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A Decline in Doctorates

December 5, 2011

The number of research doctorates awarded by American universities in 2010 fell for the first time since 2002, according to data published last month by the National Science Foundation. The drop was driven in large part by a decision to reclassify numerous categories of education doctorates as pre-professional rather than research doctorates, but the number of science and engineering doctorates awarded dipped slightly, too.

The NSF data are a first glance at the 2010 cohort of the annual Survey of Earned Doctorates, an annual survey sponsored by the science foundation and five other federal agencies and conducted by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. The survey provides data on who the doctorate recipients are and the fields they are in, among other information.

Over all, the number of research doctorates granted by academic institutions in the United States in 2010 fell to 48,069 from 49,554 in 2009, down nearly 3.0 percent. But the vast majority of that apparent decline is attributable, the NSF explains, to a decision by the sponsors of the Survey of Earned Doctorates to begin treating dozens of education doctorates as pre-professional degrees and doctorates (such as the M.D., J.D., Psy.D., etc.) rather than as research doctorates.

The NSF defines research doctorates as those granted by programs that are "oriented toward preparing students to make original contributions to knowledge in a field" that "typically require the completion of a dissertation or equivalent project." (As seen in the table below, many education doctorates remain classified as research doctorates; more than 5,000 were awarded and counted under the new classification.) Exactly how many education doctorate recipients were excluded in this year's survey isn't clear, but of the drop of nearly 1,500 research doctorates identified by NSF from 2009 to 2010, about 1,200 were in education.

The anomaly of education doctorates aside, the number of research doctorates awarded still fell by several hundred in 2010, as seen in the table below. A drop of 325 in science and engineering fields was driven by a continuing decline (this year, of more than 15 percent) in the number of agriculture doctorates awarded and smaller dips in molecular biology, neurosciences, chemistry, psychology, aerospace and civil engineering.

Other science and engineering fields saw increases, including mathematics, computer sciences, electrical and materials science engineering, and the category known as "other biological sciences."

In non-science disciplines, the NSF-defined categories of "humanities" and "letters" both reported small increases.


Doctorates Awarded, by Field of Study

Field 2000 2005 2009 2010
All fields  41,372 43,382 49,554 48,069
Science and engineering  25,966 27,984 33,466 33,141
  Science  20,643 21,557 25,820 25,589
    Agricultural sciences   1,037  1,038  1,167    984
    Biological sciences   5,853  6,366  8,024  8,052
      Biochemistry    776    693    858    865
      Molecular biology    706    724    763    701
      Neurosciences    495    690    982    953
      Other biological sciences  3,876  4,259  5,421  5,533
    Computer sciences     861  1,129  1,609  1,665
    Earth, atmospheric, and
       ocean sciences 
   665    714    877    864
    Mathematics   1,050  1,205  1,553  1,589
    Physical sciences  3,407  3,643  4,284  4,201
      Chemistry   1,989  2,126  2,392  2,306
      Physics and astronomy  1,389  1,517  1,892  1,895
    Psychology   3,615  3,322  3,472  3,421
    Social sciences   4,155  4,140  4,834  4,813
  Engineering   5,323  6,427  7,646  7,552
    Aerospace/aeronautical
        engineering 
   214    219    297    252
    Chemical engineering     619    774    807    821
    Civil engineering     480    622    709    645
    Electrical engineering   1,330  1,547  1,695  1,776
    Industrial/manufacturing
      engineering
176 221 252 214
    Materials science engineering     404    493    625    670
    Mechanical engineering     807    892  1,094    987
    Other engineering   1,293  1,659  2,167  2,187
Non-science and engineering  15,406 15,398 16,088 14,928
  Education   6,442  6,227  6,528  5,294
  Health   1,591  1,784  2,096  2,112
  Humanities  5,213  4,950  4,661  4,759
  Foreign languages and literature    642    607    598    603
  History  1,019    881    989    963
  Letters  1,612  1,389  1,413  1,518
  Other humanities  1,940  2,073  1,661  1,675
Other non-science and engineering fields  2,160  2,437  2,803  2,763
  Business management/ 
    administration
 1,070  1,170  1,405  1,366
  Communication    389    487    626    637
  Fields not elsewhere classified    697    779    772    760
  Unknown field      4      1      0      0


The Survey of Earned Doctorates also provides data on demographics of doctorate earners. The number of doctorates awarded fell both for men (1.3 percent) and women (0.4 percent), while the proportion of all doctorates awarded to women continued to edge up slightly (to 40.9 percent, continuing a steady rise since 2005, when that figure was 37.7 percent).

2010 marked the second consecutive year in which the proportion of research doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders declined, and rather sharply. The number of U.S. citizens or permanent residents earning research doctorates grew to 31,573, or 65.7 percent of the total, up from 65.2 in 2009. 

The proportion of science and engineering doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders continued to decline, dipping to 34.1 percent in 2010 from 36.5 in 2005.

Of the U.S. citizens and permanent residents who received doctorates in 2010, the proportion who were members of minority groups edged up slightly, to 21.6 percent from 21.5 percent in 2009. But the proportion that went to African-Americans declined, to 5.7 percent in 2010 from 6.2 percent. While the reclassification of education doctorates almost certainly contributed to that decline, black scholars' share of science and engineering doctorates dipped, too, to 19.1 percent from 20.8 percent of the total awarded to minority recipients.

Doctorates Awarded, by Selected Traits

Characteristic 2005 2009 2010
All doctorate recipients 43,382 49,554 48,069
Science and engineering 27,984 33,466 33,141
    Male 17,404 19,842 19,584
    Female 10,539 13,596 13,548
  U.S. citizen or permanent resident 16,045 19,715 19,983
    White 12,291 14,781 14,898
    All other race or ethnicity  3,497  4,583  4,739
      American Indian or Alaska Native     67     75     76
      Asian  1,635  1,981  2,125
      Black or African American    707    951    903
      Hispanic or Latino    805  1,100  1,155
      Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific
         Islander
    39     46     38
      Two or more races    244    430    442
  Temporary visa holders 10,426 12,211 11,302
Non-science and engineering 15,398 16,088 14,928
    Male  6,330  6,492  5,964
    Female  9,043  9,590  8,957
  U.S. citizen or permanent resident 11,911 12,604 11,590
     White  9,222  9,316  8,610
     All other race or ethnicity  2,527  3,109  2,788
     American Indian or Alaska Native     73     71     46
     Asian    550    723    703
     Black or African American  1,093  1,280  1,099
     Hispanic or Latino    626    780    695
     Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific
        Islander
30 29 17
     Two or more races    155    226    228
  Temporary visa holders  2,421  2,503  2,323

 

 

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