NSF Provides Status Report on U.S. Doctorate Education

By John Russell

July 6, 2017

The U.S. remains a potent factory for doctorate degrees according to the most recent National Science Foundation Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED). In 2015 the U.S. awarded 55,006 research doctorate degrees, the most ever recorded in the SED, with lion’s share awarded in science and engineering fields. Math and computer sciences remained the most desirable doctorates in terms of income and immediate job prospects but accounted for a small proportion of all doctorates awarded.

The 2015 SED report, which was posted late last week on the NSF web site, warned continued U.S. preeminence is not a given:

“The American system of doctoral education is widely considered to be among the world’s best, as evidenced by the large and growing number of international students each year—many of them among the top students in their countries—who choose to pursue the doctoral degree at U.S. universities. But the continued preeminence of U.S. doctoral education is not assured. Other nations, recognizing the contributions doctorate recipients make to economies and cultures, are investing heavily in doctoral education. Unless doctoral education in the United States continues to improve, the world’s brightest students, including U.S. citizens, may go elsewhere for the doctoral degree, and they may begin careers elsewhere as well.”

Noteworthy, the study deliberately omits professional degrees such as M.D., J.D., and PsyD which are aimed at professional practices rather than research jobs. Top line trends cited in the latest SED report include:

  • Science and engineering (S&E) degrees continued a 40-year trend of outpacing non-S&E degrees.
  • From 1975 to 2015, the number of S&E degrees more than doubled, with an average annual growth of 1.9 percent.
  • The number of non-S&E degrees awarded in 2015 is virtually identical to the number awarded in 1975. As a result of the different growth rates, the proportion of S&E doctorates climbed from 58 percent in 1975 to 75 percent in 2015.
  • The number of S&E doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders grew to 14,037 in 2015, up 2 percent compared to the previous year and up 30 percent since 2005.
  • The number of S&E doctorates awarded in 2015 to U.S. citizens and permanent residents grew to 24,547 in 2015, up 3 percent from the previous year and 43 percent since 2005.
  • During the 2005 to 2015 period, 10 countries accounted for 71 percent of the doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders. The top three — China, India and South Korea — accounted for more than half of the doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders.
  • “Women earned 46 percent of all doctorates in 2015, continuing a trend of women’s increasing prevalence in the annual total of recipients.

The study is replete with statistics and readily navigable online.” What follows is a very brief sampling of SED findings.

More Doctorates Being Awarded
As shown here, the number of doctorates awarded has risen steadily. Science and engineering degrees, as noted earlier, have grown fastest. That said, the relative number of students pursuing math and computer sciences doctorates hasn’t grown much. It’s now around seven percent of the total science and engineering doctorates awarded and still ranks last among disciplines.

 

Women Still Underrepresented in Sciences
As noted in the report, women’s share of doctorates awarded has grown over the past two decades. In 2015 women earned the majority of doctorates awarded in every broad field of study except physical and earth sciences, mathematics and computer sciences, and engineering. Contrarily, women’s share of math and computer sciences doctorates was nearly static. Indeed attracting women to HPC has long been a challenge and goal at NSF and elsewhere in the HPC community.

“Although women earned only about one-third of the 2015 doctorates awarded in physical and earth sciences and less than one-fourth of the doctorates in engineering, their relative shares of doctorates awarded in those fields has been growing rapidly. From 2005 to 2015, the proportion of doctorates in physical and earth sciences awarded to women increased by 6 percentage points, and the share of women in engineering grew by 5 percentage points. The proportion of female doctorate recipients in mathematics and computer sciences has grown more modestly, by 1 percentage point from 2005 to 2015.”

 

Job Market for Doctorates is Static
Job markets are always subject to generalized economic swings; that said the NSF study reports newly-minted S&E doctorates in 2015 often faced stiff challenges as measured again past trends.

“In every broad science and engineering (S&E) field, the proportion of 2015 doctorate recipients who reported definite commitments for employment or postdoctoral (postdoc) study was at or near the lowest level of the past 15 years, and it was 4 to 13 percentage points below the proportion reported in 2006, the most recent high point in definite commitments for S&E fields.”

 

Foreign Students – Stay or Return?
Given President Trump’s ongoing efforts to tighten visa and immigration regulation, there has been a good deal of discussion around foreign graduate students. This 2015 study doesn’t capture that dynamic but it does present some detail around where doctoral students come from and what their plans are for remaining in the U.S. or not. This section of the report is best read directly.

Perhaps not surprisingly, China is the dominant country of origin for doctoral student followed by India and South Korea. Europe, of course, has a well-developed graduate educational infrastructure.

 

Link to NSF summary article: https://nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=242416&org=NSF&from=news

Link to the full NSF 2015 SED report: https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17306/report/about-this-report.cfm

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