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Universities are awarding doctoral degrees at an accelerating pace, despite the fact that the career prospects of those who receive their Ph.D.s appear to be worsening.

That dichotomy is among the starker findings of the annual data on doctorate recipients from the National Science Foundation, drawn from a survey sponsored by the foundation and other federal agencies and conducted by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. The data may for some reinforce the idea that institutions are turning out more Ph.D. recipients than can be absorbed, at least in some fields.

American universities awarded 52,760 doctorates in 2013, up 3.5 percent from nearly 50,977 in 2012 and nearly 8 percent from 48,903 in 2011. Those large increases followed several years of much smaller increases and one decline (in 2010) since the onset of the economic downturn in 2008, as seen in the chart below.

The growth in the number of doctorate recipients is stronger in some fields and among some demographic groups than others. About half of the net rise in Ph.D.s awarded in 2013 over 2012 is attributable to temporary visa holders, with most of that growth coming from Asia. Doctorates awarded in engineering grew by 6 percent and in the physical sciences by 3.65 percent, while those earned in the humanities rose by 2.9 percent, in the life sciences by 2.2 percent, and in the social sciences by 0.6 percent.

The numbers suggest that more people are seeking terminal degrees and that universities are welcoming them with open arms -- but the data on what the Ph.D. holders do with their new degrees raise questions about whether the credentials will pay off for the individuals themselves, at least in the short term.

Just 62.7 of doctorate recipients in 2013 had what the survey defines as a "definite commitment" of employment or further study, down sharply from the usual rate over the last 20 years, as seen in the chart below.

It will probably surprise few that humanities Ph.D.s were least likely among the disciplines to have a clear career path after finishing their doctorates, at 54.8 percent (10 percentage points lower than the 64.8 percent rate for that group in 2008). But 2013's doctorate recipients in the life sciences and engineering didn't fare much better, as only 58.5 percent of the former and 59.3 percent of the latter had definite commitments for either employment or further study upon graduation.

About two-thirds of Ph.D. recipients in the physical sciences (65.9 percent), social sciences (69.3 percent) and education (65.8 percent) had a next step clearly defined at graduation.

Of those who had a definitive plan at graduation, roughly three in five (60.6 percent) had jobs (the survey does not say of what kind), while the rest were headed for postdoctoral study. Those proportions were roughly 70/30 two decades ago, and two-thirds/one-third a decade ago.

The change has largely occurred outside the life and physical sciences, for which postdoc positions have for decades been a common way station: between 60 and 70 percent of Ph.D.s in the life sciences and half or more of those in the physical sciences have gone on to postdocs after graduation since 1993.

But the proportion of social science Ph.D.s with definitive post-graduation plans who went on to postdocs in 2013 rose to 36.2 percent, a share that has risen steadily since 1993, as seen below. A roughly similar rise has unfolded for those with engineering doctorates, and the proportion of humanities Ph.D.s who went on to postdocs as opposed to jobs has risen from 6.5 percent in 1993 to 15.8 percent in 2013, according to the NSF data.

Some other highlights of the NSF data:

  • The proportion of Ph.D. recipients who are American citizens or permanent residents rose to 55.4 percent in 2013, the highest level since 2008, when it was at 58.1 percent.
  • The proportion of doctorate recipients who are female dropped slightly in 2013, to 46.1 percent from 46.3 percent in 2012 and 46.4 percent in 2011.
  • Minority group representation among doctorate recipients rose for some groups and stayed flat for others in 2013. Asian-Americans received 25.5 percent of all doctorates awarded in 2013, up from 25.2 percent in 2012, and the representation of African-Americans edged up slightly, to 5.03 percent from 4.96 percent. The proportion of Ph.D. recipients who are Hispanic or Latino dropped slightly, to 5.8 percent from 6.1 percent in 2012.
  • About one in eight recipients of doctorates in 2013 (12.7 percent) had attended a community college. The proportion is almost one in five (19.9 percent) among recipients of education doctorates, and 7.3 percent of engineering Ph.D.s. Nearly 23 percent of the Hispanic Americans and 18 percent of black Americans who earned Ph.D.s that year had attended a two-year institution.

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