Scientists heeded call but few can find jobs

Ph.D. positions slim in chemistry, biology, medicine

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Michelle Amaral wanted to be a brain scientist to help cure diseases. She planned a traditional academic science career: Ph.D, 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 Barack Obama, the National Science Foundation and other influential groups, who in recent years have called for U.S. universities to churn out more scientists.

But it's questionable whether those youths will be able to find work when they get a Ph.D. 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 Ph.D 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. Ms. 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, Ms. Haas said. "Very good chemists with Ph.Ds 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 Ph.D 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."

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," Ms. 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 Ph.Ds 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, as 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.

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