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Doctorates Rise, But Jobs Fall

An annual report on America’s Ph.D graduates finds that the number of new degrees is hitting record highs, even as the number of job opportunities declines.

Some 52,760 people earned Ph.Ds from American universities in 2013, according to new data released by the National Science Foundation, a rise of 3.5 percent over 2012. However, just 62.7 percent of those graduates left school with a firm job offer in hand, which represents a continued decline from years prior. In 2008, 69 percent of grads had job commitments; in 2003, over 71 percent did.

Of those who do have firm post-graduation plans, a larger percent of them are undertaking postdoctoral studies, a temporary research posting that is far less appealing than a tenure-track or adjunct faculty position at a university. Almost 40 percent of graduates with job offers are pursuing postdoctoral studies, however.

Unsurprisingly, outcomes differed based on one’s field, though not in the way many might expect. Among Ph.Ds in so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), only graduates with degrees in physical science (math, physics, chemistry, and computer science) outperformed the average, with 65.9 percent leaving school with job offers. In contrast, engineering and life science Ph.Ds had job-offer rates of 59.3 and 58.5 percent, respectively. The most successful graduates were actually those in social sciences (economics, psychology, political science), 69.3 percent of which had job offers upon graduation.

Graduates in 2013 likely include many who pursued top degrees in order to ride out the severe recession in 2008 and 2009; many doctoral programs take five or more years on average to complete. However, even after half a decade, academia’s demand for new Ph.Ds has not recovered, and that’s taking a toll on their prospects.

The biggest driver of the continued growth in doctoral degrees is the continued influx of foreign students. Among U.S. citizens and permanent residents, the number of new Ph.Ds actually dropped a tiny amount from 2012, from 33,985 to 33,942. However, among students with only a temporary visa, degrees are booming, surging from 14,775 to 15,678 in a single year. The struggling U.S. job market may increase concerns about a “brain drain,” in which foreign students with Ph.Ds, typically the most desired of immigrants, return to their home countries rather than remaining in the United States.

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