The latest annual survey of the employment status and salaries of new chemistry graduates by the American Chemical Society reveals a mixed picture. The job situation for 2006 graduates remained reasonably good and largely unchanged from what it had been for the two previous graduating classes. But at all three degree levels, full-time jobs remained less plentiful than they had been for graduates during the second half of the booming 1990s.
The median salaries for the 2006 class were markedly mixed. The median for inexperienced bachelor's graduates with full-time permanent employment and less than 12 months of technical work prior to graduation remained unchanged at $35,000. Master's graduates posted a $2,400, or 5%, one-year gain to $47,400. According to the survey, the median salary for Ph.D. graduates tumbled to $60,000 from $72,400 for 2005 graduates for a surprisingly large, and not readily explained, decline of 17%.
Two-year salary changes for bachelor's and master's graduates were somewhat nearer the norm. Salaries for 2006 bachelor's graduates were 8% higher than they had been for 2004 graduates. For master's graduates, the gain was 9%. And Ph.D. graduates posted a less alarming 8% two-year decline.
Starting-salary surveys are based on questionnaires sent to graduates from academic departments with ACS-approved undergraduate chemistry programs, as well as graduates from chemical engineering departments at the same schools. The addresses of graduates are gathered and provided by ACS's Office of Professional Training. The questionnaires ask for data as of early October each year.
There were just over 2,400 usable responses from chemists and 400 from chemical engineers to the 2005-06 survey. Those responding represented about 16% of all chemistry graduates and about 7% of all chemical engineering graduates.
The response rate to the survey has been declining for many years. The same is happening to ACS's annual survey of salary and employment status of its members in the domestic workforce.
As recently as the starting-salary survey of 1998 graduates, there were close to 6,000 responses, 4,800 from chemistry graduates and close to 1,100 from chemical engineering graduates.
The declining response rate enhances the need to interpret survey results with increasing care. For instance, the low response from chemical engineers to the starting-salary survey limits the amount of meaningful analysis that is possible.
The falling response rate may also have something to do with the recent gyrations in the salaries for Ph.D. chemistry graduates. As total response declines, responses from subsets of the population—such as Ph.D. graduates with full-time permanent employment and less than 12 months of technical work experience prior to graduation—get quite small in absolute terms, 74 in this case. This makes the findings increasingly vulnerable to random variations.
Another contributor to the apparent large 2005–06 drop in Ph.D. salaries is the very high value reported for 2005 graduates. For the past three surveys, the median full-time salaries for inexperienced Ph.D. graduates have been $65,000, $72,400, and $60,000. Another factor is that a high 52% of 2006 graduates took relatively low-paying jobs in academia.
The survey of 2006 graduates was conducted by Gareth S. Edwards of ACS's Department of Member Research & Technology. Both this survey and the annual salary and employment survey are conducted under the guidance of the ACS Committee on Economic & Professional Affairs.
A slight majority, 52%, of both bachelor's- and master's-degree graduates responding to the latest survey were women, as were 31% of the Ph.D. graduates. By race, Asians, about 4% of the U.S. population, earned 10% of the bachelor's degrees, 24% of the master's degrees, and 28% of the Ph.D.s. African Americans, about 14% of the population, were grossly underrepresented with about 4% of the degrees overall. Hispanics, also about 14% of the population, accounted for just 5% of the total graduates.
Those who are not U.S. citizens—permanent residents and those on temporary visas—claimed 34% of the Ph.D.s, 23% of the master's degrees, and 4% of the bachelor's degrees. A large percentage of these graduates were from Japan, China, India, South Korea, and other Asian nations.
The median age at graduation was 23 years for bachelor's graduates, 27 for master's graduates, and 31 for Ph.D.s.
A little more than 61% of the 2006 bachelor's degrees were in general chemistry. Another 4% were in the classic subdisciplines of analytical, inorganic, organic, physical, and polymer chemistry. The remaining 34% were in chemistry-related disciplines such as biochemistry and chemical education. Of the Ph.D. degrees, 5% were in general chemistry, 72% in the classic subdisciplines, and 23% in the chemistry-related category.
Of the bachelor's chemistry graduates responding to the 2006 survey, 43% reported having full-time or part-time jobs, either permanent or temporary. This was down from the recent high of 50% of 1999 graduates. For master's graduates, the parallel decline was from a high 66% of 2000 graduates to 55% of 2006 graduates. For Ph.D. graduates, the decline was even larger, from 51% of the 2000 class to 39% of the 2006 class.
The percentage of graduates not working-either by choice or involuntarily-has trended upward a little between 2000 and 2006. For both bachelor's and master's graduates, it has risen from 7% to 10% and, for Ph.D.s, from 8% to 9%. Since the 2003 class, between 51 and 52% of new Ph.D. chemistry graduates have taken postdocs, while about 48% of bachelor's graduates and 33% of master's graduates have entered graduate or professional school.
The biggest source for employment for the 2006 graduates who found a job—full-time or part-time, permanent or temporary—was academia, with 51% of the Ph.D. graduates, 29% of the master's, and 23% of the bachelor's. These totals include those who became high school teachers.
The pharmaceutical industry accounted for 15% of the bachelor's graduates, 22% of the master's graduates, and 10% of the Ph.D.s. The chemical industry took a lower 11% of the bachelor's graduates, 4% of the master's graduates, and 7% of the Ph.D.s. All industry combined remained a major job source, accounting for 40% of the bachelor's graduates, 41% of the master's graduates, and 26% of the Ph.D.s. A high 14% of the bachelor's graduates found employment at analytical or clinical laboratories.
The general profile of the employment situation for chemistry graduates is of growing strength from 1995 though 2000 followed by considerably slower growth since. This parallels the trends in the U.S. job market in total, as traced by Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data.
According to BLS, total U.S. employment grew by 2.3 million per year from 1995 to 2000 and by 1.4 million per year in the following years. Nonfarm payrolls, considered by many to be the best indicator of the job market, show a similar pattern, growing by 2.6 million per year from 1995 to 2000 and by a sharply lower 800,000 per year since.
Private employment shows the same pattern, with average annual gains of 2.8 million from 1995 to 2000 and about 550,000 since. Manufacturing jobs went from zero growth from 1995 to 2000 to an average loss of 500,000 jobs per year since.
More encouraging for chemists is what is happening to college graduates in the workforce. The number of college graduates in the workforce has grown quite consistently by about a million per year since 1995.
The constant-dollar median salaries of chemistry graduates at all three degree levels have followed the same path as the employment situation over the past decade. They all start with a low for the 1996 class. This is followed by sharp increases over the next three to five years to new all-time highs. Since then, the salaries of bachelor's and master's graduates have each held fairly steady, while salaries of Ph.D. graduates have moved lower.
The survey indicates variations within some subsets of the new-graduate population but no significant difference between the median salaries of men and women who graduated in 2006. Of all inexperienced graduates, women had an edge at the bachelor's level, with a median salary of $35,000 versus $34,400 for men; and at the Ph.D. level, $62,200 versus $60,000. Male master's graduates did a little better, $50,000 versus $46,900.
The difference between the salaries of those taking jobs in industry and academia is small for bachelor's graduates, $35,000 versus $32,000, respectively. For master's graduates, it is more substantial, $52,700 versus $41,700; and for Ph.D.s, it is large, $75,000 versus $45,900.
Data from the 400 chemical engineers responding to the 2006 survey confirm that they are paid considerably more than chemistry graduates and are more likely to take a job. The median salary of an inexperienced bachelor's chemical engineering graduate was $55,800, well exceeding the median of $35,000 for chemists. For master's graduates, the difference was $58,000 versus $47,400, and for Ph.D.s, it was $78,000 versus $60,000. About 66% of all chemical engineering graduates took a job, compared with about 45% of the chemists.
Responding graduates indicated that the most effective job-search method was using electronic sources. Informal channels ranked second. Faculty advisers came in third.
Employment agencies were deemed quite effective by bachelor's and master's graduates but not by Ph.D.s. On the other hand, Ph.D. graduates found magazines and journals to be quite effective while bachelor's and master's graduates did not.
About 50% of both men and women bachelor's graduates are continuing with their studies. For master's graduates, it is 40% of the men and 37% of the women.
Of the bachelor's graduates who do continue, 39% stay with chemistry. Another 26% pursue medicine or dentistry. The remainder are split 21% in other sciences, 1% in engineering, and 13% in other fields.
Not surprisingly, master's graduates are more likely to stay with chemistry, at 71%. Of the others, 14% moved to other sciences, 11% to medicine or dentistry, 1% to engineering, and 3% to other fields.
As with earlier surveys, a majority of 2005–06 graduates were satisfied with the jobs they had obtained, with Ph.D.s being the most satisfied. Of bachelor's graduates, 80% agreed that their job was related to their field and 73% agreed that it was commensurate with their training. Ph.D. graduates posted 88% on both these questions.
Overall, 2006 chemistry graduates didn't do too badly. Relatively few, 6%, were out of work and actively seeking it—and this was only a few months beyond the end of their graduating year. With the exception of the decline for Ph.D.s, constant-dollar salaries held up.
An unusually high 52% of Ph.D.s are doing postdocs. This should not be interpreted as only a sign of job-market weakness. It could also reflect the strong and ongoing trend toward an ever more highly educated U.S. workforce.
The thing that is missing for chemistry graduates today is the ebullience of the booming salaries and equally booming job market of the late 1990s. Chemists are not alone in this.
The question for everybody in the workforce today is: Will employment in the U.S. continue with its real, if moderate, growth of late? Or will it soon peak and start to slip? BLS data of recent months can be interpreted as hinting at the latter.