Useful Stats: Doctorate recipient labor force and R&D activities by field, 2015-2019

May 06, 2021
By: Colin Edwards

The overall employment outlook for the recipients of doctorate degrees earned at U.S. institutions has improved from 2015 to 2019, while the research activities conducted by these highly trained and educated individuals has started to shift away from basic and applied research activities towards activities focused on design and development. Doctorate recipients play an essential role in developing the knowledge base leveraged in creating new technologies and companies in the innovation economy. Understanding the employment trends of this vital group can help in crafting programs and policies to strengthen local innovation economies.

Pulling from the NSF’s recently updated Survey of Doctorate Recipients, this edition of Useful Stats provides an analysis of labor force participation, unemployment, and involuntarily working out-of-field rates of doctorate recipients with degrees earned at U.S. institutions and who still live and work in the United States. This analysis also considers the shares of employed doctorate recipients who primarily conduct Research and Development (R&D) activities at their jobs.

Labor Force

In total, the labor force participation rate of this group dropped from 87.1 percent in 2015 to 86.4 percent in 2019, while unemployment dropped from 1.8 percent to 1.6 percent, and the rate of employed doctorate recipients who were involuntarily working out-of-field dropped from 3 percent to 2.8 percent over the same period. However, as seen in the image below, each of these measures worsened in 2017, before moving to their overall improved levels in 2019. The image below also provides these measures by Science, Engineering, and Health fields*.

The fields with the highest labor force participation rate (the measure of how many working-age adults are either employed or are unemployed but actively seeking work) in 2019 were computer and information sciences (93.3 percent); engineering (90.2 percent); and the biological sciences (86.9 percent). The fields with the lowest labor force participation rates in 2019 were the physical sciences (84.4 percent); mathematics and statistics (85 percent); and health (85.7 percent).

The unemployment rate (the measure of how many working-age adults are not working but actively seeking employment) was the highest in the physical sciences, biological sciences, and engineering in 2019, with each tied at 1.8 percent. The fields with the lowest unemployment in 2019 were computer and information sciences (0.9 percent); health (1.4 percent); and mathematics and statistics (1.5 percent).

The fields with the highest rates of researchers working involuntarily out-of-field in 2019 were the physical sciences (4.8 percent); biological sciences (3.1 percent); and engineering (2.5 percent). The fields with the lowest involuntarily out-of-field rates in 2019 were computer and information sciences (0.8 percent); health (2.0 percent); and mathematics and statistics (2.2 percent).

Primary Work Activities

Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and one of the foundational pillars of tech-based economic development depends on a strong knowledge base, in part created and sustained by these highly-educated doctorate recipients. However, not all doctorate recipients will go on to pursue careers conducting R&D as their primary job function. Although R&D accounted for the largest share of primary work activities, many doctorate recipients also found themselves primarily teaching, while others worked in management and administration duties, providing professional services, or developing computer applications.

R&D was the primary work activity for the greatest number of doctorate recipients across the three of the six science sub-fields (biological, agricultural, and environmental life sciences; computer and information sciences; and physical sciences). The primary work activity for doctorate recipients in psychology was professional services, and teaching in the mathematics and statistics field and the social sciences. However, there was a drop in the share of employed doctorate recipients who performed any type of R&D as their primary work activity from 2015 to 2019. As seen in the image below, all the major fields included in this analysis except for mathematics and statistics experienced this drop in the share of employed doctorate recipients primarily working on R&D activities. In the fields where this shift occurred, the primary work activities shifted towards computer application activities.

The second part of the image above shows the breakdown of work activities within the greater R&D enterprise. Within R&D, the share of employed doctorate recipients primarily conducting basic and applied research activities decreased overall and in every major field except for mathematics and statistics, while the share of employees conducting design and development activities increased overall and in every major field except for mathematics and statistics from 2015 to 2019. While basic and applied research is important in building foundational knowledge, design and developmental research is instrumental in translating new discoveries and foundation knowledge into new technologies and processes.

Click here for the Excel file used in this analysis.

*The Engineering and Health fields are provided at their highest level while the science field is broken down and presented by sub-field (excluding Psychology and Social Sciences since non-R&D activities are the primary activities in these fields).

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