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.
One reason: A glut of new biomedical scientists that entered the field when the economy was healthier. From 1998 to 2003, the budget of the National Institutes of Health doubled to $30 billion per year. That boost — much of which flows to universities — drew in new, young scientists. The number of new PhDs in the medical and life sciences boomed, nearly doubling from 2003 to 2007, according to the NSF.
But that boom is about to go bust, because an equal number of permanent jobs failed to follow. One big factor: Since 2004, federal research spending across all agencies has stagnated relative to inflation, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Although the injection of $10 billion in federal stimulus funds to the NIH from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 “created or retained” 50,000 science jobs, according to the NIH, that money is running dry, putting those positions at risk.
The lack of permanent jobs leaves many PhD scientists doing routine laboratory work in low-wage positions known as “post-docs,” or postdoctoral 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.