Sixty-One Percent of STEM Ph.D.’s Pursue Nonacademic Careers, but Job Duties Differ Widely by Race and Gender

Washington, D.C. – A new analysis by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) shows 61 percent of those with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) doctorate have careers outside of academia. Although most STEM Ph.D. programs require rigorous research training, 43 percent of graduates in non-academic careers say research and development is not their primary work activity.

STEM Ph.D.'s in Nonacademic Careers Working in Research and Development: 46% Female vs. 61% MaleMore than half of all male graduates report working in research and development, while 43 percent of white females and 37 percent of black females perform research and development work. A breakdown by race and gender is contained in the graph below.

“Performing work unassociated with research and development is common, particularly among women with STEM Ph.D.’s,” the authors of The Nonacademic Careers of STEM Ph.D. Holders said. “This tells us that Ph.D. students need more skills training that’s instrumental to their careers. Retention in STEM—particularly for underrepresented groups—would improve if Ph.D. training and career guidance are more relevant to the nonacademic sectors most students enter.”

The authors analyzed weighted data on more than 400,000 STEM doctorate recipients who earned degrees between 1959 and 2010.

Other notable findings include:

  • The for-profit sector tends to be the largest employer of those with a STEM Ph.D. working outside of academia, with one exception: Black women are overwhelmingly more likely to work in government (50 percent).
  • Most women in nonacademic careers have Ph.D.’s in the biological sciences (48 percent) compared with other fields. Most men have doctoral degrees in engineering (37 percent). This pattern exists across all racial groups.
  • Black, Hispanic, and white women are more likely to leave STEM compared with other groups in nonacademic careers. About 28 percent these women work in non-STEM fields, compared with Asian men (16 percent), Asian women (18 percent), Hispanic men (18 percent), black men (21 percent) and white men (21 percent).
  • Nearly 90 percent of those working outside of academia hold doctorates in engineering, biological sciences or physical sciences. Those with degrees in agricultural sciences, computer sciences and mathematics and statistics each make up 5 percent or less.
  • Those with a doctorate in engineering are most likely to take up nonacademic careers (74 percent). Mathematics and statistics degree holders are least likely to take a nonacademic path (39 percent).
  • Asians are most likely to be in nonacademic careers compared with other racial/ethnic groups (66 percent of Asian women and 73 percent of Asian men).

STEM careers infographic

The findings are based on data from the 2010 Survey of Doctorate Recipients, collected by the National Science Foundation.

The Nonacademic Careers of STEM Ph.D. Holders is the latest in a series that explores issues related to broadening participation in STEM graduate education. Previous research briefs include Early Academic Career Pathways in STEM: Do Gender and Family Status Matter?; The Price of a Science Ph.D.: Variations in Student Debt Levels Across Disciplines and Race/Ethnicity; and How Long Does it Take? STEM Ph.D. Completion for Underrepresented Minorities.  

About AIR
Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education, and workforce productivity. For more information, visit


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