The low unemployment rate for people with a PhD in science, technology, engineering or mathematics in the United States is misleading. An increase in the number of such scientists — from both within the country and elsewhere — over the past decade seems to have been absorbed by the US workforce. But observers warn that the demand is reaching saturation point, especially in the biomedical-research sector.

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The number of PhD scientists and engineers either in employment or actively seeking work rose by 22% between 2001 and 2010, and even though unemployment in the group nearly doubled — to 2.4% by 2010 — it was still well below the 2010 national average of 8.2%, according to a report from the US National Science Foundation.

Analysts and policy-makers believe that the system is strained to breaking point, and cannot accommodate the existing workforce, let alone sustain continued growth. In an opinion article published in April, former US National Academy of Sciences president Bruce Alberts, founding chair of Harvard Medical School's Department of Systems Biology Marc Kirschner, former president of Princeton University Shirley Tilghman and former US National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Harold Varmus argue that particularly in the biomedical sciences and in academia, rapid growth has created an unsustainable system (B. Alberts et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 5773–5777; 2014).

The low rate of unemployment does reflect the demand by employers for those with a PhD, but the increasing number of PhDs has seen competition stiffen, even in disciplines traditionally free from such problems.

Tilghman says that she is “frustrated” by the continuing growth in PhD production and notes that she had warned of a pending oversupply back in 1998 in the National Research Council report Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists. The opinion article, she says, was prompted by the aftermath of the US budget sequester — across-the-board funding cuts that have further strained research budgets and tightened the number of available research posts. The authors call for US universities to gradually cut back the number of students they enrol in biomedical PhD courses and to hire staff scientists, instead of postdocs and graduate students, for day-to-day lab work. More staff-scientist positions would benefit people with PhDs who want to do bench science, and would help principal investigators by providing lab-management assistance (see Nature 510, 433–434; 2014).

Current NIH director Francis Collins says that the agency has begun to address some of these issues, by giving postdocs a 7% pay rise in 2014 and creating a new award for young cancer researchers, for instance. More such awards are in the works, he says.

However, Collins is not convinced that there is an oversupply of life science PhDs. He is also reluctant to alter the way graduate students and postdocs are funded in an attempt to control the PhD pipeline. Shifting them to different types of grant “would be an enormous administrative challenge and would have serious consequences, such as excluding foreign trainees in our workforce”, he says.

Collins agrees with the recommendation that universities tell trainees about a range of career options, not just academic research. Last year, the NIH launched the 'Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training' programme to help universities do just that. Information — about both job possibilities and career outcomes — helps trainees to make informed decisions about which path to take, says Collins.

Toby Smith, vice-president of policy for the American Association of Universities in Washington DC, agrees. He says that deans in the association's membership have begun to ask PhD graduates about what jobs they end up getting. The association is holding a workshop on graduate education in November and it encourages universities to gather data on their alumni.

Keith Micoli, chairman of the US National Postdoctoral Association in Washington DC, agrees that the existing academic-research set-up keeps postdocs dependent on their lab heads for increasingly longer periods. Controlling the supply of young scientists could help, he says, although he worries about unintended consequences. “My fear,” he says, “is that we would just weaken the US science pipeline.”