By • on March 11, 2013

Even more than machinists and welders we have been told over and over again by policy makers and the business community that American has a critical need for more scientists. The consequence of the so-called dearth of scientists  threatens the American economy. And therefore we need government action to get more kids to go into science. With some of options on the table that not only provide carrots to go into science (more broadly STEM) but also sticks not to go into the liberal arts.

One problem: we may not have a shortage of scientists. In two terrific articles the Atlantic’s Jordan Weissman explores the labor market for those earning Ph.Ds in science. Entitled “The Ph.D Bust: America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists” you can find them here and here. Worth reading!

Weissman writes: “In brief, we keep graduating more doctoral students in subjects like engineering, biology, computer science, and mathematics, and progressively fewer of them seem to be finding work by the time they have a diploma. The overwhelming majority (of) these bright minds probably land good jobs eventually, but the chilly hiring environment seems to undercut the idea the U.S. is suffering from an overall shortage of scientists.”

Weissman reports of those American citizens earning a Ph.D in engineering 43.7% had a job when they graduated, 27.7% were going on for further study and 28.5% had nothing. In the physical sciences it is 32.3% had a job when they graduated, 40.7% were going on for further study and 27.0% had nothing. In the life sciences it is 21.7% had a job when they graduated, 42.6% were going on for further study and 35.8% had nothing. (For the foreign born those who had a job in each category is substantially smaller than American citizens.)

As Weissman concludes: “Politicians and businessmen are fond of talking about America’s scientist shortage — the dearth of engineering and lab talent that will inevitably leave us sputtering in the global economy. But perhaps it’s time they start talking about our scientist surplus instead. … Most (of) these Ph.D.’s will eventually find work — and probably decently compensated work at that. After all, the unemployment rate for those with even a college degree is under 4 percent, and in 2008, science and engineering doctorate holders up to three years out of school had just 1.5 percent unemployment. But next time you hear a politician talking about our lack of science talent, remember all those young aerospace engineers, chemists, physicists who will still be casting around for a gig after they’re handed a diploma. There’s no great shortage to speak of.” (Emphasis added.)

Does the labor market long term need more scientists? Almost certainly. Is it a good long term investment to get a college degree in science? Almost certainly. But what is far less clear is if the demand for scientists over the long term is greater than the demand for those in non STEM professions or that the return on investment over the long term is going to be greater for those with science degrees compared to those with liberal arts and/or other professional degrees. A good reason to keep government out of the business of picking occupation winners and losers.

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