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Ph.D.s find shrinking job opportunities

(MoneyWatch) If you think obtaining a doctorate degree is the ticket to a high-paying job, think again.

Many freshly minted Ph.D.s in the U.S. are graduating without already have a job lined up, according to a new annual survey by the National Science Foundation. In fact, the number of doctorate recipients who reported having a job commitment or post-doctoral position dropped to its lowest level in a decade.

More than 49,000 Americans earned a doctorate in 2011. Seventy-four percent of these degrees were earned in science or engineering, fields where qualified candidates are said to be in short supply. Yet across the board in this category, the number of Ph.D. recipients who reported job offers or post-doctoral positions last year was 3 to 10 percent lower than it was in 2001.

In engineering, 64 percent of new  Ph.D.s had secured a job or post-doc opportunities as of 2011, versus 72.5 percent 10 years ago. In the life sciences, 62.5 percent of Ph.D.s had something lined up, compared with nearly 73 percent in 2001. The following chart from the NSF shows job and academic placements since 1991 for Ph.D.s in science and engineering.

Job prospects were even worse for recent Ph.D.s in education and the humanities. The proportion of doctorate recipients with definite jobs lined up or post-doc commitments was lower than at any point in the past two decades. The low point for each of these non-science and engineering fields was seven to 10 percentage points below the peaks achieved during the past 20 years. 

While the job prospects for these non-technical degrees in particular continue to decline, the number  of Ph.D-granting institutions is close to its historic level. There are now 412 American universities that grant doctorates, compared with 260 in 1971. In recent decades, schools that were previously content to focus on undergraduates and students pursuing master's degrees got into the Ph.D business, which confers prestige on institutions that offer such programs.

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