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New PhDs Trending Away from Postdoc Positions

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The proportion of recently graduated PhD students accepting a postdoctoral position has declined dramatically since 2004, according to a recently released study from the American Institute of Physics. The ratio has dropped from a high of 67% six years ago to 54% in the latest available data, from the PhD class of 2008.

The survey, which asked recently-graduated students and degree-granting institutions across the country about where students ended up a year after receiving their PhD, found that students are more frequently opting to take jobs that could potentially lead to a permanent career position, up from about 25% in 2004, to 33% today. Graduates are still more likely to end up at a postdoctoral position, but its lead over a potentially permanent position has been shrinking.

Patrick Mulvey, one of the authors of the study, said that a potentially permanent position was a job without a set end date.” If that person wanted to… they could stay in that job forever,” Mulvey said.

The study looked also at in what sectors PhDs were likely to seek a postdoctoral position versus a potentially permanent position. Students with degrees in Atmospheric and Space, Applied Physics and Surface Physics were more likely to take a potentially permanent position, while students with degrees in Astronomy and Astrophysics, Biological Physics and Nuclear Physics were more likely to seek postdoctoral positions

Non-United States citizens were more likely to accept a postdoctoral position than United States citizens. About 61% of foreign citizens took a postdoctoral position, while 49% of US citizens took such positions. At the same time United States citizens were more likely to take a potentially permanent position than a foreign citizen. About 39% of US citizens took a potentially permanent position while only 27% of foreign citizens did. Part of the reason for this difference is because of visa limitations as 6% of foreign citizens said that the reason they took a temporary postdoctoral position was because of visa restrictions.  

Altogether, about 20% of foreign citizens left the United States after earning their doctorate while only about 8% of US citizens left. The employment information covered by the report focused exclusively on the people who stayed in the United States after graduating.

Over a third of students taking a postdoctoral position said that they did so because it was an important step to getting a desired future position. Another quarter said that they wanted to get research experience in their fields.

The study found that about 7% of students also took some other type of temporary position, with an end date, that was not a postdoctoral position. The overwhelming reason graduates gave for taking such a temporary position was that they were unable to land a permanent position.

The survey showed also that unemployment among recently graduated PhDs has been consistently very low, around 4%, for as long as the survey has been taken. Mulvey did say that unemployment among PhDs is not a good indicator of the economy as it is more likely that a student graduating with a doctorate will be working part time or somehow underemployed rather than unemployed.

The study, titled “Physics Doctorates One Year Later,” was released in November.

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Editor: Alan Chodos