Chapter 6:

Academic Research and Development: Financial and Personnel Resources, Support for Graduate Education, and Outputs

Financial Support for S&E Graduate Education

U.S. research universities have traditionally coupled advanced education with research—in the process providing scientific and engineering personnel as well as generating new knowledge. This integration of research and advanced training in S&E has served the country well as U.S. research universities attract graduate students from across the nation and the world. Upon receipt of their advanced degrees, these students set out to work in many sectors of the U.S. and other economies, using the skills and knowledge they have acquired to meet a broad range of challenges.

This close coupling of education and research is reflected in the variety of forms in which financial support is provided to S&E graduate students, and particularly to those who are pursuing doctoral degrees. Support mechanisms include fellowships, traineeships, research assistantships (RAs), and teaching assistantships (TAs). Sources of support include Federal agency support, non-Federal support, and self-support. See "Definitions and Terminology" below for fuller descriptions of both mechanisms and sources of support. Most graduate students, especially those who go on to receive a Ph.D. degree, are supported by more than one source and one mechanism during their time in graduate school, and individual graduate students may even receive support from several different sources and mechanisms in any given academic year.

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This section focuses on both sources and mechanisms of financial support, with special emphasis on the role of the research assistantship, since this form of support is so closely linked to the availability of academic R&D funds. Financial support is examined both for students who have just received their S&E doctorate degree and for all full-time S&E graduate students, since different types of information are available for these two distinct groups (see footnotes 51 and 52). Many of the discussions about U.S. graduate education focus on the appropriateness of the mechanisms currently used to support graduate students.[50]  Documentation of the current structure and how it has evolved over time helps facilitate these discussions. For a more in-depth treatment of graduate education in general, see chapter 4, "Higher Education in Science and Engineering." For discussion of the relationships between financial support and graduate educational outcomes, see "Graduate Modes of Financial Support and Time to Degree" and "Relationship Between Support Modes and Early Employment of Recent S&E Ph.D.s." sidebars later in this chapter.

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Support of S&E Graduate Students[51]  and S&E Doctorate Recipients[52]  top

Trends in Support top

Full-time S&E graduate student enrollment registered a slight decline in 1997 for the third consecutive year, as did the number of such students whose primary source of support was the Federal Government.[53]  The number of those whose primary source of support was from non-Federal sources rose slightly after declines in 1995 and 1996. (See appendix table 6-33.)

The proportion of graduate students with research assistantships (RAs) as their primary support mechanism increased from 22 to 28 percent between 1980 and 1989, a level about where it has since remained. This shift toward the use of RAs was offset by a decline in the proportions supported by traineeships and self-support. During the 1990s, the proportion of students with traineeships as their primary support mechanism continued to decline, and the proportion of those with teaching assistantships (TAs) also began to decline. The relative decline in the use of these two mechanisms was balanced by an increase in the proportion reporting self-support. (See figure 6-21.)

These overall shifts in the relative importance of primary RA support occurred for both students supported primarily by Federal sources and for those supported by non-Federal sources (this excludes students whose primary source of support is self-support). Among students whose primary source of support was the Federal Government, the rise in the proportion of those with an RA was offset by a fall in the proportion of those with a traineeship. Among students whose primary source was non-Federal, the shift toward RAs was balanced by a shift away from TAs.

Patterns of Support by Institution Type top

The proportion of full-time S&E graduate students with primary support from various sources and mechanisms differs for private and public universities. (See figure 6-22 and appendix table 6-34.) A larger proportion of full-time graduate students rely primarily on self-support in private academic institutions as opposed to those in public institutions—41 versus 30 percent in 1997.

Non-Federal sources are the primary source of support for a larger proportion of students in public institutions (50 percent) than in private ones (39 percent). About 20 percent of students in both private and public institutions receive their primary support from the Federal Government.

A larger proportion of students attending public academic institutions rely on research assistantships and teaching assistantships as their primary support mechanism (30 percent and 23 percent, respectively) than those attending private institutions (20 percent and 12 percent, respectively). This is balanced by greater reliance on fellowships and traineeships in private institutions (13 percent and 7 percent, respectively) than in public ones (7 percent and 3 percent, respectively).

The Federal Government plays a larger role as the primary source of support for some mechanisms than for others. (See figure 6-23.) A majority of traineeships in both private and public institutions (54 percent and 73 percent, respectively) are financed primarily by the Federal Government, as are 60 percent of the research assistantships in private institutions and 46 percent in public institutions. The Federal Government provides the primary support for less than 30 percent of fellowships and less than 2 percent of teaching assistantships in both public and private institutions.

Support Patterns for All S&E Graduate Students Versus Doctorate Recipients top

Most full-time S&E graduate students do not go on to receive a Ph.D., and many never intend to do so. Consequently, it is likely that the financial support patterns of full-time S&E graduate students will differ from those of S&E Ph.D. recipients. While the data from the two surveys are not strictly comparable, it is useful to compare the primary support patterns of those students who do earn a Ph.D. with the patterns for all full-time S&E graduate students to see if they provide a rough indicator of differences among these two groups. [54]  Thirty-four percent of the students receiving their science and engineering Ph.D.s in 1997 reported that their primary mechanism of support during their time in graduate school was a research assistantship. This is somewhat higher than the percentage (27 percent) of full-time science and engineering students for whom a research assistantship was reported as the primary mechanism of support. Fellowships and teaching assistantships were reported less frequently as a primary mechanism of support by those students who earned an S&E Ph.D. (2 percent and 15 percent, respectively) than for all full-time S&E graduate students (9 percent and 20 percent, respectively). Traineeships, however, were reported more frequently by those receiving an S&E Ph.D. (7 percent) than for graduate students in general (4 percent). A considerably smaller percentage of students receiving an S&E Ph.D. reported self-support as their primary means of support (20 percent) than did graduate students in general (33 percent). (See appendix tables 6-35 and 6-36.) For a brief discussion of overall rather than primary support for S&E Ph.D.s see sidebar, "Multiple Modes of Financial Support for S&E Ph.D.s."

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Support Patterns for S&E Doctorate Recipients by Citizenship, Sex, and Race/Ethnicity top

The data on financial support for S&E Ph.D.s also permit one to look at differences in support patterns by citizenship status, sex, and race/ethnicity;[55]  this is not possible with the graduate student data.[56]  (See appendix table 6-37.) Foreign S&E Ph.D. recipients—whether on temporary or permanent visas—were more likely than U.S. citizens to report a research assistantship (44 and 45 percent versus 32 percent) or a teaching assistantship (20 and 19 percent versus 14 percent) as their primary support mechanism and less likely than U.S. citizens to report a fellowship (1 percent versus 3 percent), traineeship (5 and 8 percent versus 9 percent), or self-support (11 and 15 percent versus 27 percent). [57] 

Among U.S.-citizen doctorate recipients, men were much more likely than women to report a research assistantship (35 versus 27 percent) and much less likely to report self-support (22 versus 33 percent) as their primary support modes. Although sex differences also existed in the use of fellowships, traineeships, and teaching assistantships, these were much smaller than the above-mentioned differences.

Also, among U.S.-citizen S&E Ph.D.s, underrepresented minorities (American Indians, Alaskan Natives, blacks, and Hispanics) were less likely than either Asians and Pacific Islanders or whites to report research assistantships (21 percent versus 41 and 32 percent) and teaching assistantships (8 percent versus 10 and 15 percent) as their primary support mechanism and more likely to report fellowships (6 percent versus 4 and 3 percent) and traineeships (16 percent versus 9 and 8 percent). They were also more likely to report self-support (26 percent) than Asians and Pacific Islanders (17 percent), but less likely than whites (28 percent). (See figure 6-24.) See "The Debt Burden of New Science and Engineering Ph.D.s" later in this chapter for differences in the debt situation of U.S. citizen and foreign Ph.D. recipients, among racial/ethnic groups, and between men and women.

Since the field distribution of S&E Ph.D. degrees varies across demographic groups, and the patterns of support differ by S&E field, some of the differences reported above could be mainly the result of degree field distribution differences. However, the data indicate that although degree field distribution does explain a great deal of the difference in relative importance of primary support mechanisms between men and women, it does not account for the differences across either citizenship status or race/ethnicity. (See appendix tables 6-38, 6-39, and 6-40.)

In the case of foreign S&E Ph.D. recipients, the relative importance of RAs and TAs as primary support mechanisms found in the aggregate compared to U.S. citizens also holds for most S&E fields, and is particularly strong in both engineering and the computer sciences. Similarly, the lesser relative reliance on self-support holds in all the broad disciplinary areas, while the comparatively minor roles of fellowships and traineeships for foreign doctorate recipients holds in about half of these fields. (See appendix table 6-38.)

Although among U.S. citizens female S&E doctorate recipients were less likely than males to report an RA as their primary support mechanism at the aggregate level, this was not the case in many S&E fields. In five broad fields—mathematics, environmental sciences, biological sciences, psychology, and social sciences—women were either more or equally likely as men to report an RA as their primary support mechanism. (See appendix table 6-39.) In addition, in many fields, differences between men and women in the percentage reporting an RA as their primary support mechanism were in the 1 to 3 percentage point range rather than the 8 percentage point aggregate differential. Only in the computer sciences was this differential large—20 percent of the women reported an RA, compared to 34 percent of the men.

The level of the aggregate difference in reliance on RAs between men and women can be explained by the fact that a much larger percentage of women (29 percent) received their Ph.D. degrees in psychology—a field where RAs are not a very important primary means of financial support—than did men (9 percent). The level of the aggregate difference between sexes in the reliance on self-support as a primary mode of support can be similarly explained. Once again, in this case, individual fields do not follow the aggregate pattern. In the environmental sciences, agricultural sciences, biological sciences, and engineering, women were less likely than men to identify self-support as their primary means of support. And in the fields where women were more likely to rely on self-support than men, only in the health sciences was the difference between them (52 percent versus 39 percent) as large as the aggregate difference reported. In the other fields, differences ranged between 1 and 5 percentage points.

In the case of U.S.-citizen underrepresented minority S&E Ph.D. recipients, the aggregate findings also hold for most broad disciplinary areas. (See appendix table 6-40.) For example, only in the health sciences is the percentage of underrepresented minorities higher than the percentage of white Ph.D. recipients reporting RAs as their primary mechanism of support. And only in the social sciences is the percentage of underrepresented minorities higher than the percentage of Asian and Pacific Islander Ph.D. recipients reporting RAs as their primary mechanism of support.

Research Assistantships as a Primary Mechanism of Support top

Graduate Research Assistantships by S&E Field top

Research assistantships accounted for 27 percent of all support mechanisms for full-time S&E graduate students in 1997. However, the mix of support mechanisms, and thus the role of research assistantships as the primary support mechanism, differs by S&E field. (See appendix table 6-36.) RAs comprise more than 50 percent of the primary support mechanisms for graduate students in atmospheric sciences, oceanography, agricultural sciences, chemical engineering, and materials engineering. They account for less than 20 percent in all the social sciences, mathematics, and psychology.

The number of graduate students with a research assistantship as their primary mechanism of support increased from just over 50,000 in 1980 to a peak of 92,000 in 1994, and by 1997 fell to 88,000. (See appendix table 6-41.) In just about every S&E field, the percentage of graduate students with a research assistantship as their primary means of support was higher in 1997 than in 1980. The largest increases were in the biological sciences (14 percentage points), in both the agricultural and the medical sciences (10 percentage points each), and in a number of engineering fields-electrical/electronic engineering (11 percentage points), chemical engineering (10 percentage points), and civil and industrial engineering (9 percentage points each). (See figure 6-25.)

All S&E Graduate Students Versus Doctorate Recipients top

Although not strictly comparable, data from the Ph.D. and graduate student surveys suggest that the relative utilization of a research assistantship as a primary mechanism of support was rather similar at a broad disciplinary level between full-time S&E graduate students and S&E Ph.D. recipients. (See figure 6-26.) Research assistantships were once again quite prominent in the physical sciences, environmental sciences, and engineering and much less prominent in mathematics, social sciences, and psychology. However, in both the life sciences and the computer sciences, research assistantships played a much larger role as a primary support mechanism for those receiving their doctorate than for the average full-time S&E graduate student.

Sources of Support top

In 1997, about one-third of graduate research assistants were in the life sciences, with an additional 30 percent in engineering and 13 percent in the physical sciences. The Federal Government was the primary source of support for about half of all graduate students with a research assistantship as their primary mechanism of support. (See appendix table 6-42.) This proportion declined from 57 percent in 1980 to about 50 percent in 1985, where it has since remained. (See figure 6-27 and appendix table 6-43.) The Federal role, however, differs by S&E field. The Federal Government was the primary source of support for considerably more than half of the research assistants in the physical sciences (72 percent), the environmental sciences (61 percent), and the computer sciences (60 percent), and for considerably less than half in the social sciences (21 percent) and psychology (31 percent).

Federal Agency Support[58]  top

During most of the 1980s NSF was the Federal agency that was the primary source for the largest number of graduate research assistantships. It was surpassed by the entire HHS in 1989 and by NIH in 1993. (See appendix table 6-44.) Between 1980 and 1997, the percentage of Federal graduate research assistantships financed primarily by NIH increased from about 19 percent to 26 percent, while the percentage financed primarily by NSF increased from 26 percent to a peak of 28 percent in 1984, then fell to 24 percent. The DOD share has fluctuated between 10 and 16 percent over the same period and the USDA share between 6 and 7 percent (since it was first reported in 1985). NASA's share in 1997 (only the second year it was reported) was just under 5 percent.

Just as Federal agencies emphasize different S&E fields in their funding of academic research, it is not surprising to find that they also emphasize different fields in their support of graduate research assistants. HHS and especially NIH concentrate their support in the life sciences (70 percent and 73 percent, respectively), as does USDA (74 percent). DOD concentrates its support in engineering (58 percent). NSF, on the other hand, has a more diversified support pattern, with just over one-third in engineering, 29 percent in the physical sciences, and 10 percent each in the environmental and the life sciences. (See figure 6-28 and appendix table 6-45.) Although an agency may place a large share of its support for research assistants in one field, it may not necessarily be a leading contributor to that field. (See figure 6-29 and appendix table 6-46.) NSF is the lead supporting agency in mathematics (41 percent of federally supported RAs), the environmental sciences (41 percent), the physical sciences (37 percent), and in engineering (29 percent). NIH is the lead support agency in the life sciences (60 percent), psychology (56 percent), and sociology (36 percent). DOD is the lead support agency in the computer sciences (43 percent) and in electrical engineering (45 percent), and also provides an almost identical level of support as NSF for total engineering. USDA is the lead support agency in the agricultural sciences (56 percent) and economics (52 percent). NASA is the lead support agency in astronomy (45 percent) and aeronautical/astronautical engineering (36 percent).

The Spreading Institutional Base top

During the 1980--97 period, the number of universities and colleges reporting at least one full-time S&E graduate student with a research assistantship as his or her primary mechanism of support has fluctuated between 400 and 435, with a slight upward trend, reaching its highest level in 1993. Not surprisingly, however, there was basically no change in the number of currently designated Carnegie research or doctorate-granting institutions reporting at least one graduate student with primary research assistantship support during this period; this number fluctuated between 219 and 224. Since these institutions had probably been receiving research funds over the entire period, it is likely that they were supporting graduate students with research assistantships as their primary support mechanism. Thus, most of the fluctuation and the entire increase in the number of institutions reporting at least one graduate student receiving a research assistantship as their primary support mechanism occurred among comprehensive; liberal arts; two-year community, junior, and technical; and professional and other specialized schools. (See appendix table 6-47.) Only 46 percent of this group of schools reported at least one graduate student with an RA as primary support mechanism in 1980, compared to 57 percent in 1997.[59] 

Throughout this period, considerably fewer institutions reported students with primary RA support financed primarily by the Federal Government than reported students with such support financed primarily from non-Federal sources. This difference is particularly pronounced among the "other" Carnegie institutions, 114 (32 percent) of which report RAs supported by the Federal Government in 1997 compared to 185 (51 percent) that report RAs financed by non-Federal sources. Why so many fewer other institutions report the Federal Government as a primary source of funds for research assistantships than receive R&D funds from the Federal Government is unclear.

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[50]  See COSEPUP (1995), NSB (1996), and NSF (1996a).

[51]  The data presented on mechanisms and sources of support for S&E graduate students are from the NSF-NIH annual fall Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (NSF 1999f). In this survey, departments report the primary (largest) source and mechanism of support for each full-time degree-seeking S&E graduate student. No financial support data are collected for part-time students. Many of the full-time students may be seeking master's degrees rather than Ph.D. degrees, particularly in fields such as engineering and computer sciences. Since departments are aware of both primary sources and mechanisms of support for their students, both of these can be examined. Throughout this section, S&E includes the health fields (medical sciences and other life sciences).

[52]  The data presented on mechanisms of support for S&E doctorate recipients are from the annual Survey of Earned Doctorates (NSF 1999i). Students who have just received their Ph.D.s are asked to respond to this survey. They are asked to identify their primary and secondary sources of support during graduate school as well as to check all other sources from which support was received. Validation studies on the quality of the data received from respondents to this survey indicate that the information on mechanisms of support is much better than that on sources. (See NRC 1994.) This is especially true for students whose primary support is a research assistantship, since they may not always know who is providing the funds that are supporting them. For this reason, the discussion of doctorate recipients is confined to mechanisms of support except for self-supported students. Twelve percent of the respondents in 1997 did not report a primary mechanism of support.

[53]  Total Federal support of graduate students is underestimated since reporting on Federal sources includes only direct Federal support to a student and support to research assistants financed through the direct costs of Federal research grants. This omits students supported by departments through the indirect costs portion of research grants; such support would appear as institutional (non-Federal) support, since the university has discretion over how to use these funds.

[54]  As noted earlier, the data for these two groups are derived from two distinct surveys with different reporting entities and different time frames.

[55]  Since the Survey of Earned Doctorates obtains data from individual respondents, information is available about demographic characteristics such as citizenship, race/ethnicity, and sex.

[56]  For information on the distribution of and trends in S&E Ph.D.s by sex, race/ethnicity, and citizenship status, see chapter 4, "Higher Education in Science and Engineering."

[57]  Foreign S&E Ph.D. recipients, especially those on temporary visas, are often not eligible for either Federal loan programs (included in self-support) or Federal fellowships.

[58]  Only five Federal agencies are reported on individually as primary sources of support to S&E graduate students in the Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering: DOD, NSF, USDA, NASA, and HHS, with the latter being reported as two distinct units-NIH and other HHS. DOE has been added to the 1999 survey.

[59]  Percentages are calculated by dividing the number of schools reporting at least one RA into the number of schools responding to the survey. If an institution does not report any full-time graduate students with an RA as their primary support mechanism, it does not necessarily mean that the institution does not have any graduate students being supported by research assistantships. It simply indicates that the research assistantship is not the primary mechanism of support for any of the students attending that institution.

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