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U. of Chicago students in doctoral gowns

University of Chicago

The percentage of new Ph.D. recipients in 2012 who had a job commitment upon finishing their degrees increased by the smallest of margins -- 0.1 percentage point, to 65.6 percent -- over the 2011 proportion.

While that change is in a positive direction and some disciplinary groups saw slightly larger gains, the overall picture of the job market for new Ph.D.s remains tight, according to data from new version of the Survey of Earned Doctorates, which is prepared for the National Science Foundation each year by NORC at the University of Chicago.

Over all, the number of doctorates awarded in 2012 was 51,008, an increase of 4.3 percent over the previous year. And women continue to earn a larger share of doctoral degrees than they have in the past -- 46.2 percent of which went to women in 2012. That's up only modestly in the last 10 years (the figure was 45.4 percent in 2002) but is up more substantially if one goes back further in time. Twenty years ago, women were earning only 37.3 percent of doctoral degrees.

Compared to last year and the year before, there are gains across disciplinary categories (except in education). There are also gains in the number of doctorates awarded in the humanities, where the job market for Ph.D.s has been particularly tight.

Number of Doctorates Awarded in Selected Fields, 2010-12

Field 2010 2011 2012
Life sciences 11,258 11,451 12,045
Physical sciences 8,310 8,665 8,952
Psychology and social sciences 7,769 8,092 8,353
Engineering 7,548 7,985 8,427
Education 5,288 4,670 4,802
Humanities 4,971 5,211 5,503

A key part of the annual report is its data on the proportion of new Ph.D. recipients who have job commitments (including postdocs) upon graduation and those who don't. This year's modest gain does not hide the reality that a doctorate is not a guarantee of a job.

Percentage of New Doctorates With Job or Postdoc Commitments

Discipline 2011 2012
Life sciences 62.5% 62.2%
Physical sciences 69.3% 68.2%
Social sciences 69.5% 69.9%
Engineering 64.0% 63.6%
Education 68.1% 69.2%
Humanities 57.0% 58.3%

In many fields, earning a Ph.D. is not presumed to lead to a career in academe. Many Ph.D.s work for the government or nonprofit sectors, and business is a major employer of doctorates in science and technology fields.

And the disciplinary area where the smallest proportion of new Ph.D.s had job commitments upon graduation is also the area where the greatest proportion of such commitments are in academe. Nearly 83 percent of new humanities Ph.D.s who had a job had a position in academe. While the business world has never been a top career destination for new humanities Ph.D.s, it has had jobs for some of them in the past -- 4.8 percent in 2002, for example. In 2012, none of the humanities Ph.D.s with jobs had them in business or industry.

Academe vs. Industry as Sector Employing New Ph.D.s

Discipline Academe Business
Life sciences 46.5% 27.9%
Physical sciences 32.6% 56.7%
Social sciences 59.5% 15.5%
Engineering 13.4% 72.9%
Education 57.9% 4.9%
Humanities 82.9% 0%

White men were more likely than others to have firm job commitments upon receiving a Ph.D., with 67.1 percent of men and 63.8 percent of women having jobs lined up. By race/ethnicity, the figures were 68.4 percent for white doctoral recipients, followed by 67.0 percent (Native American), 61.1 percent (Latino), 58.9 percent (Asian) and 55.6 percent (black).

In terms of debt, humanities, social sciences and education doctorates are not faring as well as are those in other disciplines -- and earn doctorates with higher mean levels of education debt. Further, they are much less likely to be debt-free. (A contributing factor may be longer time-to-degree averages.)

Debt of New Ph.D.s, 2012

Discipline Mean Education Debt Percentage Debt-Free
Life sciences $18,334 53.1%
Physical sciences $12,177 64.0%
Social sciences $33,346 38.6%
Engineering $11,183 66.1%
Education $31,848 42.7%
Humanities $29,281 39.2%


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