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Jump in Fall 2008 Enrollments of First-Time, Full-Time S&E Graduate Students

NSF 10-320 | June 2010 | PDF format. PDF  

by Susan T. Hill[1] and Peter Einaudi[2]

Enrollments of first-time, full-time graduate students in science and engineering (S&E) programs reached a record 108,819 in 2008, representing 20.6% of all graduate enrollments in these fields. The increase, 7.8% over fall 2007, was the largest 1-year increase in the last 10 years (table 1). For the first time since 2003, first-time enrollment in engineering fields grew faster among U.S. citizens and permanent residents than among foreign students with temporary visas (table 2).

TABLE 1. Graduate enrollment in S&E fields, by enrollment status, sex, citizenship, and race/ethnicity, and in health fields: 1999–2008.

  Table 1 Source Data: Excel file

TABLE 2. First-time, full-time graduate enrollment in science, engineering, and health fields, by field and citizenship: 2006–08.

  Table 2 Source Data: Excel file

Overall, the class of new full-time graduate students entering S&E fields in fall 2008 was the largest since 1973, when the National Science Foundation (NSF) began to collect these data. These findings are from the fall 2008 Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS), cosponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Graduate Student Enrollment in S&E

Among S&E fields, total graduate student enrollment (full-time and part-time) reached 529,275 in 2008, an increase of 2.5% from 2007 to 2008. Enrollment in the selected health fields included in the GSS fell by 1.1% over the same period (table 1). The remainder of this report primarily highlights data for S&E fields. Further analysis of GSS data on graduate enrollment in selected health fields can be obtained from the NIH.[3]

Enrollment Status

Growth in graduate S&E enrollment from 2007 to 2008 largely reflected full-time enrollment, which increased by 12,018, or 91.9% of the total growth in S&E enrollment (table 1).[4] Rapid growth in enrollment of first-time graduate students accounted for nearly two-thirds of this increase.

The number of students entering graduate S&E programs for the first time has been increasing for the last 10 years, with the exception of a 1-year decline from 2003 to 2004 (figure 1).[5] A key component of this growth has been the variation in first-time enrollment by citizenship. From 2001 to 2003, growth was driven by increasing enrollment among U.S. citizens and permanent residents. The 2003–4 decline was driven by decreasing foreign enrollment. First-time enrollment among students with temporary visas dropped 19% from 2001 to 2004 but has rebounded strongly since then. Recent record-breaking gains reflect increasing first-time enrollment among U.S. citizens and permanent residents and foreign students on temporary visas.

FIGURE 1. First-time, full-time graduate enrollment in science and engineering fields, by citizenship: 1999–2008.

  Figure 1 Source Data: Excel file

From 2007 to 2008, first-time, full-time enrollment grew more rapidly among foreign students (11.0%) than among U.S. citizens and permanent resident students (5.9%). Among foreign students, first-time, full-time enrollment increased 13.4% in science fields overall and 15.8% in the selected health fields (table 2).

These increases were much higher than those for U.S. citizens or permanent resident students in the sciences (5.3%) and the selected health fields (0.4%). In contrast, the 1-year percentage change in engineering for first-time, full-time students was higher for U.S. citizens and permanent residents (8.8%) than for foreign students (7.8%). This is a change from recent years, when much of the growth in engineering at the graduate level was due to foreign students.

Part-time graduate enrollments in S&E grew slightly (0.7%) from 2007 to 2008, however here, too, growth patterns differed substantially by citizenship. Part-time enrollment dropped by 0.5% for U.S. citizens and permanent resident students but increased by 8.8% for foreign students (table 1).

Demographic Characteristics


Graduate enrollment in S&E fields increased slightly more among men (2.9%) than among women (2.1%) from 2007 to 2008 (table 1). This reverses the long-term trend toward relatively greater enrollment gains by women. Women's share of graduate enrollment in S&E fields fell to 43.8% in 2008 after increasing each year from 41.0% in 1999 to 44.0% in 2007.

The lower growth rate in women's enrollment from 2007 to 2008 was found among U.S. citizens and permanent resident students but not among foreign students. The rate of enrollment grew faster for foreign women (6.7%) than for foreign men (5.0%) from 2007 to 2008. Among U.S. citizens and permanent residents, graduate enrollment in S&E fields grew more slowly, with the number of female graduate students increasing by 0.8% and male graduate students increasing by 1.8%. In 2008 women made up 48.1% of U.S. citizen and permanent resident enrollments and 34% of foreign enrollments in S&E programs.

Race and Ethnicity

Continuing a long trend, the S&E graduate student population is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Among U.S. citizens and permanent resident students enrolled in S&E in graduate schools, racial/ethnic minorities grew slightly faster (1.5% overall) than did non-Hispanic whites (1.0%) from 2007 to 2008. During this period, enrollment increased among non-Hispanic blacks (3.8%), American Indian/Alaska Natives (15.7%), and Hispanics (1.4%) and declined among Asian/Pacific Islanders (-1.3%).

Field of Study

At the aggregate level, enrollment increased by 4.7% in engineering and 1.8% in science from 2007 to 2008 (table 3). Noteworthy is the field of biomedical engineering, which has experienced the largest percentage increase of any field over the last decade (139.1%), more than doubling graduate enrollment from 1999 to 2008.

TABLE 3.Graduate enrollment in science, engineering, and health fields, by field: 1999–2008.

  Table 3 Source Data: Excel file

Postdoctoral Appointees in S&E

The GSS also collects information about postdoctoral appointees (postdocs) who work at U.S. academic institutions (and their affiliates, such as research centers and hospitals) in S&E and selected health fields. From 2007 to 2008, the number of postdocs in S&E fields increased 5.5% and the number of postdocs in selected health fields increased 9.2% (table 4). These 1-year increases indicate growth in employment of postdocs in the academic sector, especially when viewed against their respective 10-year growth rates (1999–008) of 31.8% in S&E and 35.0% in selected health fields.

TABLE 4. Postdoctoral appointees in S&E fields, by sex, citizenship, and field, and in health fields: 1999–2008.

  Table 4 Source Data: Excel file

Field of Study

Although most S&E postdocs work in science fields (85.7 % in 2008), the proportion has declined each year since its peak in 2001 (89.6%), reflecting increasing numbers of postdocs working in engineering. The number of engineering postdocs increased 70.9% from 1999 to 2008, compared with 27.0% for science postdocs (table 4). The number of postdocs in science increased by 4.7% over 2007, whereas the number in engineering increased by 10.5%.

In 2008, 60.6% of postdocs in science fields worked in the biological sciences. No similar concentration exists among engineering fields. The three engineering fields that employed the most postdocs in 2008 were electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and mechanical engineering (table 4). Postdocs in biomedical engineering, as with graduate enrollment, grew very rapidly in this period, nearly tripling from 242 in 1999 to 710 in 2008.

Demographic Characteristics

The number of female postdocs in S&E fields was 4,376 higher in 2008 than it was in 1999; male postdocs were higher by 4,847 (table 4). Although the numerical increases were similar, the gains for women represent much greater percentage growth: 50.3% from 1999 to 2008, more than double the 23.9% growth among male postdocs in that period.

The number of female postdocs working in S&E fields increased 12.9% over 2007 compared with a 2.0% increase among male postdocs. The difference in the proportion of postdocs who are male and female has lessened. In 1999, women comprised 30.0% of S&E postdocs; in 2008, women comprised 34.2% of S&E postdocs.

Although increases in foreign postdocs have driven much of the growth in S&E postdocs, for the last 2 years growth among U.S. citizens and permanent residents has outpaced that among temporary visa holders. The 7.7% increase in U.S. citizen and permanent resident postdocs from 2007 to 2008 represents the largest 1-year change since 2002 (when this group increased by 12.0% over 2001 numbers).

Survey Information and Data Availability

The 2008 GSS collected data from 13,166 organizational units (departments, programs, affiliated research centers, and health-care facilities) at 580 institutions of higher education and their affiliates in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The institutional response rate was 98.8%.

This publication provides the first release of data from the fall 2008 NSF-NIH Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering. The full set of detailed statistical tables from this survey will be available in the forthcoming report Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering: Fall 2008 at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/gradpostdoc/. Individual detailed tables from the 2008 survey may be requested in advance of the full report. For further information, or for details on the survey methodology used, please contact Susan T. Hill.[1]

The 2008 GSS data are available in public use format at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/srvygradpostdoc/pub_data.cfm and from the WebCASPAR data system (http://webcaspar.nsf.gov).


[1]  Susan T. Hill, Human Resources Statistics Program, Division of Science Resources Statistics, National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 965, Arlington, VA 22230 (sthill@nsf.gov, 703-292-7790).

[2]  Peter Einaudi, research analyst, RTI International, 3040 Cornwallis Road, P.O. Box 12194, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709-2194.

[3]  The GSS collects data on health fields selected by the NIH. These fields comprise about one-third of all health fields in the U.S. Department of Education Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) taxonomy. The majority of those not included are practitioner-oriented fields that do not meet the research-based criteria for GSS eligibility. Additional information on trends seen within selected health fields can be found at http://report.nih.gov.

[4]  Full-time enrollment is defined according to the institution's policies and definition. First-time graduate students are those enrolled for graduate credit for the first time as of fall 2008 at the institution at which they are pursuing a degree.

[5]  Due to methodological changes in 2007, the data collected in 2007 and 2008 are not strictly comparable to those collected prior to 2007. As a result, care should be used when assessing trends within the GSS data. In this InfoBrief, the "2007new" column reports the data as collected in 2007 and the "2007old" column provides an estimate of the 2007 data as they would have been collected in 2006. Thus, annual trends should be assessed by comparing 2006 to 2007old and 2007new to 2008. The percentage change 1999–2008 column is not adjusted and thus contains some variability due to the change in survey. Please see appendix A, "Technical Notes," in Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering: Fall 2007 (NSF 10-307) for a more detailed discussion of these changes.

National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics
Jump in Fall 2008 Enrollments of First-Time, Full-Time S&E Graduate Students
Arlington, VA (NSF 10-320) [June 2010]

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