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Doctorate Production Ebbs

November 20, 2009

American universities continued to increase the number of doctoral degrees they award -- but just barely -- in 2008. And if it weren't for biology, there would have been virtually no increase at all.

The National Science Foundation on Thursday published an initial report of data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, an annual study sponsored by the science foundation and five other federal agencies and conducted by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

The survey -- which has been tinged by controversy since last year over decisions to withhold some data on the race and ethnicity of degree recipients, citing privacy concerns -- is closely watched as an indicator of the health and vitality of the American research enterprise and of graduate education in the United States.

To the extent that that health and vitality are appropriately measured by the number of freshly minted doctorates produced -- an approach that not everyone would embrace, given concerns about the job market in some fields and plans to shrink Ph.D. programs at some universities -- the new data from the NSF may prompt some concerns. While the number of doctorates awarded grew for the sixth straight year, to 48,802 from 48,112 in 2007, the proportional (1.43 percent) and numerical increases were the smallest since 2003.

As seen in the table below, the results varied enormously by field and discipline. Virtually all of the growth occurred in the sciences, though, and most of that in a relative handful of fields -- the number of doctorates awarded in the biological sciences grew by about 600 (or 8.6 percent), for instance.

The social sciences saw growth of 3.5 percent between 2007 and 2008, while the number of humanities Ph.D.'s awarded continued a several-year nosedive, dipping 7.1 percent in 2008 on top of a 5.3 percent drop from 2006 to 2007. Oddly, all of the major humanities fields listed in the NSF report (literature, history, languages and religion) showed increases in 2008, but the catchall category of "other humanities" (philosophy, archaeology, etc.) showed a steep decline of nearly 33 percent.

Number of Doctorates Awarded by U.S. Universities

Field 1998 2007 2008 % Change, 2007 to 2008
All fields 42,638 48,112 48,802 1.43%
Science and engineering 27,274 31,800 32,827 3.23%
-Science 21,352 24,056 24,965 3.78%
---Agricultural sciences 1,109 1,134 1,090 -3.88%
---Biological sciences 5,846 7,179 7,793 8.55%
---Computer sciences 927 1,656 1,786 7.85%
---Earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences 742 878 862 -1.82%
---Mathematics 1,177 1,393 1,400 0.50%
---Physical sciences 3,824 4,102 4,081 -0.51%
-----Astronomy 206 223 248 11.21%
-----Chemistry 2,216 2,325 2,247 -3.35%
-----Physics 1,378 1,554 1,586 2.06%
---Psychology 3,673 3,292 3,361 2.10%
---Social sciences 4,054 4,422 4,592 3.84%
-Engineering 5,922 7,744 7,862 1.52%
---Aeronautical/astronautical engineering 241 267 265 -0.75%
---Chemical engineering 777 921 964 4.67%
---Civil engineering 650 865 865 0.00%
---Electrical engineering 1,595 2,409 2,299 -4.57%
---Industrial/manufacturing engineering 229 280 281 0.36%
---Materials/metallurgical engineering 565 679 665 -2.06%
---Mechanical engineering 1,022 1,128 1,139 0.98%
-----Other engineering 843 1,195 1,384 15.82%
Non-science and engineering 15,364 16,312 15,975 -2.07%
-Education 6,569 6,444 6,578 2.08%
---Education administration 2,066 2,159 2,248 4.12%
---Education research 2,584 2,667 2,649 -0.67%
---Teacher education 342 298 274 -8.05%
---Teaching fields 954 879 909 3.41%
---Other education 623 441 498 12.93%
-Health 1,499 2,129 2,094 -1.64%
-Humanities 5,275 4,997 4,641 -7.12%
---English literature 1,600 1,357 1,421 4.72%
---Foreign languages and literature 643 608 627 3.13%
---History 946 889 921 3.60%
---Religion/theology 485 473 549 16.07%
---Other humanities 1,601 1,670 1,123 -32.75%
-Professional fields 2,021 2,742 2,662 -2.92%
---Business management/administration 1,177 1,506 1,437 -4.58%
---Communication 407 591 587 -0.68%
---Other professional fields 433 624 638 2.24%
-Unknown 4 21 0 -100.00%

Source: Survey of Earned Doctorates

***

The demographics of doctorate earners remains of intense interest not just to graduate deans and provosts concerned about the ethnic diversity of the future professoriate, but to policy makers interested in ensuring that the products of American research universities stay in the U.S. to bolster the economy.

On those fronts, too, the 2008 data are mixed. Women accounted for more of the increase in science and engineering doctorates than did men (by a 699 to 337 margin), and the number of temporary visa holders who received doctorates grew only slightly, by 0.7 percent. The number of doctoral recipients in science engineering fields increased for all races except for American Indians/Native Alaskans.

Characteristic 2007 2008
All doctorate recipients 48,112 48,802
Science and engineering doctorates 31,768 32,804
--Male 19,508 19,845
--Female 12,260 12,959
     
--U.S. citizen or permanent resident 17,132 18,317
----American Indian/Alaska Native 81 60
----Asian 1,686 1,907
----Black 789 824
----Hispanic 929 1,082
----White 13,140 13,894
----Multiple-race 319 326
----Other 188 224
--Temporary visa holders 12,333 12,613
     
Non-science and engineering doctorates 16,292 15,963
--Male 6,668 6,426
--Female 9,624 9,537
     
--U.S. citizen or permanent resident 12,099 12,217
----American Indian/Alaska Native 62 63
----Asian 644 636
----Black 1,167 1,206
----Hispanic 721 683
----White 9,201 9,314
----Multiple-race 189 194
----Other 115 121
--Temporary visa holders 2,794 2,633

And far greater proportions of doctorate recipients who hold temporary visas said their "postgraduation commitments" would keep them either working or training in the United States in 2008 than was true five years earlier, the NSF report found.

 

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