The Washington Post has an article on the disparity between our public policy goal of churning out lots of new science PhDs, and the not very well kept secret that many PhDs are unable to find work in their fields.
There are some really good points here. The life sciences have the worst PhD glut by far, but chemistry seems hard hit too. Much of this has to do with other public policy decisions. For example, the cuts to the pharmaceutical industry are probably related to the ongoing drive to cut the cost of drugs and reduce the massive profits that have accrued to brand name drugs. It is understandable why we want to do this, but it means that lots of cushy research jobs will have to be cut.
Traditional academic jobs are scarcer than ever. Once a primary career path, only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years, according to a 2009 NSF survey.
The pharmaceutical industry once was 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.
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.
It is normal for PhD physicists to work outside of academia [paging Steve Hsu], especially in the finance industry these days, but you would have a hard time knowing that. I suspect this needs to be true for other fields of science as well, but the skills don't seem to translate as well.