Is Psychology on the Verge of an Employment Crisis?

This is part 1 of a 2 part series focusing on employment outcomes for PhD recipients in psychology. Click here to read part 2.

The field of psychology has been on the receiving end of a lot of negative press lately.

Earlier this year it was revealed that, during the years following 9/11, the American Psychological Association (APA) colluded with officials from the Defense Department and the CIA to facilitate the torture of detainees.

Then just last month, a new report was published suggesting most psychological research cannot be replicated.

Now, in light of my personal experiences on the job market this past year, I’ve begun to wonder whether psychology might be on the verge of an employment crisis, as well.

Has it become increasingly difficult in recent years for doctoral-level psychologists to find satisfying full-time employment?

As I’ve already discussed in a previous post, the chances of landing a tenure-track faculty position in psychology are pretty slim these days (probably somewhere between 18 and 30%). This is because each year the number of new graduates with a PhD vastly exceeds the number of new faculty positions that become available.

But the hyper competitiveness of the academic job market is a problem in many disciplines, and not something unique to psychology. So what about the prospects of broader employment? How do PhD recipients in psychology compare to graduates from other disciplines when it comes to securing any type of full-time employment – academic or otherwise?

To answer this, I turned to data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Survey of Doctorate Recipients – a longitudinal survey conducted every other year since 1973 to provide demographic and career history information about individuals with a doctoral degree in a scientific, engineering, or health-related field.

Let’s start with the good news.

Figure 1 below shows the unemployment rate over the past 20 years for PhD recipients in psychology vs. all fields of science.

Figure 1: Unemployment Rate for PhD Recipients in Psychology vs. All Fields of Science (1993 – 2013).

psychology unemployment rate

In 2013 (the most recent year in which the NSF survey was conducted), roughly 1.6% of psychologists with a PhD were unemployed. Although this is more than double the percentage in 1995 and 1997 (0.66%), unemployment among doctoral-level psychologists is down from an all-time high of 1.73% in 2010. Furthermore, unemployment in psychology is consistently below the average for all sciences (2.09%). And to the extent that unemployment in psychology is on the rise, the overall trend does not seem altogether different from that of most other fields of science.

Now for the bad news.

Although an unemployment rate below 2% is certainly reassuring, closer inspection of the NSF findings from the past 20 years reveals some potentially troubling news for psychology graduates. For instance, in 2013 only 73% of PhD recipients in psychology were employed full-time, whereas 26% were employed primarily part-time.1

Furthermore, since 1997 PhD recipients in psychology have had the lowest full-time employment rate (and the highest part-time employment rate) out of all 26 science and engineering disciplines included in the NSF survey (from 1993 to 1997, only Biological Sciences had a lower full-time employment rate than psychology).

Figure 2 provides a detailed breakdown of how the full-time employment rate for PhD recipients in psychology compares to that of PhD recipients in all sciences.

Figure 2: Full-time (FT) and Part-time (PT) Employment Rates for PhD Recipients in Psychology vs. All Fields of Science (1993 – 2013).

psychology FT employment rate

As you can see in Figure 2, full-time employment of doctoral-level psychologists has lagged behind that of other scientific disciplines for years. More troubling though is that the gap between psychology and other sciences has more than quadrupled in the past 20 years, growing from a difference of 2.75 percentage points in 1993 to a difference of 12.62 percentage points in 2013. Projections based on a simple linear model show that if this trend continues, the full-time employment rate for doctoral-level psychologists will be down to around 57% by the year 2035. And by the year 2046, the percentage of employed psychologists working full-time will be a mere 50%.

So why are PhD recipients in psychology less likely than professionals in other sciences to find full-time employment? Is it just that there are relatively fewer jobs matching the qualifications and skillsets of scientifically trained psychologists? Do employers under-value the scientific training of psychologists? Or does some of the blame fall to graduate programs for not doing enough to prepare students for a career outside of academia? After all, only about 34% of psychologists with a PhD end up working at a 4-year college or university (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Various Employment Sectors for Employed PhD’s in Psychology vs. All Sciences.

psych employment sectors

At this point, the reason for the growing number of underemployed professional psychologists is unclear. The explanation might be a combination of all the possibilities mentioned above, or it might be none of these things.

One thing that has become increasingly clear though is that it’s a tough time to be a psychologist. Thanks to the failures of the APA and individual researchers alike, doubt now surrounds our medical ethics as well as our scientific findings. Given the current state of our field, it’s no surprise that much of the public holds a negative view of psychology.

Perhaps it should also come as no surprise that psychologists are now evidently one of the least employable types of scientists.

If you have a PhD in psychology or if you are currently pursuing a PhD in psychology, feel free to share your experiences on the job market by leaving a comment below.



[1] Full-time Employment rate was calculated as [Number employed full-time/( Number employed full-time + Number employed part-time + Number unemployed but seeking employment)]*100. Similarly, Part-time Employment rate was calculated as [Number employed part-time/( Number employed full-time + Number employed part-time + Number unemployed but seeking employment)]*100. As such, these estimates exclude retirees and those who are unemployed and not actively seeking work.

Brian Kurilla is a psychological scientist with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. You can follow Brian on Twitter @briankurilla 


3 thoughts on “Is Psychology on the Verge of an Employment Crisis?

  1. There could be a much more benign interpretation for the employment gap between psychology and other sciences. Psychology PhDs include people who primarily want to be clinicians (this is the reason, I think, for the large number of self-employed people in psychology — these are people who start a private practice). Clinicians can make a good living without needing to work 40+ hours per week.

    Of course, this interpretation would not explain the growing number of underemployment of psychologists over time unless we add some additional assumptions. But I think the gap between psychology and other sciences does not necessarily mean that things are tough for psychologists.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Patrick. That’s certainly possible. Except that, according to the NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates, the number of people earning PhDs in Clinical Psychology hasn’t really grown all that much in the past 10 years (only 2.05% compared to 62.5% for Experimental Psychology). And the number of people earning PhDs in Counseling Psychology has actually declined by about 25%. Also, in Figure 3 of this post, you can see that there hasn’t been much of a change since 1993 in the percentage of psychologists who report being self-employed (if anything, the number has actually declined). So, it doesn’t seem as though there’s a larger pool of clinicians in the mix today compared to several years ago.

      My current thinking is that the decline in full-time employment might be related to the dramatic increase in the number of psychology graduates pursuing post docs, which I don’t believe the NSF counts as full-time employment. Now whether the increased popularity of postdocs is good or bad for psychology is probably debatable.

      1. It is true that counseling degrees declined, but not clinical degrees. Clinical degrees are interesting in that the degree holder receives both research training and clinical training, and so can choose to pursue either a research-oriented or a clinically-oriented career. So, to explain the gap in part-time employment between psychology and other sciences, it need only be true that a larger-share of degree-holders who can choose either clinical or research careers are choosing clinical careers where part-time employment is more common.

        I actually agree with you 100% about the negative effects of postdocs on the STEM job market. I just don’t think that psychology has been especially affected by postdocs relative to other sciences.

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