U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there
By Brian Vastag, Washington Post, July 7, 2012
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 and 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.”
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 was 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.
“It’s been a bloodbath, it’s been awful,” said Kim Haas, who spent 20 years designing 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 Philadelphia university. She dips into savings to make ends meet.
“Scads and scads and scads of people” have been cut, Haas said. “Very good chemists with PhDs from Stanford can’t find jobs.”
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.”
Until recently, PhD organic chemist Mark Darey fit that description. In 2009, he was laid off from Albany Molecular Research, a contractor for pharmaceutical companies, after 20 years in the business. As he applied for 400 chemistry jobs, he worked as a low-wage office temp—and so was not included in the unemployment figures.
“It was quite scary,” said Darey, who this year finally landed another chemist position, at DuPont in Belle, W.Va. “I was watching my bank balance dwindle away, wondering when I’d have to sell the house.”
Two groups seem to be doing better than other scientists: physicists and physicians. The unemployment rate among those two groups hovers around 1 to 2 percent, according to surveys from NSF and other groups. Physicists end up working in many technical fields—and some go to Wall Street—while the demand for doctors continues to climb as the U.S. population grows and ages.
But for the much larger pool of biologists and chemists, “It’s a particularly difficult time right now,” Stephan said.
Haas, the former drug company chemist, plans to “get out of Jersey and get out of science” when her daughter graduates from high school in two years. “She’s very good at everything, very smart,” Haas said of her daughter. “She loves chemistry, loves math. I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her.”