Psychology’s Employment Problem Crosses Gender Lines

In my last post, I tried to better understand the employment prospects for PhD recipients in psychology by taking a look at 20 years’ worth of data from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Survey of Doctorate Recipients. What I found should be concerning to professional psychologists and students of psychology alike.

Although the NSF data show that very few psychologists are actually unemployed (<2%), fewer PhD recipients are employed full-time in psychology than in any other field of science. Moreover, the gap in full-time employment between psychology and other sciences has more than quadrupled in the past 20 years. As of 2013, only 73% of PhD recipients in psychology were employed full-time, whereas 26% were employed primarily part-time. In contrast, 85% of PhD recipients in psychology were employed full-time in 1993, and only 13% were employed primarily part-time.

So it seems psychology in the midst of an employment slump. Or is it?

Since publishing my analysis, a number of people reached out to me on Twitter and elsewhere to ask whether the lower full-time employment rate among psychologists might be due to the fact that there is a larger percentage of women in psychology compared to other fields.

This is true, and the number of women in psychology has increased steadily over the past 20 years. Figure 1 below shows the percentage of psychologists that were women between 1993 and 2013 (the most recent year for which data are available).

Figure 1: Percentage of Female PhD Recipients in Psychology and All Sciences (1993 – 2013).

female psychology phds

Note: Data reflect individuals who are employed, unemployed, or retired and are not limited to new PhD’s.

In 1993, most PhD’s in psychology belonged to men; women were the minority and comprised only 40% of the field. However, things are quite different today. As of 2013, 56% of PhD’s in psychology are held by women.

It’s also true, as shown below in Figure 2, that women in science are generally less likely than their male counterparts to be employed full-time.

Figure 2: Full-time Employment Rate for Men and Women with a PhD in Any Field of Science (2013).

full time employment by gender

So the fact that women presently make up a majority of the field certainly contributes to the relatively low full-time employment rate among psychologists.

But this is not the full story.

Separate comparisons reveal that the full-time employment rate is lower in psychology than in other sciences for both women and men. Furthermore, as shown in Figure 3, full-time employment has actually declined more rapidly over the past 20 years for male psychologists than for female psychologists.

Figure 3: Full-time Employment Rate for Male (Left) and Female (Right) PhD Recipients in Psychology vs. All Fields of Science (1997 – 2013).

psych vs science by gender

Note: Data from 1993, 1997, and 2008 were unavailable from NSF, so these data points are omitted.

Among women, the gap in full-time employment between psychology and other sciences increased by a factor of 1.5 over the past 16 years, growing from a difference of 7.97 percentage points in 1997 to a difference of 12.22 percentage points in 2013.

Meanwhile among men, this gap nearly quadrupled over the past 16 years, growing from a difference of only 2.58 percentage points in 1997 to a difference of 9.83 percentage points in 2013.

So what can be done to improve employment outcomes for doctoral level psychologists?

Obviously before anyone can propose a definitive solution, more research will be required to answer a lot of remaining questions. For one thing, we don’t know the reasons why many doctoral level psychologists opt for part-time work. Do most choose to do so voluntarily or by necessity? Furthermore, psychology is an incredibly diverse field. Is full-time employment on the decline in all sub-fields (e.g., clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, etc.), or only in some?

But in the meantime, there are a couple of matters we should consider more closely.

First, we shouldn’t delude ourselves us into thinking there’s no problem simply because part of the explanation for the low full-time employment rate among psychologists is the large percentage of women in the field. Given that they comprise a majority of the field, women’s employment problems are psychology’s employment problems. As such, psychologists should be at the forefront of advocating for necessary and long overdue changes to American work culture – changes such as those highlighted recently in the New York Times by Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of New America and author of the forthcoming book, “Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.”

Second, there’s an argument to be made that there are just too many people with PhD’s in psychology, as in other fields. Indeed, the rate at which people enter the job market in psychology vastly outpaces the rate at which people leave the job market.

Figure 4 below shows a comparison between the number of new PhD’s in psychology each year and the number of doctoral level psychologists who retire each year.

Figure 4: Number of New PhD’s in Psychology Each Year vs. Annual Retirement Rate (1995 – 2013).

new phds vs. retirement

Note: Retirement data come from the NSF Survey of Doctorate Recipients, whereas data pertaining to new PhD’s come from the NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates.

From 1995 to 2013, over 65,000 new psychologists entered the job market with a PhD. Meanwhile, over the same period of time, only 11,200 psychologists left the job market by retiring.

These numbers suggest it’s time for some frank discussion about the sustainability of the current model for training graduate students in psychology. Are we churning out so many PhD’s each year that the job market is now over-saturated?

Of course, this question is not only relevant to psychology. Over the past several years, there has been a lot of attention focused on the dismal job market facing legal professionals, as well. Furthermore, several universities have recently attempted to address employment problems in the arts and humanities by scaling back the number of new PhD students they accept. Should graduate programs in psychology follow suit?

Although the idea to reduce the number of students in PhD programs is controversial and unpopular (particularly among university administrators and professors who depend on graduate students to conduct research), such action might turn out to be necessary given the increasingly competitive nature of today’s job market.


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

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