January 09, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

Cutbacks in state funding for higher education are drying up job opportunities in academia for newly minted Ph.D.s in the math sciences, a national study has found.

The scarcity of jobs may throw cold water on efforts to get more students to pursue careers in math, a discipline that foreigners increasingly dominate at U.S. universities.

The annual survey by the American Mathematical Society has found that the number of new math Ph.D.s hired to teach or do research during the current school year fell 18 percent, from 450 in 1990 to 370 last year.

And things don't appear to be improving.

"We don't know exactly how many are being recruited for the year ahead," says the survey's chief author, Brown University mathematician Donald E. McClure.

But the number of future positions being advertised in "Employment Information in the Math Sciences," a publication of the AMS and the nation's primary marketplace for jobs in mathematics, is down 20 percent from last year, he says.

The job data are part of a report to be released at this week's joint meetings of the AMS and the Mathematical Association of America, being held in Baltimore.

"The main factor" in the scarcity of jobs for math Ph.D.s in academia, McClure believes, "is state government budget problems."

"I personally am concerned that even when the general economic conditions improve, support for higher education will not be at top of list for . . . restoration of the funds that had to be cut," McClure says.

"I think there will be much stronger incentives to get money restored for elementary and secondary education," he says.

McClure says 10 percent of the 919 people who earned math doctorates in the United States last spring, and whose job status is known, remain unemployed today. The national jobless rate is 6.8 percent.

The 10 percent unemployment rate for new math Ph.D.s compares with 2 percent last year, and 3 percent in 1975 (until now the worst year for new math Ph.D.s).

Scores of other new Ph.D.s are believed to be underemployed, with only part-time positions, McClure says.

At the University of Maryland at College Park, David W. Kueker, associate chairman of the math department, calls the effects of budget cutbacks there "fairly severe."

The department has hired only one recent Ph.D. this year, and he was the first since the fall of 1989, Kueker says. And with the most recent round of state budget cuts, "we do not expect to hire any new or recent Ph.D.s for the fall of 1992."

The scarcity of jobs for math Ph.D.s in academia comes at a time when their numbers have been growing -- up 15 percent to 1,142 in the last year alone. McClure says the growth has been encouraged by increased federal Defense Department support for mathematics programs and graduate studies, including the University Research Initiative Program.

Academia employs about 80 percent of the nation's math Ph.D.s. But with jobs there drying up, more graduates are taking their doctorates to business and industry, where increasing numbers of math Ph.D.s have found work in the past three years.

Among the survey's other findings:

* The percentage of new math Ph.D.s who are U.S. citizens has fallen from 75 percent in the mid-1970s to 43 percent last year, even thoughthe actual number of U.S. citizens obtaining math doctorates has been increasing since 1987.

McClure says many math-oriented students in the United States are turning to careers in statistics and applied mathematics, such as electrical engineering, instead of obtaining advanced math degrees.

* The largest single group of non-citizens earning math doctorates in the United States has come from China, which now graduates more than 200 doctoral candidates in this country each year.

In all, U.S. citizens earned 461 math doctorates from U.S. universities in 1991. Foreign students earned 579 math Ph.D.s here. Of those foreign students, more than half (332) stayed and took jobs with U.S. schools, research institutions and businesses.

"In terms of the total talent pool in the U.S., we have to look at that positively," says McClure. "It is a negative effect on those countries these new Ph.D.s are not returning to."

"In terms of the effect on the employment market for U.S citizens who are encouraged to work toward a Ph.D., it introduces a new element of competition for jobs. So it's probably not good from the perspective of those individuals," he says.

* The number of women earning Ph.D.s in mathematics continues to grow, reaching 220 in 1991. About half of those (112) were U.S. citizens, an all-time high. In 1974, women made up just 9 percent of the U.S. citizens earning Ph.D.s in math; that figure has steadily increased to 24 percent in 1991.

McClure credits groups such as the Association of Women in Mathematics, which "make deliberate efforts to inform women about opportunities in math science, and encourage them to move in that direction."

* Blacks continue to be sharply underrepresented among math Ph.D.s. U.S. universities awarded only 16 math Ph.D.s to blacks in 1991. Only 10 of those were U.S. citizens, up from four in 1990, but the numbers are too small to represent a trend, McClure says.

"There are efforts to try to encourage minority students to do graduate work in the math sciences," he says. Minorities represent a growing proportion of the U.S. population, "and that ought to be reflected in the output of the educational system."