Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Push For Science Majors, But Lots Of Unemployed Ph.D's Already

So reports the Washington Post:

Michelle Amaral wanted to be a brain scientist to help cure diseases. She planned a traditional academic science career: PhD, university professorship and, eventually, her own lab.

But three years after earning a doctorate in neuroscience, she gave up trying to find a permanent job in her field.

Dropping her dream, she took an administrative position at her university, experiencing firsthand an economic reality that, at first look, is counterintuitive: There are too many laboratory scientists for too few jobs.

That reality runs counter to messages sent by President Obama, the National Science Foundation and other influential groups, who in recent years have called for U.S. universities to churn out more scientists.

Obama has made science education a priority, launching a White House science fair to get young people interested in the field.

But it’s questionable whether those youths will be able to find work when they get a PhD. Although jobs in some high-tech areas, especially computer and petroleum engineering, seem to be booming, the market is much tighter for lab-bound scientists — those seeking new discoveries in biology, chemistry and medicine.

“There have been many predictions of [science] labor shortages and . . .robust job growth,” said Jim Austin, editor of the online magazine ScienceCareers. “And yet, it seems awfully hard for people to find a job. Anyone who goes into science expecting employers to clamor for their services will be deeply disappointed.”

Oh, but wait - Obama and the rest of the corporate education reformers say if we just push more students to study science, we'll have a much more competitive workforce and people will have good paying jobs that will allow them to live a middle class lifestyle.

Except that's horseshit:

One big driver of that trend: Traditional academic jobs are scarcer than ever. Once a primary career path, only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years, according to a 2009 NSF survey. That figure has been steadily declining since the 1970s, said Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University who studies the scientific workforce. The reason: The supply of scientists has grown far faster than the number of academic positions.

The pharmaceutical industry once offered a haven for biologists and chemists who did not go into academia. Well-paying, stable research jobs were plentiful in the Northeast, the San Francisco Bay area and other hubs. But a decade of slash-and-burn mergers; stagnating profit; exporting of jobs to India, China and Europe; and declining investment in research and development have dramatically shrunk the U.S. drug industry, with research positions taking heavy hits.

Since 2000, U.S. drug firms have slashed 300,000 jobs, according to an analysis by consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. In the latest closure, Roche last month announced it is shuttering its storied Nutley, N.J., campus — where Valium was invented — and shedding another 1,000 research jobs.

“It’s been a bloodbath, it’s been awful,” said Kim Haas, who spent 20 years designing new pharmaceuticals for drug giants Wyeth and Sanofi-Aventis and is in her early 50s. Haas lost her six-figure job at Sanofi-Aventis in New Jersey last year. She now works one or two days a week on contract at a university in Philadelphia. She has to dip into savings to make ends meet.

“Scads and scads and scads of people” have been cut free, Haas said. “Very good chemists with PhDs from Stanford can’t find jobs.”

Largely because of drug industry cuts, the unemployment rate among chemists now stands at its highest mark in 40 years, at 4.6 percent, according to the American Chemical Society, which has 164,000 members. For young chemists, the picture is much worse. Just 38 percent of new PhD chemists were employed in 2011, according to a recent ACS survey.

Although the overall unemployment rate of chemists and other scientists is much lower than the national average, those figures mask an open secret: Many scientists work outside their chosen field.

“They’ll be employed in something,” said Michael S. Teitelbaum, a senior adviser to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation who studies the scientific workforce. “But they go and do other things because they can’t find the position they spent their 20s preparing for.”

Many Ph.D's are working low wage jobs - sometimes doing low paying post doc jobs for five, seven or ten years. Most post doc's are being exploited by a system set up to do just that:

The lack of permanent jobs leaves many PhD scientists doing routine laboratory work in low-wage positions known as “post-docs,” or post-doctoral fellowships. Post-docs used to last a year or two, but now it’s not unusual to find scientists toiling away for six, seven, even 10 years.

Until recently, Amaral, 39, the neuroscientist, was one of perhaps 100,000 scientists — the figures are fuzzy — in the United States working as a post-doc. After earning her expensive doctorate in neuroscience, which took seven years and she financed by working and drawing down her savings, Amaral spent a year counting blips on a computer screen for another scientist.

“I couldn’t answer the question of how this was any different from undergraduate work,” Amaral said.

Salaries for university post-doc jobs start at about $39,000, according to the National Postdoctoral Association. They require a science PhD — which can leave the recipient buried in debt. Benefits are usually minimal and, until a decade ago, even health insurance was rare.

Stephan calls the post-doc system a “pyramid scheme” that enriches — in prestige, scientific publications and federal grant dollars — a few senior scientists at the expense of a large pool of young, cheap ones.

“I don’t think anybody minds sucking it up for a year or two, seeing it as an apprenticeship,” said Zoe Fonseca-Kelly, a PhD geneticist who spent seven years as a post-doc at three universities. “What’s very frustrating is that it’s turned into a five-year process. People get very disillusioned with it.”

Fonseca-Kelly got fed up with it, too. She left the lab for an administrative job at Harvard Medical School.

The post-doc system is “dysfunctional and not sustainable in the long term,” Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman told top brass at NIH earlier this month. Tilghman heads an NIH-appointed panel that is wrestling with overhauling how that agency trains new scientists. A new report from her group calls for better pay and more benefits for post-docs and major changes in how NIH funds young scientists.

Like many scientists, Amaral grew disillusioned with the system that left her with an expensive degree but few job options. She left her lab in December after federal funding for her post-doc position ran out. She now works as an administrator at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and is in a “holding pattern,” unsure whether — or how — to advance a science career she spent more than a decade working toward.

“I’ve listened to this stuff on the news about how we need more scientists and engineers,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’ We’re here. We need something to do besides manual labor for another academic person.”

So Obama is pushing for more scientists when we already have a glut of them, there are few jobs for the ones who are already here, and the future looks even bleaker as budget cuts and outsourcing makes the situation even worse for science Ph.d's.

And of course he blames public schools and public school teachers for many of the country's economic woes, but he says once we re-do the system so that we can graduate more STEM majors, all will be well.

Except we already have a glut of many of those majors and they're working at the science equivalent of The Gap while they watch the interest owed on their student loans crush them for life.


  1. PAul Craig Roberts has been writing about this for atleast a decade.
    From June 2006:
    The alleged "shortage" of US engineering graduates is inconsistent with reports from Duke University that 30 to 40 percent of students in its master’s of engineering management program accept jobs outside the profession. About one-third of engineering graduates from MIT go into careers outside their field. Job outsourcing and work visas for foreign engineers are reducing career opportunities for American engineering graduates and, also, reducing salary scales.

    When employers allege a shortage of engineers, they mean that there is a shortage of American graduates who will work for the low salaries that foreigners will accept. Americans are simply being forced out of the engineering professions by jobs outsourcing and the importation of foreigners on work visas. Corporate lobbyists and their hired economists are destroying the American engineering professions.

    American engineering is also under pressure because corporations have moved manufacturing offshore. Design, research and development are now following manufacturing offshore. A country that doesn’t make things doesn’t need engineers and designers. Corporations that have moved manufacturing offshore fund R&D in the countries where their plants have been relocated.

    Engineering curriculums are demanding. The rewards to the effort are being squeezed out by jobs offshoring and work visas. If the current policy continues of substituting foreign engineers for American engineers, the profession will die in the US.

  2. You got it right. Obama is full of horseshit on the labor market, on education, on healthcare cost containment, etc. etc. Obama has a big shit eating grin which endears him to the voting public. Now who do you think is going to win in November.

  3. This article leaves out one critical factor with regards to academic science jobs. Universities in the last decade or so have seen a massive proliferation in the growth of University administration jobs while at the same time cutting of technical staff (important in science labs) and associate professor positions. In other words useless administrators who do nothing but make rules to slow down and hinder the ability of scientists to do their jobs (teach and do research) have taken over are ruining the University as a source of knowledge and innovation (ie an engine of any innovative economy).

  4. This isn't Obama's doing. This spans several Presidential administrations. Corporate lobbyists own our corrupt government, and the people are powerless to change the system. Step 1 is that citizens need to lobby each state to pass a law (under the corporate charter system) that corporations are NOT people. Then we need publicly financed elections. And then maybe we can ban/elminate paid lobbying of government officials. It has to start with a state by state declaration that corporations are not people, otherwise, the courts will not limit corporate "free speech" which they equate with their bribe money.

  5. But university administrators appropriate 30 to 50% of the grant money awarded to science researchers at their universities. Hence the need for evermore science students to write lucrative grant proposals to fund more administrative jobs.

  6. Obama should really be pushing one of the largest growing job markets - covering the Kardashians and other inconsequential "news" that will distract the public. Think Roman forum and throwing people to lions as entertainment.

  7. Only 14% get jobs! that's pretty high when you think about the fact that 99% of them don't even have the life skills necessary to hold down a job at McDonalds. The vast majority of labs and professors are a joke, the value of the degree is questionable at best, junk science and stupidity abounds. Think I'm wrong, the proof lies in the fact that VC's are reluctant to invest in startups any more, they've been stung too many times, by what are nothing more than "lets blind them with science dog and pony shows and cons. That's what will really create science jobs, VC's being convinced that their money will be well spent on viable ideas.

  8. We need more scientists. It is not Obama's fault that you can't get a job.

  9. Most of the Chemists I graduated either left the field or settled for teaching or administration. There is nothing for American Science grads but unemployment and horrible dead-end $15 per hour temp jobs. I regret studying science and vow noone in my family will ever get a science degree again.

  10. I'm looking for underemployed scientists for a public radio story. Please email me today: Thanks.

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  13. I am not sure why the President is saying that we need more scientists and engineers if we have a glut of them.
    As you have mentioned, even health insurance was rare.
    I have a life insurance and car insurance in Lynnfield MA. I get a valuable coverage at an AFFORDABLE price. Why can't they provide an insurance policy for our Scientists and Engineers who are paying the most for college, but paid less when employed. They even need to undertake additional years in low-paid and temporary postdoctoral positions.

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