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The Dayside : Is there a scientist shortage?

By: Charles Day
28 March 2014

In 2007 a committee convened by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine issue a gloomy report entitled Rising above the gathering storm: Energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future.

I say "gloomy" because the report warned that if the US did not continue to invest heavily in science and technology, it would lose its leading position in those fields along with its prosperity. To forestall that fate, the report's authors recommended, among other things, that the US should

enlarge the pipeline of students who are prepared to enter college and graduate with a degree in science, engineering, or mathematics by increasing the number of students who pass AP and IB science and mathematics courses.

There are at least two problems with that recommendation. First, the US is not the USSR, where, I imagine, the Soviet Minister of Aviation could have phoned the Soviet Minister of Education and said, with an implicit threat, "Comrade Stalin wants to expand aircraft production. Enlarge the pipeline of students who are studying aeronautical engineering." American high school students get to choose what to major in.

The second problem is that it's unfair to encourage students to study subjects, especially difficult ones like physics, if their prospects for getting a job are dim.

Are the job prospects for newly minted physicists dim or rosy? The question is part of a broader and controversial one about whether there is a shortage of workers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). On the one hand, Microsoft and other tech companies complain that they can't hire enough Americans. On the other, there are the legions of postdocs who, thanks to their abundance, can't all find tenure-track positions.

Some light on the question was shed recently by an article in the Atlantic by Michael Teitelbaum, who is a senior research associate with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. Teitelbaum reviewed recent studies on the STEM workforce and concluded that

no one has been able to find any evidence indicating current widespread labor market shortages or hiring difficulties in science and engineering occupations that require bachelors degrees or higher.

To get my own idea of the state of the job market for physicists in the US, I conducted a little experiment. I looked at open positions advertised in the January 2014 issue of Physics Today and then phoned some of the people who led the corresponding search committees.

The results from academia were stark. Alan Wolf of the Cooper Union in New York City told me that he had received about 120 applications for the college's faculty position in applied computational physics. Two of the applications, Wolf said, were outstanding. For a tenure-track position in physics, Saint Louis University's William Thacker received about 60 applications, of which several, he said, were excellent. Rice University also received about 60 applications—for a temporary, non-tenure-track instructorship. "Yes, we hired!" Rice's Barbara Braun told me.

Most of the jobs advertised in Physics Today are for positions at universities or government labs. For a sense of the job market for industrial physicists, I adopted a different approach. I visited the careers websites of a handful of physics-intensive companies and searched for jobs.

Big companies are hiring. Most of them have several openings for jobs that would appeal to PhD physicists. Here's the summary of one job, magnetic materials research scientist, at 3M in Maplewood, Minnesota:

The candidate hired for the position of Magnetic Materials Research Scientist will be responsible for identifying and proposing new research project(s) in the field of magnetic materials, while collaborating with internal and external groups to advance new electromagnetic materials for consumer electronics.

Altogether, 3M has eight open positions that require a science PhD. Does that number hint at a nationwide shortage? Not really. All the positions at 3M had been open for less than two weeks. The same was true for jobs at Agilent, where only one open position had been posted for longer than a month. The situation at IBM was similar.

In summary, in the six places I looked, I was unable to find evidence of a physicist shortage. My small anecdotal study is consistent with the larger, more rigorous ones that Teitelbaum cites in his Atlantic article. According to him, the question has shifted to determining just how big is the oversupply of STEM graduates for STEM jobs: Is it 100% or 200%?

The US doesn't need an army of STEM-trained graduates, as the authors of Gathering Storm claim. I agree with Teitelbaum: Americans need to improve in math and science because being knowledgeable about science is useful and rewarding, not because it would lead to a job in science.

If the US is to remain preeminent in science, it needs to continue to cultivate or attract the best talent from within and without its borders. And it needs to continue to fund the best science.

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