, recent S&E graduates more often bring newly acquired skills to the labor market and have relatively few work or family commitments that limit their job mobility. As a result, measures of the success of recent graduates in securing good jobs can be sensitive indicators of changes in the S&E labor market.

This section looks at a number of standard labor market indicators for recent S&E degree recipients at all degree levels and examines a number of other indicators that may apply only to recent S&E doctorate recipients.

General Labor Market Indicators for Recent Graduates

Table 3-16 summarizes some basic labor market statistics for recent (1–5 years after receipt of degree) recipients of S&E degrees. Across all fields of S&E degrees in 2006, there was a 3.8% unemployment rate for bachelor's degree holders who received their degrees in the previous 1–5 years. This ranged from 1.9% for those with engineering degrees to 5.1% for social science degree recipients. Individuals early in their career tend to change jobs more often and have higher unemployment, yet most of these values are less than the unemployment rate of 4.7% for the full labor force in 2006. For doctorate recipients across all fields of degree, the unemployment rate was 1.1%.

A useful but more subjective indicator of labor market conditions for recent graduates is the proportion reporting that they sought, but could not find, full-time employment related to their field of degree. The involuntarily out of field (IOF) rate is a measure unique to NSF's labor force surveys. At the bachelor's degree level, across all S&E fields, the IOF rate was 11.0%, but it ranged from 3.6% for recent engineering graduates to 15.7% for recent graduates in the social sciences. In all fields of degree, the IOF rate decreases with level of education, reaching a low of 1.8% for recent doctorate recipients.

The average salary for recent S&E bachelor's degree recipients in 2006 was $39,500, ranging from $31,700 in the life sciences to $54,000 in engineering. Recent master's degree recipients had average salaries of $55,000 and recent doctorate recipients had salaries yielding only slightly more at $56,000. This reflects in part the relatively low postdoc salaries of some recent doctorate recipients (see discussion in next section) and the greater employment of doctorate holders in academia.

Recent Doctorate Recipients

The career rewards of highly skilled individuals in general, and doctorate holders in particular, often extend beyond salary and employment to more personal rewards that come from doing the kind of work for which they have trained. No single standard measure satisfactorily reflects the state of the doctoral S&E labor market; a range of available labor market indicators are discussed below, including unemployment rates, IOF employment, satisfaction with field of study, employment in academia versus other sectors, employment in postdoc positions, and salaries. Although a doctorate opens career opportunities both in terms of salary and type of employment, these opportunities come at the price of many years of foregone labor market earnings. Some doctorate holders also face an additional period of low earnings while in a postdoc position. In addition, some doctorate holders do not obtain the jobs they desire after completing their education.

In 2006, aggregate measures of labor market conditions for recent (1–3 years after receipt of degree) recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates showed improvement from the already generally good conditions found when last measured in 2003. Unemployment fell from 2.3% to 1.3% and IOF rates fell from 3.3% to 1.3% (table 3-17 ). In addition, the percentage of recent graduates entering tenure-track programs at 4-year institutions—a goal of many young doctorate holders—increased, rising from 17.8% in 2003 to 19.2% in 2006 (table 3-18 ).

The 1.3% unemployment rate for recent S&E doctorate recipients as of April 2006 was even lower than other generally low 2006 unemployment rates. The 2006 unemployment rate for all civilian workers was 4.6%, with lower rates of 2.2% for those with a bachelor's degree or above and 1.6% for those in S&E occupations (figure 3-40 ).

The highest unemployment rates for recent doctorate recipients were in mechanical engineering (3.0%) and sociology/anthropology (2.4%). Unemployment in both fields (which also had the highest unemployment rates in 2003) fell from 5.8% and 5.0%, respectively, in 2003. The unemployment rate for recent S&E doctorate recipients in computer sciences, the field with the third highest unemployment rate in 2003, fell from 4.4% to 1.7% in 2006.

Working Involuntarily Outside the Field
In addition to the 1.3% who were unemployed in 2006, another 1.3% of recent S&E doctorate recipients in the labor force reported that they took a job that was not related to the field of their doctorate because a job in their field was not available. Comparable figures were 3.4% in 2001 and 3.3% in 2003.

The highest IOF rates were found for recent doctorate recipients in chemical engineering (9.8%), physics/astronomy (5.9%), and sociology/anthropology (4.8%).

Tenure-Track Positions
Many S&E doctorate recipients may aspire to tenure-track academic appointments, but most will end up working in other positions and sectors. Recently, the proportion of all recent doctorate recipients entering tenure-track academic jobs has increased, breaking a long-term decline. Such increases can be seen between 2001 and 2003, and again between 2003 and 2006. As a result, 2006 tenure-track rates for those 1–3 years after receiving their degree and those 4–6 years after receiving their degree were broadly the same as in 1993 (figure 3-44 ; table 3-18). From 2003 to 2006, the rate for those 1–3 years since receiving their degree rose from 18% to 19%, and the rate for those 4–6 years since receiving their degree increased from 24% to 26%. (See chapter 5 for a discussion of trends in tenure-track positions as a proportion of all academic positions.)

The availability of tenure-track positions may be counterbalanced by the availability of desirable nonacademic employment opportunities. One of the quickest declines in tenure-track employment occurred in computer sciences, from 52% in 1993 to 24% in 2001 despite the difficulties computer sciences departments had in finding faculty.

Salaries for Recent S&E Doctorate Recipients
In 2006 for all S&E degree fields, the median annual salary for recent doctorate recipients 1–5 years after they received their degrees was $52,000. Across various S&E fields of degree, median annual salaries ranged from a low of $46,000 in the life sciences to a high of $70,000 in engineering (table 3-19 ).

By type of employment, salaries for recent doctorate recipients ranged from $40,000 for postdoc positions to $80,000 for those employed by private for-profit businesses (table 3-20 ).

Postdoc Positions

The growing number of recent doctorate recipients in postdoctoral appointments, generally known as postdocs,[15] has become a major issue and concern in science policy. Neither the reasons for this growth nor its effect on the health of science are well understood. Increases in competition for tenure-track academic research jobs, collaborative research in large teams, and needs for specialized training are possible factors explaining this growth. Although individuals in postdoc positions often perform cutting-edge research, there is a concern that time spent in a postdoc position is time added onto the already long time spent earning a doctorate, thereby delaying the start and advancement of independent careers. Because postdoc positions usually offer low pay, forgone earnings add significantly to the costs of a doctoral education and may discourage doctoral-level careers in S&E.

How Many Postdocs Are There?
The total number of postdocs in the United States is unknown; broad estimates depend upon a number of assumptions. NSF's Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR) covers U.S. residents with research doctorates in S&E and health fields from U.S. universities, but not those with non-U.S. doctorates. The NSF Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering gathers information on postdocs from U.S. academic graduate departments, regardless of where their doctorate was earned. It does not cover people in nonacademic employment, at some university research centers, or at academic departments that lack graduate programs. Table 3-21 shows the SDR and GSS estimates of the U.S. postdoc population that these surveys cover.

Academic Postdocs. SDR estimates that 22,900 U.S. citizens and permanent residents were in academic postdoc positions in fall 2005, along with 7,700 temporary visa holders.[16] The corresponding 2005 GSS estimate is 16,200 U.S. citizens and permanent residents but 26,600 temporary visa holders.

Postdocs in FFRDCs. Many federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs) employ postdocs as part of their efforts to assist government agencies with scientific research and analysis and to train the country's researchers and scientists. According to NSF's 2007 Survey of Postdocs at FFRDCs, 22 of the 38 FFRDCs on the master government FFRDC list maintained by the NSF reported employing 2,235 postdocs. Of those 2,235 postdocs, 1,336 (about 60%) were temporary visa holders and 2,030 (about 91%) received federal support.

Other Postdocs. Neither the GSS nor the SDR survey includes data on the number of foreign-educated postdocs in all sectors. SDR estimates that 29% of U.S.-educated postdocs, 13,000 in all, are in industry, nonprofits, government, and other types of educational institutions. Using these data, one might estimate as follows:

  • 22,900 U.S. citizens and permanent residents in academic postdoc positions (SDR)
  • 26,900 persons on temporary visas in academic postdoc positions (GSS)
  • 13,000 U.S.-educated persons in postdoc positions not covered by GSS (SDR)
  • 26,500 postdocs on temporary visas in positions not covered by GSS, based on the assumption that proportions of temporary visa postdocs in sectors and parts of academia not covered by GSS are the same as in the GSS estimates.

These assumptions yield approximately 89,300 postdocs, but other comparably plausible assumptions lead to substantially different totals.

Postdocs by Academic Discipline
About half of all U.S.-educated postdocs in 2005 (49%) had doctorates in the biological and other life sciences (figure 3-45 ). In this field, postdoc training has been common for a long time and individuals remain in postdoc positions longer than in other fields. Psychology, chemistry, and physics also have high rates of graduates entering postdoc positions and together make up another one-quarter of postdoc positions. The remaining quarter come from all other fields of S&E, most of which do not have a strong postdoc tradition as part of their career paths.

Increase in the Likelihood and Length of Postdoc Positions
Among holders of U.S. S&E doctorates received before 1972,[17] 31% reported having had a postdoc position earlier in their careers (figure 3-46 ). This proportion has risen over time to 46% among 2002–05 graduates and has increasingly involved fields in which formerly only a small number of doctorate recipients went on to postdoc positions. In traditionally high-postdoc fields such as the life sciences (from 46% to 60%) and the physical sciences (from 41% to 61%), a majority of doctorate recipients now have a postdoc position as part of their career path. Similar increases were found in mathematical and computer sciences (19% to 31%), social sciences (18% to 30%) and engineering (14% to 38%). Recent engineering doctorate recipients are now almost as likely to take a postdoc position as physical sciences doctorate holders were 35 years ago.

Postdoc Pay and Benefits
Low pay and fewer benefits for postdocs are frequently raised as concerns by those worried about the effect of the increasing number of postdoc positions on the attractiveness of science careers. The median academic postdoc salary is one-third less than the median salary for nonpostdocs 1–3 years after receiving their doctorates (table 3-22 ). By broad field, this ranges from a 44% pay gap for recent recipients of engineering doctorates to a 25% gap for doctorate holders in the social sciences. Nonacademic postdocs are better paid than academic postdocs, but their median salary is still 20% less than that of nonpostdocs.

Most individuals in postdoc positions in 2006 had employment benefits. Indeed, across all S&E fields, 90% of postdocs reported having medical benefits and 49% reported having retirement benefits. It is not possible to know from the survey how extensive medical benefits may be or how transferable retirement benefits are. In the social sciences, medical benefits are less available, with only 75% of postdocs reporting that they had medical benefits.

Postdoc Positions as a Sign of Labor Market Distress for Recent Doctorate Recipients
Former postdoc position holders reported reasons for accepting their appointment that are consistent with the traditional intent of a postdoc as a type of apprenticeship, such as seeking "additional training in doctorate field" or "training in an area outside of doctorate field." However, 9% of Survey of Doctorate Recipients respondents in a postdoc position in April 2006 reported that they took their current postdoc position because "other employment not available." This reason was given by 5% of postdocs in the life sciences, 8% in computer and mathematical sciences, 10% in the physical sciences, 14% in the social sciences, and 16% in engineering.

Postdoc Outcomes
Most former postdocs report that their most recent postdoctoral appointment enhanced their career opportunities, and the proportions who say this are similar for different cohorts (figure 3-47 ). Across all S&E fields and cohorts, 53%–56% of former postdocs said that their postdoc appointment enhanced their career opportunities to a "great extent"; an additional 33%–38% said that their postdoc appointment "somewhat" enhanced their career opportunities. The proportion of those completing postdoc positions who said that it was no help to their career opportunities ranged from only 8% for the 2002–05 graduation cohort to 12% for the 1987–91 cohort. For a more detailed look at perceived and actual outcomes from a postdoc experience, see chapter 3 of Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 (NSB 2008) and NSF/SRS (2008b).


[14] Many doctorate holders with salaries at this level are postdocs in temporary training positions.
[15] Although the formal job title is often postdoctoral fellowship or research associate, titles vary among organizations. This chapter generally uses the shorter, more commonly used, and best understood name, postdoc. A postdoc is traditionally defined as a temporary position that graduate students take primarily for additional training—a period of advanced professional apprenticeship—after completion of a doctorate.
[16] Some part of the citizen and permanent resident postdoc population in the fall of 2005 will not be counted even in the SDR. Excluded are summer 2005 graduates who may be in postdoc positions in the fall of 2005, doctorate holders who may have left the country before April 2006, and those who have foreign doctorates.
[17] Respondents also had to be under age 76 and resident in the United States in April 2006. In a similar retrospective question on the 1995 SDR, 25% of those earning their doctorates before 1964 reported having had postdoc positions.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2010   Arlington, VA (NSB 10-01) | January 2010