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New-Graduate Salaries

Unemployment dropped slightly in 2012—but so did salaries for those who found jobs, ACS survey shows

by Susan R. Morrissey
April 22, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 16


Graphic shows statistics about respondents to the ACS salary survey.

For newly minted graduates in chemically related fields, 2012 was a better year to find a job than previous years, as the unemployment rate for those looking for work fell from 13.3% in 2011 to 12.6% in 2012.

Despite the slight drop in unemployment, median starting salaries for new Ph.D. and master’s degree recipients also dropped and those for bachelor’s earners stayed flat. These findings come from the annual American Chemical Society survey of new graduates in chemistry and related fields.

Gareth S. Edwards of the ACS Department of Research & Member Insights conducts the survey under the guidance of the ACS Committee on Economic & Professional Affairs. The 2012 survey was sent to 12,132 recent graduates in early October 2012, and data were collected until January 2013. In all, the new grads returned 2,012 usable responses for a response rate of 16.6%. The respondents can be divided into several categories—degree level, for instance, or field of study, gender, experience level, or type of employment. For some of these groups, the number of responses was small and not necessarily representative of the wider pool of chemistry graduates in a given group.

Of the 2012 respondents, 85.1% were newly minted bachelor’s degree holders, 6.9% held new master’s degrees, and 8.0% had just completed a Ph.D. Among the bachelor’s degree recipients, the top three fields of study were general chemistry (50.2%), biochemistry (30.5%), and chemical engineering (8.3%). For master’s degree holders, a quarter of respondents earned a general chemistry degree, 18.1% a biochemistry degree, and 13.8% an analytical chemistry degree. At the Ph.D. level, 20.5% earned an analytical chemistry degree, 13.7% an inorganic chemistry degree, and 13.7% an organic chemistry degree. When all levels are combined, chemical engineering accounted for 8.6% of degrees.

Although the data show a small drop in the overall percentage of unemployed job seekers, the size of that decrease varied by degree level. For Ph.D. graduates, the overall unemployment level reported was 8.1%, with 7.5% of respondents saying they were actively looking for work as compared with 8.8% looking in 2011. And for bachelor’s degree earners, nearly 18% of respondents were unemployed and 13.4% were actively job hunting, down from 13.6% in 2011. The big change was among those earning master’s degrees: 11.0% reported being unemployed. But only 9.6% were seeking employment in 2012, far below the 17.8% who were looking in 2011. However, the number of respondents in this category was small.

Another sign that the job market may be improving is that the number of graduates pursuing advanced study was down slightly for bachelor’s degree earners, meaning a few more graduates were opting to enter the job market. Of bachelor’s degree earners, 39.1% said they planned to continue their education immediately after receiving their degree. This is down from 41.1% in 2011. But the statistics for those earning a master’s degree in 2012 can be interpreted less optimistically. A third of respondents in this group said they planned to continue their studies, up from 22.0% in 2011.

The top fields for those with bachelor’s degrees opting to continue their studies include chemistry (30.7%), medicine (25.5%), and pharmacology (12.8%). Two-thirds of master’s degree recipients said they planned to study chemistry.

The percentage of Ph.D.s who took a postdoctoral position after completing their degree was down. Some 40.6% of respondents indicated they would be doing a postdoc, whereas in 2011, 46.9% pursued this option.

Regardless of work experience, for those who decided to enter the job market and found a job, the median starting salary for most categories in 2012 was flat or down from 2011 values. The largest change was for new Ph.D.s, who saw starting salaries drop to $75,000 in 2012 from $85,000 the previous year. For those earning master’s degrees, the reported median starting salary fell from $55,000 in 2011 to $49,500 in 2012. Starting salaries for bachelor’s degree earners held flat at $40,000.

The survey data also provided mixed results about the correlation between median salary and experience levels. At the bachelor’s degree level, experience did not matter, whereas for hires with new master’s degrees, more experience meant more money in their paycheck. The outlier here is the reported salaries for fresh Ph.D.s. Those starting jobs with less than 12 months of experience reported earning $80,000, those with 12–36 months of experience reported earning $64,200, and those with more than 36 months of experience, $74,000. It’s important to note, however, that the response rate for 2012 Ph.D.s was lower than previous years and therefore may not be representative.

The size of companies hiring new graduates also affected salaries. Bachelor’s degree holders who work for large companies with more than 25,000 employees earned $56,000. The next highest earners, with a median salary of $46,900, were bachelor’s degree holders hired by firms with 2,500 to 9,999 employees.

The gender of graduates with less than a year of experience also affected starting salaries. Male bachelor’s degree recipients indicated that their median salary was $43,000, whereas for women, the median salary was $36,500. Similarly for Ph.D.s, the median salary for men was $81,300, and for women it was $74,000. Women who earned master’s degrees, however, reported earning more than their male counterparts—$48,000 compared with $45,000.

Inexperienced bachelor’s degree holders who found work in industry earned more than those who took jobs in academia and the government. The median salary for new hires in industry was $40,000 in 2012 compared with $36,000 and $38,500 for new employees in academia and government, respectively.

Having a chemical engineering degree also translated to higher earnings. The median starting salary of Ph.D. chemical engineers was $93,000 in 2012, some 35.2% more than Ph.D. chemists. And for those who earned a bachelor’s degree, the median salary was $65,000, 80% more than for chemists with a bachelor’s degree. There were insufficient data for chemical engineers earning master’s degrees.

For all respondents, the most popular technique to find a job was using electronic media such as Internet job boards. Other common job-finding methods included placement services, informal channels, and faculty adviser help.

When it comes to liking one’s job, those who completed advanced degrees reported being more satisfied. For example, 70.3% of bachelor’s degree recipients felt professionally challenged in their jobs, while 79.6% of master’s degree holders and 86.2% of Ph.D.s felt challenged.

Similarly, when it comes to feeling like their education relates to the field in which they work, 75.3% of bachelor’s degree earners agreed, but 92.7% of master’s earners and 95.2% of Ph.D. holders agreed. And when asked if their training and education is commensurate with their job, 70.0% of bachelor’s degree earners agreed, as compared with 84.4% and 90.3% of master’s earners and Ph.D. holders, respectively.

But when it comes to feeling that their jobs are what they expected them to be when they began their studies, only 62.6% of Ph.D.s reported understanding exactly what those positions would entail.


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