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Survey on employment decisions of U.S. and foreign doctoral graduates: An overview

Sneha Kulkarni | Apr 20, 2016 | 12,503 views
Survey on employment decisions of U.S. and foreign doctoral graduates

The U.S. is home to one of the largest scientific workforces in the world and thus holds an appeal for those pursuing higher education and research. In the past decade, international mobility among researchers has increased greatly, which has aroused the interest of policymakers in understanding the factors that influence the researchers’ employment decisions. The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently published a report that reveals the number of U.S. citizen doctoral graduates in science, engineering, and health fields within the US. The survey report is interesting because it also tracks the number of graduates who intend stay in the U.S. at the time of graduation, the reasons underlying their decision, and their work conditions. Let’s look at some of the survey findings to understand current research employment trends in the US.

Scope of the survey

The NSF survey takes into consideration U.S. doctoral graduates from academic years 2001–09, including U.S. citizens living in the U.S. (sample size 6085), U.S. citizens living abroad (sample size 315), temporary U.S. visa holders living in the U.S. (sample size 2660), temporary U.S. visa holders living abroad (sample size 2123), and foreign doctorates living in the U.S. (207). It examines their employment outcomes, working conditions, and the associations between their employment characteristics and ratings of job factors to shed light on issues that potentially influence their employment decisions.

Survey findings

According to the report, the factors influencing employment decisions vary among doctoral graduates who were temporary visa holders and those who had U.S. citizenship. However, differences can be observed across other groups as well in aspects such as job satisfaction and benefits extended by employers. Here are some of the most remarkable trends observed in the report:  

1. Expected stay rate

The “expected stay rate” (percentage of of doctoral graduates who intend to live in the U.S.) and the “actual stay rate” (percentage of those who end up living in the U.S.) changed over time. 96.4% of U.S. citizen doctoral graduates from academic years 2001-2009 reported that they intended to live in the U.S., and in 2010, all of 96.2% were still living in the U.S. Although the stay rate seems fairly even, when the total numbers were analyzed based on other factors, striking differences were observed. Among doctoral graduates who were temporary visa holders, the expected stay rate was 76.4%. However, the actual and expected stay rates differed as time since graduation elapsed. By 2010, only 68.5% of these respondents remained in the U.S. This difference seems to have its roots in various factors, including the employment preferences, opportunities, and job satisfaction.

2. Employment preferences

Researchers’ career preferences depend largely on their interest and the field they are pursuing. However, another important factor that influences their choice is their residence. As per the NSF survey, foreign doctorates living in the U.S. and temporary visa holders were more likely to work in private, for-profit sectors compared to U.S. citizens living in the U.S. and those living abroad. Another notable trend was that graduates who were U.S. citizens living in the U.S. were the least likely group to work primarily in R&D (47.4%), compared to temporary visa holders who were the most likely group to work in R&D (67.5%). When it comes to field-specific preferences, in engineering, temporary visa holders were more likely to work in the private, for-profit industry than were those living abroad. Whereas, in the fields of computer and mathematical sciences, physical and related sciences engineering, and health, temporary visa holders living abroad were more likely than those living in the U.S. to work in the academic sector. Remarkably, of the doctoral graduates who were employed full time, only 15.9% were working in postdoctoral positions.

3. The level of job satisfaction

All the analysis groups were asked to rate their level of job satisfaction based on nine job-related aspects: salary, benefits, job security, job location, opportunities for advancement, intellectual challenge, level of responsibility, degree of independence, and contribution to society. Temporary visa holders living in the U.S. tended to be least satisfied with their principal jobs, whereas those residing in the U.S. and abroad (48.3% and 51.9%, respectively) reported to be highly satisfied with their jobs. However, between the two groups of temporary visa holders, those living abroad were more likely to be very satisfied with their job benefits but have more issues regarding salary, job security, location, and opportunities for advancement. Overall, all of those employed in non-academic sectors were less satisfied with their job’s intellectual challenges and degree of independence, but were very satisfied with salaries. On the other hand, those working in the private and government sectors were less satisfied with their job’s level of responsibility than those in academia. 

4. Job benefits extended by employers

All of the analysis groups were compared based on the benefits offered to them by the employers such as, health insurance, employer contributed pension or retirement plan, profit-sharing plan, and paid vacation or sick days. U.S. citizens residing in the U.S., temporary visa holders in the U.S., and foreign doctorates in the U.S. were most likely to have been offered health insurance. When analyzed on their attendance at professional meetings and conferences in the past one year, it was found that temporary visa holders living in the U.S. had the lowest rate of attendance (64.8%); whereas U.S. citizens living abroad had the highest rate of attendance (81.5%).  

5. Reasons for job change

Many employed graduates opted to change their jobs. The group that was most likely to changed jobs within two years of graduation was the U.S. citizens living abroad (44.7%) compared with the rest of the groups (about 30%). When they were asked to choose among nine reasons for job change, “pay, promotion opportunities” (58.1%), “working conditions” (32.3%), “change in career or professional interests” (32.3%), “job location” (29.0%), and “laid off or job terminated” (22.6%) were the five most common choices. Most U.S. citizens living in the U.S. reported “pay, promotion opportunities” as a reason to change the job whereas “change in career or professional interests” was a less common reason as compared to the two temporary visa holder groups. The two groups living abroad were more likely to report “job location” as a reason (42.9% and 35.3% for U.S. citizens and temporary visa holders, respectively) when compared to the two U.S.-residing groups (28.4% and 25.6% for U.S. citizens and temporary visa holders, respectively).

Mobility in pursuit of a better future is the reality for most researchers. However, after attaining the postdoctoral degree, graduates face uncertainty due to the dearth of career opportunities suitable for their field and personal interests. This report is crucial from the perspective of policymakers, academia, researchers, and institutions as it throws light on some of the most vital aspects of a postdoc’s life right from deciding on the location where they wish to establish their future to selecting the employment sector to changing jobs. Policymakers and other major decision makers in academia and industry can use the findings of this report to provide researchers with guidance and support to lead them on a successful career path. 


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