National Science Board Tool Depicts Career Pathways of STEM PhDs

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Publication date: 
27 April 2017

The National Science Board has released an interactive infographic illustrating the different career pathways of science, engineering, and health doctoral graduates and how they progress.

On April 19, the National Science Board (NSB) released an interactive policy brief that illustrates the varying pathways science, engineering, and health (SEH) doctorates have taken in the workforce. Stemming from the NSB’s biennial Science and Engineering Indicators effort, the tool allows users to explore the proportions of graduates entering business, government, and academic sectors and how career trajectories progress.

The infographic was created to examine questions raised in the 2015 NSB report “Revisiting the STEM Workforce” concerning the importance of a “STEM-capable workforce” and the notion that a STEM degree can be a “passport” to a variety of careers. NSB states that the versatility of STEM graduates contributes to “the importance to the nation of having scientifically-trained individuals dispersed widely throughout the economy.”

NSB reports that over the past two decades the number of SEH doctoral graduates has increased by more than 50 percent, surpassing the number of employment opportunities available in academia.  It further observes that despite this growth in the SEH workforce the group has an extremely low unemployment rate, and there has been a steady trend of over SEH graduates finding employment outside of academic institutions.

“The data show incredibly diverse jobs that Ph.D. holders are in across all employment sectors,” said Geraldine Richmond, the NSB member who led the development of the brief, during the brief’s release event on April 19. “It’s [NSB’s] hope that this brief helps raise awareness in students and faculty about the rich and varied career paths that these doctorates can take,” she said.

Majority of PhD graduates employed outside of academia

The infographic is based on three iterations (1993, 2003, and 2013) of the longitudinal Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR) conducted on behalf of the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. The SDR has been conducted biennially since 1973, and follows a sample of individuals with a Ph.D. throughout their careers until they are 76 years old.

The infographic draws on SDR data from 26 SEH fields in the education, business, and government sectors. It also includes information on how employment distribution varies with career stage, demographic data (including gender, and race and ethnicity), and details about job duties and satisfaction.

The data show that over the last two decades more than 50 percent of all SEH doctorates find employment outside of the academic sector within 10 years of finishing their degree. NSB suggests that instead of viewing this as a “sign of a leaky pipeline that needs patching,” it is a sign that a SEH degree is a launching point for a variety of careers pathways.

The data also shows that most SEH doctorates are engaged in work related to their background, and are as satisfied with their work as their peers in academia. Overall, 90 percent of respondents reported that they are satisfied with their job 15 or more years after receiving their degree.

Another key finding is that the majority of recent doctoral recipients conduct R&D regardless of the sector in which they work. As their careers progress, many doctoral graduates advance to non-R&D positions including management. Additionally, a graduate’s degree field strongly influences the given sector that they initially enter and occupy at mid-career.  

Physical sciences PhDs focus on R&D outside of academia

One of the academic fields that the infographic highlights is the physical sciences, which it breaks down into the sub-fields of astronomy and astrophysics; chemistry; earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; and physics.


Physical Sciences PhD Career Pathways

Data from the infographic on the career pathways of physical sciences doctoral degree holders in 2013.

(Credit – National Science Board)

Overall, the data for the physical sciences generally correlates with overall data trends. In 2013, 76 percent of post-doctorates were engaged in R&D five to nine years after receiving their degree. The data also show that there is an overall increase of employment in non-education occupations over time, with 63 percent of post-doctorates employed outside of a four-year academic institution 10 to 14 years after receiving their degree. There is a strong correlation between business sector employment and the number of years since graduation, especially after five years.

In general, over 90 percent of physical science doctoral graduates report that they are satisfied with their long-term career paths, which can be interpreted to mean that they believe their occupations are meaningful in an expanding knowledge-based economy.

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