S&E Labor Market Conditions

Indicators of labor market conditions (such as rates of unemployment and working involuntarily out of one’s degree field) and earnings provide meaningful information on economic rewards and the overall attractiveness of careers in S&E fields. This section suggests that labor market outcomes are relatively favorable for scientists and engineers, although they vary by occupational categories and training level.

Unemployment

Unemployment rates among scientists and engineers tend to be lower than the rates for the labor force as a whole: an estimated 2.7% of scientists and engineers were unemployed compared to 4.9% of the entire U.S. labor force in February 2017 (Table 3-8). Workers in S&E occupations have historically experienced lower annual unemployment rates than the overall labor force (Figure 3-13). Rates, however, varied across occupational categories. Additionally, advanced degree holders were generally less vulnerable to unemployment than those with a bachelor’s as their highest degree (Table 3-8).

Unemployment rates of scientists and engineers, by level of highest degree and broad occupational category: Selected years, 2003–17

(Percent)
Note(s)

Scientists and engineers include those with one or more S&E or S&E-related degrees at the bachelor's level or higher or those who have only a non-S&E degree at the bachelor's level or higher and are employed in an S&E or S&E-related occupation. For data on unemployment rates by occupation, calculations assume that unemployed individuals are seeking further employment in their most recent occupation.

Source(s)

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (SESTAT), 2003, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2013, and the National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG), 2015, 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Unemployment rate, by selected groups: 1990–2017

Note(s)

Please see the Science and Engineering Labor Force Technical Appendix for definitions of S&E occupations and S&E technicians and computer programmers.

Source(s)

National Bureau of Economic Research, Merged Outgoing Rotation Group files, 1990–2017; Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey (CPS).

Science and Engineering Indicators

Working Involuntarily Out of One’s Field of Highest Degree

Working outside of one’s chosen field of study for involuntary reasons may create skills mismatches and economic inefficiencies that can be viewed as one indicator of labor market stress. Individuals work outside their highest degree field for a variety of reasons, including labor market conditions such as availability of suitable work or for career and personal reasons (Stenard and Sauermann 2016). Those who reported that they did so because suitable work was not available in their degree field are referred to as involuntarily out-of-field (IOF) workers, and their number relative to all employed individuals is the IOF rate. In 2017, about 7.5% of S&E highest degree holders reported working involuntarily out of their field (Table 3-9).

S&E highest degree holders who are working involuntarily out of field, by S&E degree field: Selected years, 2003–17

(Percent)
Note(s)

The involuntarily out-of-field rate is the proportion of all employed individuals who report that their job is not related to their field of highest degree because a job in their highest degree field was not available.

Source(s)

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (SESTAT), 2003–13, and the National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG), 2015, 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Similar to other labor market outcomes, IOF rates vary by degree levels and S&E fields of study (Table 3-9). Those with a highest degree in engineering or computer and mathematical sciences have lower IOF rates than those with a highest degree in physical, life, or social sciences. This pattern generally persists across most of the career cycle (Figure 3-14). Additionally, scientists and engineers with advanced degrees are less likely to work involuntarily out of field than those with bachelor’s degrees only. In 2017, IOF rates for scientists and engineers with highest degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate levels were 8%, 4%, and 2%, respectively.

S&E highest degree holders working involuntarily out of field, by field of and years since highest degree: 2017

Note(s)

Involuntarily out-of-field rate is the proportion of all employed individuals who reported working in a job not related to their field of highest degree because a job in that field was not available. Missing data have been suppressed for reasons of confidentiality and/or reliability.

Source(s)

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG), 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Earnings

Individuals in S&E occupations earn considerably more than the overall workforce. The median annual salary in 2017 in S&E occupations (regardless of education level or field) was $85,390, which is more than double the median for all U.S. workers ($37,690) (Table 3-10). This reflects the high level of formal education and technical skills associated with S&E occupations. Median S&E salaries rose at about the same rate (1.8%) as that for all U.S. workers (2.0%) from 2014 to 2017. Salaries varied across occupational categories. Salaries for workers in S&E-related occupations displayed similar patterns of higher earnings relative to the overall workforce. Health-related occupations, the largest segment of S&E-related occupations, cover a wide variety of workers ranging from physicians, surgeons, and practitioners to nurses, therapists, pharmacists, and health technicians; as a result, these occupations display a large variation in salary levels (Table 3-10).

Annual salaries in science, technology, and related occupations: May 2014–May 2017

(Current dollars)

STEM = science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Note(s)

Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey employment data do not cover employment in some sectors of the agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting industry; in private households; or among self-employed individuals. As a result, the data do not represent total U.S. employment.

Source(s)

Bureau of Labor Statistics, special tabulations (2015 and 2018) of the May 2014 and May 2017 OES Survey.

Science and Engineering Indicators

The earning premium associated with an S&E or S&E-related degree compared to a non-S&E degree is present across most career stages (Figure 3-15). Earnings also vary by degree levels (Figure 3-16) with master’s and doctoral degree holders earning more at all stages of the career cycle relative to bachelor’s degree holders.

Median salaries for employed, college-educated individuals, by broad field of and years since highest degree: 2017

Note(s)

See Science and Engineering Labor Force Technical Appendix for classification of S&E, S&E-related, and non-S&E degree fields.

Source(s)

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG), 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Median salaries for S&E highest degree holders, by level of and years since highest degree: 2017

Source(s)

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG), 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Recent S&E Graduates

In today’s knowledge-based and globally integrated economy—marked by rapid information flow and development of new knowledge, products, and processes—demand for certain skills and abilities may change fast. The employment outcomes of recent graduates are an important indicator of labor market conditions for more current entrants to the labor market. Compared with experienced S&E workers, recent S&E graduates—those between 1 and 5 years since receiving their highest degree—more often bring knowledge about emerging fields and state-of-the-art-skills to the labor market. From the National Survey of College Graduates, among the 27 million scientists and engineers employed in February 2017, 2.7 million were recent S&E degree recipients.

Recent S&E graduates may experience different labor market outcomes than more established graduates, and this experience differs between degree levels and broad fields. In 2017, recent graduates had a higher unemployment rate (4.5%) (Table 3-11) than all scientists and engineers (2.7%) (Table 3-8). Also, an estimated 9.9% of the recent S&E graduates indicated working involuntarily out of field (Table 3-11), compared to 7.5% of all S&E highest degree holders (Table 3-9).

Labor market indicators for recent S&E degree recipients up to 5 years after receiving degree, by level and field of highest degree: 2017

(Percent and dollars)

s = suppressed for reasons of confidentiality and/or reliability.

Note(s)

Median annual salaries are rounded to the nearest $1,000. All degree levels includes professional degrees not broken out separately. Data include degrees earned from February 2012 to February 2016. The involuntarily out-of-field rate is the proportion of all employed individuals who report that their job is not related to their field of highest degree because a job in their highest degree field was not available.

Source(s)

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG), 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

The number of science, engineering, and health (SEH) doctorates who received their doctorate within the past 3 years (recent SEH doctorates) has risen between 2006 and 2017 albeit inconsistently across the broad SEH fields (Table S3-10). For example, the number of computer and information sciences doctorates rose since 2006 and those in psychology declined over this period. Like other recent graduates as well as the overall workforce, trends in labor market outcomes such as unemployment and IOF rates vary across doctoral fields (Table S3-10). Earnings vary by field as well as by position type and employment sector. For example, salaries for SEH doctorates who received their doctorate within the past 5 years ranged from $49,000 for postdoctoral positions in 4-year institutions to $104,000 for those employed in the business sector (Table 3-12). Each sector, however, exhibited substantial internal variation by SEH field of training.

Median salaries for recent SEH doctorate recipients up to 5 years after receiving degree, by field of degree and employment sector: 2017

(Current dollars)

s = suppressed for reasons of confidentiality and/or reliability.

SEH = science, engineering, and health.

Note(s)

Salaries are rounded to the nearest $1,000. Data include graduates from 19 months to 60 months prior to the survey reference date. The 2-year or precollege institutions include 2-year colleges and community colleges or technical institutes and also preschool, elementary, middle, or secondary schools. The 4-year institutions include 4-year colleges or universities, medical schools, and university-affiliated research institutes.

Source(s)

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Postdoctoral Positions

A significant number of S&E doctorate recipients take a postdoctoral appointment (generally known as a postdoc) as their first position after receiving their doctorate. Postdoc positions are defined as temporary, short-term positions, primarily for acquiring additional training in an academic, government, industry, or nonprofit setting. In many S&E disciplines, a postdoc position is generally expected to be competitive for obtaining a faculty position. Individuals in postdoc positions often perform cutting-edge research and receive valuable training.

The estimated number of postdocs varies depending on the data source used. No single data source measures the entire population of postdocs. NCSES’s 2017 Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS) reports that 64,733 doctorates were employed as postdocs and conducting research in SEH fields at U.S. academic institutions and their affiliated research centers and hospitals (NCSES GSS 2017: Table 2-1). This is a slight increase from 2014 (63,593). Over half (55%) of these postdocs are temporary visa holders.

The extent to which a postdoc appointment is part of an individual’s career path varies greatly across SEH fields. Postdocs have historically been more common in life sciences and physical sciences than in other fields, such as social sciences and engineering (Table S3-11). Salaries for this population vary by field of doctorate, and the median salary for postdocs ($49,000) was just over half the median salary for individuals in non-postdoc positions ($86,000) (Table 3-13).

Median salaries for recent SEH doctorate recipients in postdoc and non-postdoc positions up to 5 years after receiving degree: 2017

(Current dollars)

SEH = science, engineering, and health.

Note(s)

Salaries are rounded to the nearest $1,000. Data include graduates from 19 months to 60 months before the survey reference date.

Source(s)

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Of the nearly 65,000 academic postdoc positions in SEH fields, women held 40% of them in 2017 (NCSES GSS 2017: Table 2-1). Among postdocs in engineering, however, the proportion of women was lower (22%) and the proportion of temporary visa holders was higher (66%) than the overall SEH shares. The majority of academic postdocs (62%) in 2017 were supported by research grants; the rest were supported by fellowships, traineeships, or other mechanisms (NCSES GSS 2017: Table 3-6).