by Mark K. Fiegener
This InfoBrief uses data collected from the 2009 Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) to report on trends in the numbers of individuals who earn research doctoral degrees from U.S. academic institutions. Postgraduation plans of new doctorate recipients are examined from 2004 to 2009, a period that includes the recent economic decline. The following key findings are described in detail in this report:
- 49,562 research doctorates were awarded in 2009, up 1.6% over the 2008 total.
- Doctorates awarded in science and engineering (S&E) fields were up 1.9% over 2008, owing entirely to growth in numbers of female S&E doctorate recipients.
- The number of doctorates earned by U.S. citizens and permanent residents who are members of racial/ethnic minority groups continues to grow faster than the number earned by white recipients.
- The number of doctorate recipients with temporary visas was down 3.5% from 2008.
- The proportion of 2009 doctorate recipients with employment prospects in the coming year (gauged by definite commitments to a position) was slightly less than that reported in 2008 and about the same as that reported in 2007, the year before the advent of the recession.
- Among doctorate recipients reporting definite commitments, a growing proportion are taking postdoctoral (postdoc) positions; 2009 marked the largest single-year increase in the proportion of doctorate recipients taking postdoc positions during the 2004–09 period.
Field of Study
Science and Engineering
The 49,562 research doctorate degrees awarded by U.S. academic institutions in 2009 represent the highest number ever reported by the SED. Doctorates awarded in S&E fields of study accounted for most of the overall growth in doctorate awards in 2009 (figure 1, table 1). In total, 33,470 S&E doctorates were awarded in 2009 (67.5% of all doctorates), an increase of 29.1% since 1999 but only a 1.9% rise over 2008. The 2009 growth rate is dramatically slower than in the period 2004–07, when the numbers of S&E doctorates were increasing at more than 6.5% per year. Doctorate awards were up from 2008 in seven of the eight major science fields of study, with biological sciences having the greatest number of awards (8,026, or 16.2% of all doctorates) and mathematics showing the largest increase over 2008 (11.1%). Although doctorates in computer science declined 9.8% from 2008, this field had the largest rate of increase among the science fields over the past decade, nearly doubling from 1999 to 2009. Doctorates awarded in psychology fell by 5.4% over the decade, but the number of doctorates in all other major science fields increased over the period.
Figure 1 Source Data: Excel file
Table 1 Source Data: Excel file
Doctorates awarded in engineering fields reached 7,634 in 2009, a 43.2% increase over the 1999 total but a 2.9% decline from 2008, making 2009 the first year since 2002 to show a year-over-year drop in engineering doctorates awarded. Aerospace/aeronautical engineering and mechanical engineering were the only engineering fields showing growth in doctorate awards in 2009, by 11.3% and 1.3%, respectively. Except for other engineering (a category that includes 20 separate engineering subfields), electrical engineering remains the largest engineering subfield, even though doctorates awarded in this subfield decreased 10.2% from 2008.
Overall, the trend for the decade was growth in all engineering subfields. Materials science engineering showed the largest rate of increase over the decade, 58.3%.
Non-Science and Engineering
The number of doctorates awarded in non-S&E fields in 2009 increased 1.0% over the 2008 total, to 16,092 (figure 1, table 1). Most of this increase was accounted for by the greater number of humanities doctorates, 3.7% over 2008. The number of doctorates awarded in education, health, and professional fields changed little.
Doctorate awards in non-S&E fields increased 6.1% during the past decade, but the growth was unevenly distributed among the fields of degree. The number of doctorates awarded in health showed substantial growth (48.8%) over this period, as did the number of doctorates in professional fields (28.9%). The number of doctorates awarded in education has fluctuated around a flat trend line over the past decade, and the number of humanities doctorates fell 7.3% from 1999 to 2009.
The 1.9% growth in total S&E doctorates awarded between 2008 and 2009 was entirely accounted for by growth in female doctorate recipients (622, a 4.8% increase). The count of male S&E doctorate recipients declined slightly (table 2). The numbers of all doctorate recipients in S&E fields increased each year between 2004 and 2009, but the rate of growth for women was much greater than for men over the 5-year period. S&E doctorates awarded to women were 37.9% higher in 2009 than in 2004, nearly double the 20.9% growth rate in S&E doctorates awarded to men. As a result of the differential growth rates, the proportion of S&E doctorates awarded to women increased from 37.5% in 2004 to 40.6% in 2009.
Table 2 Source Data: Excel file
Men and women contributed nearly equally to the increased number of non-S&E doctorates from 2008 to 2009, with awards to men increasing by 80 (1.2%) and awards to women rising by 78 (0.8%). Over the period 2004–09, however, growth in the number of men earning doctorates in non-S&E fields fell 0.9%, and the number of awards to women increased 3.2%. The proportion of non-S&E degrees awarded to women grew from 58.7% in 2004 to 59.7% in 2009.
Race and Ethnicity
A total of 4,719 U.S. citizens and permanent residents who are members of racial/ethnic minority groups earned S&E doctoral degrees in 2009 (table 2). This represents a 34.3% increase in the number reported in 2004 and is up 6.4% from the 2008 total. In comparison, the number of white U.S. citizens and permanent residents earning S&E doctorates grew 22.3% from 2004 to 2009 and 6.1% in the last year of that period. Members of minority groups earned 22.6% of the total number of S&E doctorates awarded in 2004, and 24.2% of the total in 2009. Asians constituted the largest group (41.7%) of minority S&E doctorate recipients in 2009, followed by Hispanics (23.2%), blacks (20.1%), American Indians/Alaska Natives (1.6%), and Native Hawaiians/Other Pacific Islanders (1.0%). Individuals reporting two or more races constituted 9.0% of the total number of minority S&E doctorate recipients in 2009.
The numbers of S&E doctorate recipients in all racial/ethnic minority groups except Native Hawaiians/Other Pacific Islanders grew substantially over the period 2004–09: 25.0% for American Indians/Alaska Natives, 31.7% for Asians, 25.4% for blacks, 52.0% for Hispanics, and 88.1% for individuals reporting two or more races. Although the number of American Indian/Alaska Native S&E doctorate recipients increased over the 5-year period, the numbers showed considerable year-to-year fluctuations. The number of Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander S&E doctorate recipients fluctuated little over the period.
U.S. citizens and permanent residents who were members of minority groups earned 3,189 non-S&E doctorates in 2009, 15.8% more than in 2004 and a 10.3% increase over 2008. The number of white doctorate recipients in non-S&E fields has declined 0.9% since 2004 and dropped by 0.2% from 2008. From 2004 to 2009 the number of non-S&E doctorates awarded to Asians increased by 26.9%, the number awarded to blacks by increased 3.2%, the number of Hispanic doctorate recipients increased by 32.6%, and the total earned by individuals reporting two or more races grew by 38.3%. The number of non-S&E doctorates earned by American Indians/Alaska Natives and by Native Hawaiians/Other Pacific Islanders fluctuated modestly over the 5-year period.
Following several years of growth in the number of doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders (annual growth rates exceeded 10% from 2004 to 2006), the number of doctorate recipients with temporary visas declined 3.5% from 2008 to 2009 (table 2). Declines occurred in both S&E (3.3%) and non-S&E fields (4.6%). The 5-year rate of growth in the number of S&E doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders was a substantial 33.3% despite the downturn in 2009. The corresponding 5-year growth rate in the number of non-S&E doctorates earned by temporary visa holders was a much smaller 1.5%.
SED data on the postgraduation plans of doctorate recipients were used to examine whether employment prospects of new doctorate recipients changed during the recent (2008 and 2009) period of economic decline.
Definite Postgraduation Commitments
Respondents to the SED indicate the status of their postgraduation plans for the coming year: whether they plan to return to their predoctoral position; have signed a contract or otherwise made a commitment for a new position (postdoc or employed); are seeking a position; or have made other plans. Doctorate recipients whose postgraduation status involves either returning to their predoctoral position or accepting a new position are considered to have definite commitments for a position in the coming year. The proportion of doctorate recipients reporting definite commitments is an indicator of the overall strength of the job market for doctorate recipients and the availability of positions relative to the supply of new doctorate recipients.
The job market for doctorate recipients varies according to the citizenship status of doctorate recipients (figure 2). Each year from 1999 to 2009, U.S. citizens were more likely (by an annual average difference of 3.3 percentage points) than temporary visa holders to have definite postgraduation commitments for a position, and each year temporary visa holders were more likely (by an annual average difference of 5.1 percentage points) than permanent residents to report definite commitments. Although doctorate recipients in the three citizenship categories differ with respect to their rates of definite commitments, the data trends for the three groups have been similar. The proportions of definite commitments were at high points in 2001 and 2006 for all three citizenship groups, and 2007 to 2009 marked a low period for all three. Direct comparison of pre-2007 data on definite postgraduation commitments with later data should be made with caution, however, as one response category for the postgraduation status item—signed contract or commitment for a new position—was changed beginning with the 2007 SED, which may have resulted in an overstatement of the rate of definite commitments in the pre-2007 data (see "Data Sources and Limitations," below). Consequently, the remainder of this discussion focuses on the 2007 to 2009 period.
Figure 2 Source Data: Excel file
During the period 2007 to 2009, the rate of definite commitments changed little for all three citizenship groups. The proportion of U.S. citizen doctorate recipients reporting definite commitments remained essentially unchanged, the rate of permanent resident doctorate recipients with definite commitments declined slightly (-0.8 percentage points), and the percentage of temporary visa holder doctorate recipients with definite commitments increased slightly (0.7 percentage points).
The job market has been relatively stronger for doctorate recipients in some fields of study than in others (table 3). The rate of definite commitments among doctorate recipients in physical sciences, social sciences, education, health, and professional fields exceeded 70% in every year from 2007 to 2009. Humanities and life sciences doctorate recipients had the lowest rates of definite commitments, at or below 65% in those years. The year-to-year changes also varied by field of study. In every non-S&E field of study, the percentage of doctorate recipients reporting definite commitments increased from 2007 to 2008, whereas the proportion of definite commitments declined in 2008 or stayed roughly the same for doctorate recipients in every S&E field except social sciences. From 2008 to 2009, the overall rate of definite commitments for all fields fell by 0.5 percentage points, with declines in every field except social sciences and life sciences. The data suggest that the 2009 job market for new doctorate recipients was only slightly weaker than in 2008 and was essentially the same as in 2007, the year before the advent of the recession.
Table 3 Source Data: Excel file
A closer look at the data on postgraduation status provides mixed indicators of the state of the job market for new doctorate recipients from 2007 to 2009. The data show a declining proportion of doctorate recipients returning to predoctoral positions, as the overall rate fell 1.0 percentage point from 2007 to 2009 (table 3). Over the same period, however, the overall proportion of doctorate recipients having definite commitments for a new position increased by a comparable amount (0.9 percentage points), and the overall rate at which doctorate recipients reported they were still seeking a position decreased slightly (0.5 percentage points). Compared with 2008, employment conditions in 2009 were worse for non-S&E doctorate recipients than for S&E doctorate recipients. In every non-S&E field, 2009 doctorate recipients were less likely to have a signed contract or commitment for a new position and were more likely to report they were still seeking a position than were 2008 doctorate recipients. 2009 S&E doctorate recipients in every field except engineering were more likely than their 2008 counterparts to have a signed contract or commitment for a new position. However, when the 2009 data are compared with the 2007 (prerecession) data, no strong claims can be made about the different employment conditions faced by S&E versus non-S&E doctorate recipients.
The "other postgraduation status" category includes doctorate recipients who do not plan to work or study in the coming year and, beginning in 2007, doctorate recipients who plan to pursue another full-time degree program. Since 2007, other postgraduation status has become a more frequently reported postgraduation plan of doctorate recipients in all fields of study except education and professional fields, where the percentages declined slightly. The higher rate of this response among doctorate recipients in life sciences may be attributable to doctorate recipients who are in joint MD/PhD programs and are still in school for the MD degree.
Type of Position
Four types of positions are discussed here: postdoc position, employed position in academe, employed position in industry/business, and other employed position. The overall trends from 2004 to 2009 (table 4) show that doctorate recipients are increasingly likely to accept postdoc positions (2.8 percentage points) and employed positions in industry/business (1.9 percentage points), and are less likely to take positions in academe (-3.2 percentage points) and other employment (-1.6 percentage points). 2009 had the largest single-year increase in the proportion of doctorate recipients taking postdoc positions during the 5-year span (2.0 percentage points) and the largest single-year decrease in the rate of academic employment (-1.4 percentage points).
Table 4 Source Data: Excel file
Over the past 5 years the data trends within each type of position have varied by field of study. Historically, postdoc positions have been far more common among S&E doctorate recipients than among doctorate recipients in education, humanities, and professional fields. In every S&E field, the proportion of doctorate recipients accepting postdoc positions declined from 2004 to 2006 and then increased from 2006 to 2009. In every S&E field except social sciences, the largest single-year increase in the proportion of doctorate recipients accepting postdoc positions occurred in 2009. Although postdoc positions remain relatively uncommon in humanities and professional fields, the proportion of doctorate recipients in those fields taking postdoc positions has increased over the period 2004–09.
Employment in academe is the most likely early career destination for doctorate recipients in non-S&E fields, and also for social sciences doctorate recipients. However, the proportion of doctorate recipients taking positions in academe declined over the period 2004–09 in every non-S&E field except professional fields and in every S&E field except life sciences. The drop from 2008 to 2009 in the rate of academic employment resulted from decreases in life sciences (-1.2 percentage points), engineering (-3.6 percent points), and humanities (-1.1 percentage points). The rate of employment in academe increased in 2009 for doctorate recipients in health and physical sciences, by 3.4 and 0.4 percentage points, respectively.
Employment in industry/business is the most likely initial destination for new doctorate recipients in engineering and is also a common postgraduation position for new doctorate recipients in physical sciences. In both of these fields, and in life sciences, the proportion of doctorate recipients taking employed positions in industry/business increased from 2004 to 2008 and then decreased in 2009. The proportion of humanities doctorate recipients taking industry/business positions dropped slightly over the 2004–09 period, but none of the remaining fields showed a discernible trend over the past 5 years.
A large and nearly constant proportion of doctorate recipients in education secured positions in other employment over the period 2004–09. (This is to be expected, as employment in "preschool, elementary, middle, secondary school or school system" is one of the survey response categories aggregated within the other employed position category.) In every non-education field but engineering, the proportion of doctorate recipients taking other employed positions increased from 2004 to 2006, and then (including engineering) decreased or did not change from 2006 to 2009.
Data Sources and Limitations
The data presented here are from the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) for academic year 2009 (1 July 2008 to 30 June 2009). The SED is sponsored by six federal agencies: the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Each individual completing requirements for a research doctorate from a university in the United States or Puerto Rico receives the SED. Research doctoral programs are oriented toward preparing students to make original contributions to knowledge in a field and typically entail writing a dissertation. Doctoral degrees such as the PhD, DSc, and research EdD are considered research doctorates and are covered by this survey; professional degrees (e.g., MD, DDS, JD, and PsyD) are not. The terms "doctorate" and "doctoral degree" are used to represent any of the research doctoral degrees covered by the survey.
In 2009, 92.3% of the 49,562 new doctorate recipients completed the survey. Limited records are constructed for nonrespondents from administrative lists of the university, such as commencement programs and graduation lists. Consequently, the 2009 item response rates for some items exceed the 92.3% unit response rate: the field of study information used in this report was obtained for all doctorate recipients, information on sex was obtained for 99.9%, race/ethnicity for 94.1%, and citizenship status for 94.7%. The response rate for the postgraduation status item over the period reported in table 3 ranged from 92.2% in 2006 to 89.6% in 2009.
The major fields and subfields of study are reported differently in this InfoBrief than in the SED questionnaire instrument and the interagency report Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2009 (forthcoming). In this InfoBrief, the major field "health" is in the non-S&E category rather than in S&E. The fine fields American/U.S. studies; archeology; and history, science, and technology and society are counted in social sciences (S&E category) rather than humanities (non-S&E category). Agricultural economics is included in social sciences rather than agricultural sciences. Finally, public administration is counted in social sciences (S&E category) rather than professional fields (non-S&E category).
Before 2007 the "signed contract" response category to the postgraduation status item was worded, "Have signed contract or made definite commitment for other work or study." Commitments for a postdoc position and commitments for a full-time degree program could both be considered commitments for "study." Thus, to distinguish these commitments the wording of this response category was changed in 2007 to "have signed contract or made definite commitment for a ‘postdoc' or other work," and a new response category, "other full-time degree program," was added to the postgraduation status item. In this report, "other full-time degree program" responses are aggregated within the "other postgraduation status" reporting category. Changes in the proportions of doctorate recipients in the "other postgraduation status" and "signed contract" categories beginning 2007 may be partly attributable to the changed wording of the survey item. As a result, the pre-2007 percentages of doctorate recipients indicating the "have signed contract" response are slightly overstated in comparison with the 2007 to 2009 data because the figures include an indeterminate number of respondents who might have selected the "other full-time degree program" response had it been available. Similarly, the pre-2007 percentages of doctorate recipients in the "other postgraduation status" category are slightly understated in comparison with the later data.
The full set of detailed tables from this survey, providing more information on doctorates awarded in S&E fields, will appear in Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2009 and forthcoming reports of the Science and Engineering Doctorate Awards series, at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/doctorates/. Individual detailed tables from recent surveys may be available in advance of publication of the full reports. For further information, please contact the author.
 Mark K. Fiegener, Human Resources Statistics Program, Division of Science Resources Statistics, National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 965, Arlington, VA 22230 (firstname.lastname@example.org; 703-292-4622).
 Minority groups include American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, black, Hispanic (Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and other Hispanic ethnicities), Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, persons who reported two or more races, and other race/ethnicity.
 On the SED, postdoc is defined as "a temporary position primarily for gaining additional education and training in research, usually awarded in academe, industry, government, or a non-profit organization." Some institutions consider postdocs to be employment, whereas other institutions consider them to be "study."
 Returning to predoctoral employment is a common postgraduation plan of doctorate recipients in education and (to a lesser extent) health, as many doctoral programs in these fields enroll graduate students who pursue the degree on a part-time basis and remain employed during their doctoral studies.
 The use of the term "employed position" is intended to distinguish postdoc from non-postdoc positions, and is not meant to suggest that a postdoc position is not a form of employment.