Doctoral Scientists and Engineers in Academia

The role of research in U.S. universities is both to create new knowledge and to educate students who will become the future generations of researchers and teachers (Association of American Universities 2006). Doctoral scientists and engineers in academia, and in particular faculty in U.S. colleges and universities, are an important aspect of academic R&D, as they generally engage in both research and teaching. The focus of this section is on the research aspects of doctoral scientists and engineers in academia. Teaching aspects of faculty employment are more thoroughly covered in chapter 2.

This section examines trends in employment and research activity of doctoral scientists and engineers in U.S. universities and colleges, with special attention paid to faculty in research universities. Research universities have a disproportionate influence on the U.S. academic R&D enterprise. Research institutions, although few in number, are the leading producers of S&E bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree recipients (see chapter 2) and the doctorate-granting source of more than three-quarters of faculty with S&E doctorates (NSF/SRS 2006). These institutions also conduct more than 80% of academic R&D (as measured by expenditures) and produce the bulk of both academic articles and patents (see section "Outputs of S&E Research: Articles and Patents" later in this chapter).

Trends in Academic Employment of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers

Academic employment of S&E doctorate holders reached a record high of 274,200 in 2006 (appendix table 5-17Excel.).[23] However, long-term growth in the number of these positions between 1973 and 2006 was slower than in either business or government. Employment in the academic sector slowed in the 1990s, especially at research universities, and growth over the past three decades was slower than in the business and government sectors (table 5-10table. ; figure 5-16figure.). As a result, the share of all S&E doctorate holders employed in academia dropped from about 55% to 45% during the 1973–2006 period (table 5-11table.). Beginning in the 1990s, the share of those with recently awarded degrees (that is, a degree awarded within 3 years of the survey year) employed in academia was generally substantially higher than the overall academic employment share for S&E doctorate holders, possibly reflecting the relatively large number of young doctorate holders in postdoc positions. In 2006, more than half of recent doctorate holders were employed in academia.

All Academic S&E Doctoral Employment

Growth in academic employment was stronger for life scientists than for other scientists and engineers. In engineering and many other science fields, growth in academic employment slowed in the early 1990s, but increased from 1995 to 2006 (figure 5-17figure. ; appendix table 5-17Excel.).

Trends in academic employment of S&E doctorate holders suggest continual movement away from the full-time faculty position as the academic norm (figure 5-18figure.). Although academic employment of S&E doctorate holders grew from 118,000 in 1973 to 274,200 in 2006 (appendix table 5-17Excel.), during this period, full-time faculty positions increased more slowly than postdoc and other full- and part-time positions.

Table 5-12table. shows the resulting distribution of academic employment of S&E doctorate holders. The full-time faculty share was 72% of all academic employment in 2006, down from 88% in the early 1970s. These employment trends, particularly during the 1993–2006 period, occurred as real spending for academic R&D rose by 73%, retirement of faculty who were hired during the 1960s increased, and academic hiring of young doctorate holders showed a modest rebound.[24]

Nonfaculty ranks (i.e., full- and part-time adjunct faculty, lecturers, research associates, administrators, and postdocs) increased from 41,400 in 1993 to 76,600 in 2006. This 85% increase stood in sharp contrast to the 15% rise in the number of full-time faculty. Both the full-time nonfaculty and part-time components grew between 1993 and 2006. The number of postdocs rose more slowly during most of this period, remaining at 16,000–19,000 from 1995 to 2003 before increasing to about 23,000 in 2006.[25] Part-time employees accounted for only a small share (between 2% and 4%) of all academic S&E doctoral employment throughout most of the period before rising to almost 6% in 2006 (appendix table 5-17Excel.).

Public universities account for almost two-thirds of S&E doctorate holders employed in academic institutions and an even higher fraction of full-time S&E faculty. Within private research universities, postdocs make up a larger fraction of S&E doctorate holders (22%) than they do within public research universities (12%) (appendix table 5-18Excel.).

Women in the Academic Doctoral S&E Workforce

The academic employment of women with S&E doctorates rose sharply between 1973 and 2006, reflecting the increase in the proportion of women among recent S&E doctorate holders. The number of women with S&E doctorates in academia increased more than eightfold during this period, from 10,700 in 1973 to an estimated 90,700 in 2006 (appendix table 5-19Excel.), as compared with about a 71% increase for men.

This increase is reflected in the rising share of women among S&E doctorate holders in academic positions. In 2006, women constituted 33% of all academic S&E doctoral employment and 30% of full-time faculty, up from 9% and 7%, respectively, in 1973. Roughly similar percentages of male and female doctoral S&E faculty are employed in research institutions (table 5-13table.). Compared with male faculty, female faculty remained relatively more heavily concentrated in the life sciences, social sciences, and psychology, with correspondingly lower shares in engineering, the physical sciences, mathematics, and computer sciences.

Women hold a larger share of junior faculty positions than positions at either the associate or full professor rank. However, their share of all three positions rose substantially between 1973 and 2006. In 2006, women constituted 19% of full professors, 34% of associate professors, and 42% of junior faculty, the latter slightly higher than their share of recently earned S&E doctorates (figure 5-19figure. ; appendix table 5-19Excel.; see also "Doctoral Degrees by Sex" in chapter 2). These trends reflect the recent arrival of significant numbers of women doctorate holders in full-time academic faculty positions. (For a more complete discussion of the role of women, see NSF/SRS 2007c.)

Underrepresented Minorities in Academic Doctoral Workforce

The Census Bureau’s demographic projections have long indicated an increasing prominence of minority groups, especially Hispanics, among future college- and working-age populations. With the exception of Asians/Pacific Islanders, these groups tended to be less likely than whites to earn S&E degrees or work in S&E occupations. Private and governmental groups have sought to broaden the participation of blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives in these fields, with many programs targeting their advanced training through the doctorate level.

The absolute rate of conferral of S&E doctorates on members of underrepresented minority groups has increased, as has academic employment; but taken together, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives remain a small percentage of the S&E doctorate holders employed in academia (appendix table 5-20Excel.).[26] Because the increases in hiring come from a very small base, these groups constituted only about 8% of both total academic employment and full-time faculty positions in 2006, up from about 2% in 1973. However, among recent doctorate holders, they represented 10% of total academic employment (figure 5-20figure.).

Underrepresented minorities constituted a smaller share of total employment at research universities than at other academic institutions throughout this period (table 5-13table.). Notably, a lower percentage of black S&E faculty than of other S&E faculty are employed at research universities and a higher percentage are employed at comprehensive universities, especially historically black colleges and universities (NSF/SRS 2006). Underrepresented minorities are concentrated in different fields than whites or Asians. Compared with whites, blacks tended to be relatively concentrated in the social sciences and were relatively less represented in the physical sciences, the life sciences, and engineering. The field distribution of Hispanic degree holders is similar to that of white degree holders. (For a more complete discussion of the role of underrepresented minorities, see NSF/SRS 2007c.)

Asians/Pacific Islanders in Academic Doctoral S&E Workforce

Asians/Pacific Islanders more than tripled their employment share in the S&E academic doctoral workforce between 1973 and 2006, increasing from 4% to 14% (appendix table 5-20Excel.). However, a distinction needs to be made between those who are U.S. citizens and those who are not because the latter group constituted 45% of this group’s doctorate holders in the academic S&E workforce in 2006.[27] The employment share of Asians/Pacific Islanders who are U.S. citizens grew from about 2% of the total academic S&E doctoral workforce in 1973 to 9% in 2006, a magnitude of growth similar to that of underrepresented minorities. Limiting the analysis to recent S&E doctorate holders leads to even more dramatic differences between Asians/Pacific Islanders who are U.S. citizens and those who are not. Although the Asian/Pacific Islander share of all recent S&E doctorate holders employed in academia rose from 5% in 1973 to 28% in 2006, the share of those who are U.S. citizens increased from 1% to 7% (figure 5-21figure.).

Compared with whites, Asians/Pacific Islanders are more heavily represented in engineering and computer sciences and represented at very low levels in psychology and social sciences. This finding holds both for U.S. citizens and for all Asians/Pacific Islanders. In 2006, Asians/Pacific Islanders constituted 29% of academic doctoral computer scientists and 27% of engineers (appendix table 5-20Excel.). Whether or not they are U.S. citizens, Asians/Pacific Islanders represent a larger percentage of total employment at research universities than at other academic institutions (table 5-13table.).

Whites in Academic Doctoral S&E Workforce

The relative prominence of whites, particularly white males, in the academic S&E doctoral workforce diminished between 1973 and 2006 (figure 5-22figure.). In 2006, whites constituted 78% of the academic doctoral S&E workforce, compared with 91% in 1973 (table 5-14table. ; appendix table 5-20Excel.); the share of white males also declined during this period, from about 83% to 52%. The decline in the shares of whites and white males who recently received their doctorates was even greater, from 91% to 63% and from 80% to 35%, respectively. Part of the decline is due to the increasing numbers of women, underrepresented minorities, and Asians/Pacific Islanders. However, the decline in share is not the whole story. During the 1990s and through 2006, the absolute number of white males in the academic doctoral S&E workforce who recently received their doctorates remained virtually unchanged.

Foreign-Born S&E Doctorate Holders

Much of the discussion in this chapter is of academic employment of S&E doctorate holders with U.S. doctorates. Because many foreign-born S&E doctorate holders in U.S. academic institutions did not earn their doctorate in the United States, the data in this section are taken from the Department of Education’s National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty, which, although it has a smaller sample size and thus less detail by field and other employment characteristics, has information on faculty with non-U.S. doctorates.

Full-time doctoral S&E faculty are increasingly foreign born. In 2003, 28% of all full-time doctoral S&E faculty and 33% of full-time doctoral faculty in research institutions in the United States were foreign born, up from 21% and 25%, respectively, in 1992 (appendix table 5-21Excel.). In the physical sciences, mathematics, computer sciences, and engineering, 47% of full-time doctoral S&E faculty in research institutions were foreign born, up from 38% in 1992.

The Aging Professoriate and Trends in Retirement

From 1993 to 2003, retirement rates among doctoral scientists and engineers employed in academic institutions remained relatively stable, despite the application of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 to colleges and universities in 1994.[28] The act, which prohibits mandatory retirement on the basis of age, raised questions about the consequences for higher education of an aging professoriate, including fewer academic employment opportunities for new doctorate holders (NRC 1991). Among S&E doctorate holders ages 56–75 whose most recent employment was in the education sector, the percentage who were retired changed little between 1993 and 2003 (NSF/SRS 2008), despite the elimination of mandatory retirement.

Although retirement rates changed little, the age distribution of academic S&E doctorate holders has changed over the past several decades (appendix table 5-22Excel.), the percentage of those who are age 65 or older having increased. Full-time S&E faculty employed in research universities account for about 40% of full-time S&E faculty ages 65 and older (figure 5-23figure.). They also have a slightly greater propensity to work longer than faculty in other institutions: 8% of full-time S&E faculty in research universities are ages 65 and older, compared with 6% of those in master’s colleges and universities (appendix table 5-23Excel.).

Recent S&E Doctorate Holders

Trends in academic employment patterns of those with recently awarded S&E doctorates show a decrease in the share of recent doctorate holders in full-time faculty positions and an increase in postdocs (figure 5-24figure.; appendix table 5-24Excel.). Between 1973 and 2006, the share of recent doctorate holders hired into full-time faculty positions fell from 74% to 38%. Conversely, the overall share of recent S&E doctorate holders who reported being in postdoc positions rose from 13% to 46%. After increasing throughout the 1990s, the share of recent S&E doctorate holders in postdoc positions declined from 1999 to 2003 before rising to a new peak in 2006. Recent S&E doctorate holders who entered academic employment at research universities were more likely to be in postdoc than in faculty positions (appendix table 5-25Excel.). (See the discussion of postdocs in chapter 3, "Science and Engineering Labor Force," for more information, including reasons for accepting a postdoc position and short-term career trajectory.)

Young Doctorate Holders With a Track Record

For those employed in academia 4–7 years after earning their doctorates, the picture looks quite similar: about 61% had faculty rank in 2006, compared with 89% in 1973 (appendix table 5-24Excel.). A little more than half of these doctorate holders were in tenure-track positions in 2006, with about 9% already tenured (figure 5-25figure.).

Academic Researchers

This section examines the number and characteristics of academic S&E doctorate holders for whom research is either a primary or secondary work activity. Note that estimates of the total number of academic researchers would include S&E faculty and postdocs as well as research assistants (see chapter 2, appendix tables 2-8 and 2-35Excel.) and nondoctoral, nonfaculty research staff. In addition, many other students, both graduate and undergraduate, are also likely to be involved in research activities during the course of their graduate education.

Research as Either Primary or Secondary Work Activity

From 1973 to 2006, the number of academic S&E doctorate holders reporting research as their primary or secondary work activity showed greater growth than the number reporting teaching as their primary or secondary activity. The former group increased from 82,300 in 1973 to 184,400 in 2006, and the latter group increased from 94,900 to 164,000 (appendix table 5-26Excel.).[29]

The life sciences accounted for much of this trend, with researchers growing from 26,000 to 67,100 and teachers from about the same base (25,300) to 45,800 (figure 5-26figure.). The other fields generally included fewer researchers than teachers in the 1970s and early 1980s, but this pattern reversed after that time in the physical sciences and engineering.

Relative to all S&E doctoral employment, the number of academic S&E doctorate holders reporting research as either their primary or secondary activity declined between 1973 and 1977; was relatively constant at about 60% from 1977 to 1985, when R&D funds grew relatively slowly; then rose again in 1987 to about 74%, dropped to about 70% in 1993, remained relatively constant at that level until 2003, and dropped slightly in 2006 (appendix tables 5-17 and 5-26Excel.). Table 5-15table. shows the trends in research involvement by field, and table 5-16table. indicates that the distribution across fields of S&E doctorate holders who report research as their primary or secondary work activity is quite similar to that of all S&E doctorate holders.

Research universities employ about 43% of all S&E doctorate holders employed in academic institutions and more than half of those whose primary or secondary work activity is research. They also employ about 76% of S&E postdocs, almost all of whom have research as a primary or secondary work activity (appendix table 5-27Excel.).

Time Spent in Research

In 2003, full-time doctoral S&E instructional faculty spent about 27% of their time in research, 52% of their time teaching, and 20% of their time engaged in other activities. The average percentage of time spent in research did not change between 1992 and 2003, but the average percentage of time spent in teaching increased (appendix table 5-28Excel.). In 2003, faculty who taught only graduate students spent a higher percentage of their time in research than faculty who taught only undergraduates, and faculty in research institutions spent a higher percentage of their time in research than faculty in nonresearch institutions.

The fraction of full-time doctoral S&E instructional faculty engaged primarily in research increased during the past decade (appendix table 5-29Excel.). In 2003, 26% of full-time doctoral S&E instructional faculty were so engaged, compared with 20% in 1992. The fraction engaged primarily in teaching dropped during the past decade, from 61% in 1992 to 53% in 2003. This drop occurred in S&E and non-S&E fields and among doctoral and nondoctoral faculty. Relatively few nondoctoral faculty are engaged in research.

Government Support of Academic Doctoral Researchers

Academic researchers rely on the federal government for a substantial share (more than 60%) of their overall research support. The institutional and field distributions of these funds are well documented, but little is known about their distribution among researchers. This section presents data from reports by S&E doctorate holders in academia about the presence or absence of federal support for their work. However, nothing is known about the magnitude of these funds to individual researchers. (See sidebar, "Interpreting Federal Support Data.")

Appendix table 5-30Excel. shows the percentage of academic S&E doctorate holders who received federal support for their work during the period 1973–2006, broken out by field. The analysis examines the overall pool of doctoral S&E researchers as well as young doctorate holders, for whom support may be especially critical in establishing a productive research career.

Academic Scientists and Engineers Who Receive Federal Support

In 2006, 47% of all S&E doctorate holders in academia and 58% of those for whom research was a primary or secondary activity reported federal government support (appendix table 5-30Excel.). As table 5-17table. shows, for S&E as a whole and for many broad fields, the likelihood of receiving federal support in 2006 was either the same as it was in 1991 or lower.

The percentage of S&E doctorate holders in academia who received federal support differed greatly across the S&E fields. In 2006, this percentage ranged from about 58% in the life sciences and 56% in the physical sciences to 23% in the social sciences (table 5-17table. ; appendix table 5-30Excel.).

Full-time faculty and other full-time doctoral employees received federal support less frequently than postdocs. In 2006, about 46% of full-time faculty, 47% of other full-time employees, and 71% of postdocs received federal support. As indicated earlier, these proportions were lower than those in 1991 but dropped less for full-time faculty than for postdocs or other full-time positions (appendix table 5-30Excel.).

Federal Support of Young S&E Doctorate Holders in Academia

Early receipt of federal support is viewed as critical to launching a promising academic research career. The pattern of support for young researchers is similar to that of the overall academic S&E doctoral workforce. In 2006, S&E doctorate holders with recently earned doctorates (i.e., doctorates earned within 3 years of the survey) who were in full-time faculty positions were less likely to receive federal support than those in postdoc or other full-time positions (appendix table 5-31Excel.). For full-time faculty, the percentage reporting federal support in 2006 was lower for those with recently earned doctorates than for the academic S&E doctoral workforce as a whole (appendix tables 5-30 and 5-31Excel.). (See sidebar, "NSF and NIH Support for Young Investigators.") It should be pointed out that these data provide no information about whether an individual reporting federal support is being supported as a principal investigator on a research project or is participating in a more dependent status rather than as an independent researcher.

In 2006, about half of those with recently earned doctorates received federal support, with 30% of those in full-time faculty positions, 51% of those in other full-time positions, and 69% of those in postdoc positions (appendix table 5-31Excel.). As with all academic doctorate holders, younger researchers were less likely to report federal support in 2006 than in 1991. The share of postdocs with federal support was relatively low (less than 60%) in some fields (e.g., the social sciences and mathematics) and higher in others (e.g., computer sciences, physical sciences, and engineering).

Among full-time faculty and postdocs in 2006, those who had received their doctorate 4–7 years earlier were considerably more likely to receive federal support than those with recently earned doctorates. However, those who had received their doctorate 4–7 years earlier were also less likely to receive support in 2006 than in 1991 (table 5-18table. ; appendix table 5-31Excel.).


[23] The academic doctoral S&E workforce includes those with a doctorate in an S&E field in the following positions: full and associate professors (referred to as "senior faculty"); assistant professors and instructors (referred to as "junior faculty"); postdocs; other full-time positions such as lecturers, adjunct faculty, research associates, and administrators; and part-time positions of all kinds. Academic employment is limited to those employed in 2-year or 4-year colleges or universities. Unless specifically noted, data on S&E doctorate holders refer to persons with an S&E doctorate from a U.S. institution, as surveyed biennially by NSF in the Survey of Doctorate Recipients. All numbers are estimates rounded to the nearest 100. The reader is cautioned that small estimates may be unreliable.

[24] It is impossible to establish causal connections among these developments with the data at hand.

[25] These data include only U.S.-trained postdocs. The number of postdocs with temporary visas and presumed non-U.S. doctorates increased greatly in the 1990s. For data on trends in U.S.- and foreign-trained postdocs in U.S. academic institutions, see the discussion of postdocs in chapter 2. For more information on employment aspects of postdoctoral appointments, see the discussion of postdocs in chapter 3.

[26] The inclusion or exclusion of those on temporary and permanent visas has little impact on the analysis (see figure 5-20).

[27] Both the number and share of Asian/Pacific Islander S&E doctorate recipients employed in academia are probably larger than is reported here because those who received S&E doctorates from universities outside the United States are not included in the analysis.

[28] A 1986 amendment to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (Public Law 90-202) prohibited mandatory retirement on the basis of age for almost all workers. Higher education institutions were granted an exemption through 1993 that allowed termination of employees with unlimited tenure who had reached age 70.

[29] This measure was constructed slightly differently in the 1980s and in the 1990s, starting in 1993, and is not strictly comparable across these periods. In the 1980s, the survey question asked the respondent to select the primary and secondary work activity from a list of activities. Beginning in 1993, respondents were asked on which activity they spent the most hours and on which they spent the second most hours. Therefore, the crossing over of the two trends between 1991 and 1993 could partly reflect a difference in methodology. However, the faster growth rate for researchers in both the 1973–91 and 1993–2006 periods means that changes in question wording cannot fully explain the observed trend. Because individuals may select both a primary and a secondary work activity, they can be counted in both groups.

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