WASHINGTON — Michelle Amaral wanted to be a brain scientist to help cure diseases. She planned a traditional academic science career: doctorate, university professorship, and, eventually, her own lab.
But three years after earning a doctorate in neuroscience, she gave up trying to find a permanent job in her field.
Dropping her dream, she took an administrative position at her university, experiencing firsthand an economic reality that, at first look, is counterintuitive: There are too many lab scientists for too few jobs.
That reality runs counter to messages sent by President Obama, the National Science Foundation, and other influential groups, who in recent years have called for US universities to churn out more scientists.
Obama has made science education a priority, launching a White House science fair to get young people interested.
But it is questionable whether those youths will be able to find work when they get a PhD. The market is tight for lab-bound scientists, those seeking new discoveries in biology, chemistry, and medicine.
One big driver of that trend: Traditional academic jobs are scarcer than ever. Once a primary career path, only 14 percent of those with a doctorate in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years, according to a 2009 NSF survey.
The pharmaceutical industry once offered a haven for biologists and chemists. Well-paying, stable research jobs were plentiful in the Northeast, the San Francisco Bay area, and other hubs. But a decade of slash-and-burn mergers; stagnating profit; exporting of jobs; and declining investment in research and development have dramatically shrunk the US drug industry.
Since 2000, US drug firms have slashed 300,000 jobs, according to consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
‘‘It’s been a bloodbath; it’s been awful,’’ said Kim Haas, who spent 20 years designing new pharmaceuticals for Wyeth and Sanofi-Aventis. Haas lost her six-figure job at Sanofi-Aventis in New Jersey last year. She now works one or two days a week on contract at a university in Philadelphia.
Largely because of drug industry cuts, the unemployment rate among chemists stands at its highest mark in 40 years, at 4.6 percent, according to the American Chemical Society. For young chemists, the picture is much worse. Just 38 percent of new PhD chemists were employed in 2011, according to a recent ACS survey.
Although the overall unemployment rate of chemists and other scientists is much lower than the national average, those figures mask an open secret: Many scientists work outside their chosen field.
‘‘They’ll be employed in something,’’ said Michael S. Teitelbaum, a senior adviser to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation who studies the scientific workforce. ‘‘But they go and do other things.’’
Two groups seem to be doing better than other scientists: physicists and physicians. The jobless rate among those two groups hovers around 1 to 2 percent, according to surveys from NSF and other groups. Physicists end up working in many technical fields while the demand for doctors continues to climb as the US population grows and ages.
But for the much larger pool of biologists and chemists, ‘‘it’s a particularly difficult time right now,’’ said Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University who studies the scientific workforce.
One reason: A glut of new biomedical scientists that entered the field when the economy was healthier.