Feb. 6, 2003
Vol. 22 No. 9

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    Despite 2001 slowdown, long-term trend heads toward expansion in number of earned research doctorates

    By William Harmes
    News Office

    A National Opinion Research Center nationwide survey, which was conducted for the National Science Foundation in 2001, reports that for the first time in eight years the number of doctoral degrees awarded by U.S. universities dropped to below 41,000.

    Since 1998, when total Ph.D.s earned reached an all-time high, a significant decline in science and engineering doctorates has led to a rollback of total Ph.D.s to pre-1994 levels.

    However, analysts cite a two-year turn upward in 2000-2001 graduate enrollments in science and engineering, which could reverse the downward trend in doctorates produced in those fields, said Tom Hoffer, Senior Research Scientist at NORC and lead author of the report.

    “Despite the lack of growth in 2001, the long-term trend in the number of new research doctorates has been one of considerable expansion,” Hoffer said. “Over the last 40 years, the increase in the number of doctorates granted by U.S. universities averaged approximately 3.3 percent per year.”

    The 2001 survey reveals that the numbers of non-science and engineering Ph.D.s awarded since 1995 have remained nearly constant, averaging just over 14,320 per year over the last seven years, with small up-and-down movements each year.

    Meanwhile, science and engineering doctorates–after reaching a high point of 28,284 in 1998–have since dropped by 6 percent, to just over 26,593 in 2001.

    In most fields, women have showed slow, steady increases in obtaining doctorates. In 2001, about 44 percent of the doctorates in all fields were awarded to women. However, women are still underrepresented in many science and engineering fields. In 1997, doctorates awarded to women in those fields represented just 34.1 percent of the total. And by 2001, women had received 10,041 Ph.D.s in science and engineering, or 37.8 percent of the total for the year.

    In the physical sciences, women still represent less than one-quarter of earned doctoral degrees and in engineering, 16.9 percent (in physics, women have gained only 1 percentage point over 11 years, earning 11.1 percent of the doctorates in 1991, and increasing to only 14.2 percent in 2001). In computer sciences, women earned 18.8 percent of the doctorates in 2001. On the other side of the coin, women have always done well in the field of psychology, and in 2001, they passed the two-thirds mark in the total Ph.D.s awarded in that field.

    African Americans remain underrepresented in most fields, with about 6.1 percent of all doctorates earned by U.S. citizens awarded to blacks in 2001, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates. In 1998, African Americans received 5.4 percent. In science and engineering, however, they earned just 3.7 percent of the 1998 doctorates, and about 4.2 percent in 2001.

    U.S. citizens earned slightly lower than 70 percent of the doctorates in all fields for 2001. In science and engineering, 15,703 of the 26,593 Ph.D.s, or 59 percent, went to U.S. citizens (in 1998, it was 59.4 percent). In engineering, just 38.9 percent of the doctorates went to U.S. citizens (in 1998, it was 43.0 percent).

    The NSF, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Education are the primary funding agencies for the national survey, with additional support from NASA, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Agriculture. The data were collected for the NSF’s Division of Science Resources Statistics. A full copy of the 2001 summary report is available at http://www.norc.org/issues/docdata.htm