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The proportion of new doctorates in 2011 who finished their degrees with firm commitments for either employment or a postdoc fell in 2011 -- across every broad disciplinary category -- according to data released Wednesday by the National Science Foundation.

Among all fields, 65.5 percent of new doctoral recipients reported having a definite commitment. That's down from 71.6 percent five years earlier. There is significant variation by discipline, although the declines are present across the board. Declines have been relatively modest in engineering and physical sciences, and largest in the humanities.

Percentage of New Doctorates With Job or Postdoc Commitments

Discipline 2011 2006
Life sciences 62.5% 71.7%
Physical sciences 69.3% 72.8%
Social sciences 69.5% 74.3%
Engineering 64.0% 66.0%
Education 68.1% 74.9%
Humanities 57.0% 66.7%

The data are from the annual "Survey of Earned Doctorates," a key source of information about those completing Ph.D.s -- many of whom aspire to be the future faculty members of American colleges and universities. The number of science and engineering doctorates increased by 4 percent from 2010 to 2011. While other doctorates dropped 3.1 percent, much of that decline is attributable to a recent reclassification of education doctorates as professional rather than research doctorates.

Other key findings of the report:

  • Almost three-fourths of all research doctorates awarded in 2011 were in science and engineering fields. This reflects a steady increase in the share of doctorates awarded in those areas. Over all, 74 percent of doctorates were awarded in science and engineering in 2011, compared to 66 percent 10 years earlier.
  • A significant share of science and engineering doctorates are awarded to people who are not permanent residents or citizens of the United States. In 2011, that share was 36 percent, down from an all-time high of 41 percent in 2007.
  • Among doctoral recipients, temporary visa holders are much more likely than U.S. citizens or permanent residents to earn a science or engineering degree. From 2001 to 2011, 84 percent of the doctorates earned by temporary visa holders were in science and engineering fields, compared with 63 percent of doctorates earned by U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
  • Women continue to earn a majority of the doctorates awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
  • While women still make up a minority of those earning doctorates in science and engineering fields, they show long-term growth in those areas. Women earned 42 percent of those doctorates in 2011, up from 30 percent in 1991.
  • During the last 20 years, there have been significant gains in the share of doctorates awarded to black and Latino scholars. The proportion of doctorates awarded to black graduate students rose from 4.2 percent in 1991 to 6.1 percent in 2011, and the proportion to Latinos increased from 3.2 percent in 1991 to 6.3 percent in 2011.
  • Minority group doctorates tend to be clustered in certain areas, with Asian Americans more likely to earn doctorates in life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering; African Americans in education; and Latinos in the humanities and social sciences.

Time to Degree

The NSF data also show the modest progress made in an effort endorsed by many in graduate education (not to mention by graduate students) to reduce the time it takes to earn a doctorate. This issue has been of particular concern in the humanities, prompting various reform efforts. And while the humanities time to degree has been cut a bit in the last five years, it remains over nine years.

Median Years to Doctorate, From Start of Program

Discipline 2011 2006
Life sciences 6.9 7.0
Physical sciences 6.7 6.7
Social sciences 7.7 7.9
Engineering 6.8 6.9
Education 11.7 12.7
Humanities 9.3 9.7




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