Earlier this month, the National Science Foundation (NSF) released data from the 2014 Survey of Earned Doctorates, the latest edition of an annual census of individuals who receive research doctoral degrees from U.S. colleges and universities.
And based on an official NSF report highlighting the major findings from the survey, it seems 2014 was a good year for dissertation defenses.
All totaled, U.S. institutions awarded 54,070 PhDs in 2014. That’s 2.5% more than were awarded in 2013. It’s also the highest number of PhDs awarded since the Survey of Earned Doctorates was first conducted back in 1957. Science and Engineering fields, in particular, have seen tremendous growth in recent years. Doctorates in these fields presently constitute 75% of all newly earned PhDs in the U.S., up from only 66% in 1994.
But despite the record number of doctoral degrees awarded, 2014 was not an entirely good year in the world of doctoral education. Even though the recession ended several years ago and the U.S. economy is rebounding, the results of the latest NSF survey suggest the PhD job market is still stuck in a lingering slump.
For instance, in many areas of science, the academic employment rate has dropped by more than five percentage points over the last 10 years. Moreover, in every broad field of science and engineering – namely, Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Social Sciences – the percentage of PhD recipients who have a definite plan for employment after graduation is at or near the lowest level of the past 15 years.
So, the academic job market is currently still pretty lousy for scientific fields, in general. But what about Psychology, in particular?
I’ve previously written about the academic job market in Psychology, and the results of my earlier analyses suggest more of the same bad news. In fact, in one of my first posts on this blog, I attempted to estimate the chances of becoming a psychology professor straight out of graduate school. At the time, I concluded the chances are not very good – perhaps as low as around 18%. However, I reached this conclusion by compiling my own data set from multiple sources – using IPEDS to estimate the number of new PhD recipients in Psychology each year and the Psych Jobs Wiki to estimate the number of new tenure-track faculty positions that become available each year.
Clearly, the NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates is a more powerful and reliable tool for tracking employment trends in academia, so what do the results of this latest survey have to say about the chances of landing a job following completion of a PhD in Psychology? And how have the employment prospects for PhD recipients in Psychology changed over time?
To find out, I went back and compiled data from 21 years’ worth of NSF Surveys.
How many people earn PhDs in Psychology?
Over the past 10 years, there has been a 28% increase in the total number of people earning PhDs in the United States – from 42,123 in 2004 to 54,070 in 2014. Over this same period of time, the number of people earning PhDs in Psychology also increased, but only by 13% – from 3,327 in 2004 to 3,765 in 2014 (See Figure 1).
Figure 1: Growth in the number of PhD recipients in psychology (blue) and all fields (orange), from 2004 to 2014.
Not all subfields of Psychology have experienced the same level of growth, however. In fact, some have grown while other have shrunk.
Figure 2 provides a rank-ordering all subfields in Psychology according to percent change in PhD recipients between 2004 and 2014.
Figure 2: Percent change in PhD Recipients for each subfield in psychology between 2004 and 2014.
Over the past decade, Experimental Psychology experienced the highest percent growth of any of Psychology’s subfields, with 62.5% more PhD recipients in 2014 than in 2004. This was followed by Social Psychology with 48.47% growth and Neuropsychology/Physiological Psychology with 45.24% growth.
Only four subfields experienced either zero growth or a decline in PhD recipients from 2004 to 2014. These were Counseling Psychology (-25.39% from 2004 to 2014), Educational Psychology (-14.67% from 2004 to 2014), Psychology, Other (-6.10% from 2004 to 2014), and Human Development and Family Studies (0.00% from 2004 to 2014).
What are the chances of landing an academic job following completion of a PhD in Psychology?
Of course, growth in the number of people earning PhDs would be good news for our field if there were enough jobs to go around for everyone. Unfortunately though, as with other Science and Engineering fields, this does not appear to be the case.
Figure 3 shows two striking patterns of results derived from 21 years’ worth of NSF Survey data.
Figure 3: Percentage of PhD recipients in psychology with definite post-graduation plans (orange) and estimated chances of landing an academic job immediately after graduate school (blue), from 1994-2014.
First, take a look at the orange line at the top of the figure. This reflects the percentage of PhD recipients in Psychology who report having some sort of definite professional commitment following graduation, such as either employment or a postdoctoral position.
As you can see, 2014 represents the lowest point of the past 20 years for post-graduation commitments, following a steep drop from 2010 to 2011. In 2014, only 54% of new PhD recipients in Psychology reported having definite professional plans for after graduation, down from 65% in 1994 and 71% in 2006.
Next, take a look at the blue line in Figure 3, which reflects my estimate of the chances of landing an academic job right out of graduate school.1 These estimates are based on the number of PhD recipients in Psychology thought to be interested in pursuing an academic career, which I estimate here to be anywhere between 40-60%.2,3
Just as in the case of post-graduation commitments, 2014 represents the lowest point for academic employment in Psychology over the past 20 years. In 1994, the chance of landing an academic job straight out of graduate school was likely somewhere between 27-40% for new PhD recipients. In 2002, the chance was likely even higher, at around 28-43%. In 2014, on the other hand, the chance was a mere 18-27%, a drop of about 12-15 percentage points since the peak in 2002.4
Yet, if there is one ray of hope, it is that perhaps the academic job market has finally bottomed out after the post-recession dip beginning in 2010. Indeed, the chances of landing an academic job in Psychology dropped by only 0.05 percentage points between 2013 and 2014, the smallest downward tick between years since 2010.
Where will things go from here?
Obviously, no one knows for sure whether the academic job market will ever return to pre-recession levels, whether for Psychology or for sciences.
But the pessimist in me can’t help but fear that the current state of affairs might very well be the new norm. For one thing, colleges and universities have likely gotten used to saving money by relying heavily on adjunct professors and graduate students to teach more classes. Therefore, for many colleges and universities – especially ones that are private and heavily dependent on tuition as a major source of funding – there may be little incentive to spend extra money to create new full-time, tenure-track faculty positions.
Moreover, even if many new academic positions did, in fact, become available, it’s hard to believe that many of these positions would be within reach of an average PhD recipient fresh out of graduate school.
The reason for this is depicted in Figure 4, which shows the percentage of PhD recipients in Psychology who report definite plans to work in either academia or a postdoctoral position following graduate school.
Figure 4: Percentage of PhD recipients in psychology with plans to work in academia vs. accept a postdoctoral position (1994-2014).
Over the past 20 years, there has been a 25 percentage point increase in the number of PhD recipients in Psychology who report definite plans to accept a postdoctoral position following graduation, from 28% in 1994 to 53% in 2014. Meanwhile, the percentage who report definite plans to accept an academic position decreased by 5 percentage points, from 25% in 1994 to 20% in 2014.5
With so many more PhD recipients completing “postdocs” nowadays, most individuals fresh out of graduate school are probably not going to be competitive on the academic job market. This is because all but a relatively small handful of new doctoral recipients are likely to find themselves competing against others with far more research experience, grant-writing experience, and possibly even teaching experience.
If this trend of academic inflation, of sorts, continues or intensifies, then it’s probably safe to say that the tenure-track will eventually be all but closed off to anyone without postdoctoral experience.
In the meantime, those who once aspired to work in academia will be forced to pursue other avenues. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a potential reality that more graduate programs need to communicate to prospective and current doctoral students – especially if the number of PhDs awarded each year in Psychology continues to rise.
Brian Kurilla is a psychological scientist with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. You can follow Brian on Twitter @briankurilla
For more on the academic job market in psychology, check out some of my other posts below:
- What are the Chances of Becoming a Psychology Professor?
- What is the Average Salary for a Psychology Professor?
- Is Psychology on the Verge of an Employment Crisis?
- Psychology’s Employment Problem Crosses Gender Lines
 According to the NSF Survey, academic employment refers to employment in a 4-year college or university, medical school, university-affiliated research institute, or other educational institution. Therefore, these estimates are not restricted to tenure-track positions.
 Note that my estimates of the chances of landing an academic job right after graduate school differ from NSF estimates of the academic employment rate. For instance, the NSF estimates the 2014 academic employment rate for Psychology as 47.9%, whereas I estimate it to be around only 22%. The reason for this discrepancy is that NSF estimates are based on those with definite commitments for employment in the coming year and plans to stay in the United States. As such, the NSF’s estimate of the academic employment rate actually reflects the portion of PhD recipients employed in academia among only those who have some sort of definite post-graduation employment commitment.
 Obviously, such a blanket assumption is somewhat impractical, given the diversity of subfields in psychology. Indeed, interest in pursuing an academic career is almost certainly higher in some subfields, such as Experimental Psychology, than in others, such as Industrial and Organizational Psychology. My estimates will likely overestimate the chance of landing an academic job for subfields in which more than 60% of PhD recipients pursue an academic career. Similarly, they will likely underestimate the chance for subfields in which fewer than 40% of PhD recipients pursue an academic career.
 Note that these estimates seem mostly to agree with the results from my earlier analysis, suggesting the chance of landing an academic position in Psychology is around 18%. However, my earlier estimate might be relatively low because it is based exclusively on tenure-track positions.
 Although it’s not shown in Figure 4, there was also a decline in the percentage of PhD recipients in Psychology with definite plans to accept a job in industry, from 15.66% in 1994 to 9.95% in 2014.