Science and engineering graduate students have a fairly unique role as both an input to and an output of the U.S. academic research system. U.S. research universities have traditionally coupled advanced education with research, both generating new knowledge and producing advanced scientific and engineering talent. This integration of research and advanced training in S&E is encouraged because the system has served the country well. U.S. research universities attract graduate students from across the nation and around the world. Upon receipt of their advanced degrees, these students set out to work in many sectors of the U.S. economy, using the skills and knowledge they have acquired to meet a broad range of challenges.
It is difficult to determine the exact number of S&E graduate students who are participating directly in the research process at their universities in a given year. Obviously, those students who are supported primarily through research assistantships are participating in research. Many of the students who are supported with other modes of support such as traineeships and fellowships are also likely to be directly involved in research activities at their institutions. And even students who are self-supported or are on teaching assistantships may be involved in research, at least part of the time. Any student who is working on a doctoral dissertation is expected to be doing research; in many cases, those working on master's theses are also expected to be doing research.
This section examines the sources and mechanisms of support for full-time S&E graduate students. Since the number of students supported by a research assistantship in any year is probably a lower bound for the number of S&E graduate students participating in research activities at U.S. universities, special emphasis is given to the role of the research assistantship. For a more in-depth treatment of graduate education, see chapter 2.
In 1995, for the first time in almost two decades, enrollment of full-time S&E graduate students declined slightly. A 12-year trend of steady increases in enrollment of full-time graduate students whose primary source of support was the Federal Government also ended, as did an even longer upward trend in the number of graduate students whose primary source of support was from nonfederal sources. The number of self-supported graduate studentsthat is, those whose largest source of support comes from loans or from personal or family financial contributions-also declined for the first time since 1988. (See appendix table 5-34.) It is too early to tell whether the 1995 enrollment decline is the beginning of a trend or simply a one-time drop. Preliminary evidence indicates, however, that this is not a one-time phenomenon, but rather part of a longer decline. For example, first-time enrollments of full-time S&E graduate students declined in both 1994 and 1995, and preliminary estimates from the 1996 Graduate Student Survey indicate that overall full-time enrollment dropped again in 1996.
Since 1980, there have been significant shifts in the relative usage of different types of primary support mechanisms. (See figure 5-17.) These shifts have been due more to rapid growth in some support mechanisms
than to an absolute decline in the number of students supported by any of these mechanisms. In the past several years, concern has been voiced in a number of places about the value of different modes of support for S&E graduate students and whether
the Federal Government and other providers of financial assistance should consider shifting the mix of their support (COSEPUP 1995 and NSF 1996d). For a summary of these discussions, see "Concern About Forms of Support for S&E Graduate Students." [Skip Text Box]
Although there is general agreement that students in S&E disciplines who obtain Ph.D.s from U.S. research-oriented universities are among the best prepared and most successful scientists and engineers in the world, some believe that the challenges of educating scientists, mathematicians, and engineers for the 21st century mandate a new paradigm in graduate training. They contend that doctoral programs could better prepare students for careers outside of academe or basic research by ensuring that they are versatile rather than narrowly specialized and that they are equipped with skills, such as interpersonal communication and the ability to work well in teams, that will enhance their ability to succeed in the real world.
The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy of the National Academy of Sciences in a report released in 1995, Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers, focuses on Ph.D.s and discusses the changing context of graduate education and the employment trends and prospects for the employment of graduate scientists and engineers. One of the report's major recommendations is: "to foster versatility, government and other agents of financial assistance for graduate students should adjust their support mechanisms to include new education/training grants to institutions and departments." The authors feel that research assistantships, although they offer educational benefits in the form of research skills, focus doctoral programs on the needs of research projects rather than on the broader educational needs of the students.
In June 1995, the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate (MPS) of the National Science Foundation planned and hosted a conference on education and employment patterns of graduates in the mathematical and physical sciences. Conference participants endorsed the following recommendations: (1) mechanisms should be found to encourage a broadening of the training and education experience of MPS graduate students; (2) mechanisms should be examined for shortening the average time to Ph.D. degree in MPS fields; (3) the use of off-campus experience, such as industrial internships, should be increased; and (4) efforts should be made to decrease gradually the proportion of graduate students funded as research assistants and to increase gradually the proportion funded by other mechanisms, including traineeships and fellowships, as well as novel, collective modes of support (NSF 1996d).
The National Science Board Task Force on Graduate Education was established in June 1995 to examine the merits and mix of the several modes of funding support (e.g., research assistantships, fellowships, traineeships) used by NSF to support graduate and postdoctoral education, and the impact of the various modes of support on the experience and preparation of those supported. The members concluded that sufficient data linking both the national data and NSF support data did not exist to make recommendations for major revisions in the mix of NSF funding. Their report (NSB 1996)delivered in February 1996did, however, endorse: (1) limited studies on alternative modes of graduate support with defined goals and assessment criteria; and (2) data collection and/or research on funding mechanisms and various aspects of graduate student education and employment.
As part of the call for changes in the manner in which S&E graduate students are supported, the merits of various support mechanisms have been discussed and a number of hypotheses developed about the advantages and disadvantages of different mechanisms. In fact, some of the characteristics of a specific mechanism that are cited as disadvantages by some individuals are cited as advantages by others. For instance, the portability of fellowships and the independence they give to graduate students are seen by some as a distinct advantage because they provide these students with a lot of freedom to pursue a wide variety of interests. Others argue that students with fellowships are more likely than those being supported by traineeships or research assistantships to become isolated from their peers and from the faculty in their departments, and thus may either be less likely to complete their Ph.D. or to take longer to do so. Some argue that although having a fellowship at the beginning of a graduate career may be detrimental, having one when working on a dissertation is highly advantageous.
Similarly, some argue that since research assistantships are directed to the needs of funded research projects, doctoral students can become so involved on a specific project that they have little time for independent exploration or other educational activities, thus limiting the areas in which they acquire experience. A counterargument is that the skills and experience students acquire by focusing on a specific research project are indispensable to the high-quality, state-of-the-art research being conducted at U.S. universities and industrial laboratories. Some argue that strong reliance on research assistantships can bias research and graduate training toward those areas that have long track records rather than to new and exciting areas and that they also may prevent beginning faculty from attracting graduate students. Others argue that it is the widespread availability of research grants that provides young faculty with the opportunity to work closely with graduate students.
Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to examine many of these hypotheses analytically either because of the absence of data or the inability to capture the hypothesized outcomes quantitatively. In addition, most graduate students depend on multiple sources and mechanisms of support while they are in graduate school, and frequently on different sources and mechanisms of support in different phases of graduate work. This makes it quite difficult, if not impossible in many cases, to identify a one-to-one relationship between a student and a support source or mechanism.
The proportion of graduate students with research assistantships as their primary support mechanism increased from 22 to 27 percent between 1980 and 1995. This increase was offset by a drop in the proportions of students supported by traineeships (from 7 to 5 percent) or by teaching assistantships (from 23 to 20 percent). Most of these changes had occurred by the late 1980s, with proportional shares being relatively stable during the first half of the 1990s.
These overall shifts in support mechanisms between 1980 and 1995 occurred for both students supported primarily by federal sources and for those supported by nonfederal sources (this excludes students whose primary source of support is self-support). Among students whose primary source of support was the Federal Government:
The Federal Government has an almost negligible role in supporting teaching assistantships.
Among students whose primary source was nonfederal:
The proportion of full-time S&E graduate students with primary support from various sources and mechanisms differs for private and public universities. (See appendix table 5-35.) A larger proportion of full-time graduate students relies primarily on self-support in private academic institutions as opposed to those in public institutions-39 versus 30 percent in 1995.
Nonfederal sources are the primary source of support for a larger proportion of students in public institutions (50 percent) than in private ones (41 percent). For both private and public institutions, about 20 percent of students receive their primary support from the Federal Government.
A larger proportion of students attending public academic institutions relies on research assistantships and teaching assistantships as their primary support mechanism (30 percent and 23 percent, respectively) than those attending private institutions (21 percent and 13 percent, respectively). This is balanced by greater reliance on fellowships and traineeships in private institutions (14 percent and 8 percent, respectively) than in public ones (7 percent and 4 percent, respectively).
The Federal Government plays a larger role as the primary source of support for some mechanisms than for others. (See figure 5-18.) A majority of traineeships in both private and public institutions (53 percent and 73 percent, respectively) is financed primarily by the Federal Government, as are 60 percent of the research assistantships in private institutions and 47 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.
Most S&E graduate students do not go on to receive a Ph.D. It is thus useful to compare the 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 differ significantly. Twenty-nine percent of the students receiving Ph.D.s in science and engineering in 1995 reported that their primary mechanism of support during their time in graduate school was a research assistantship. This is close to the percentage (27 percent) of full-time S&E 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 6 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. (13 percent) than for graduate students in general (5 percent). A considerably smaller percentage of students receiving an S&E Ph.D. reported self-support as their primary means of support (18 percent) than did graduate students in general (32 percent). (See appendix tables 5-36 and 5-37.)
Anecdotal evidence suggests that students are more likely to be teaching assistants in the early stages of graduate school when they are doing their coursework than in the later stages when they are working on a doctoral dissertation. Therefore, if students receiving Ph.D.s are more likely to report those mechanisms that supported them in the later years of graduate school as primary, it might explain the small percentage reporting teaching assistantships as a primary support mechanism.
As indicated previously, research assistantships account for 27 percent of all support mechanisms in 1995. However, the mix of support mechanisms-and thus the role of RAs as the primary support mechanism-differs by S&E field. (See appendix table 5-37.) RAs comprise more than 50 percent of the primary support mechanisms for graduate students in astronomy, atmospheric sciences, oceanography, agricultural sciences, chemical engineering, and materials engineering. They account for less than 20 percent in the social sciences, mathematics, and psychology.
The overall number of graduate students with an RA as their primary mechanism of support increased every year between 1985 and 1994 before declining slightly in 1995. (See appendix table 5-38.) Most S&E fields exhibited similar trends, although not all showed a decline in 1995. In just about every S&E field, the percentage of graduate students with an RA as their primary means of support was higher in 1995 than in 1985. The largest increases were in the atmospheric sciences (13 percent), electrical/electronic engineering (12 percent), civil engineering (10 percent), computer sciences, earth sciences, biological sciences, and industrial engineering (all 9 percent). (See figure 5-19.)
The relative utilization of an RA as a primary mechanism of support was also fairly consistent at a broad disciplinary level between the Ph.D. and graduate student surveys. (See figure 5-20.) Research assistantships were once again quite prominent in the physical sciences, environmental sciences, and engineering; and were of much less prominence in mathematics, the social sciences, and psychology, confirming the earlier results.
In 1995, 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 an RA as their primary mechanism of support. (See appendix table 5-39.) The Federal Government was the primary source of support for significantly more than half of the research assistants in the physical sciences (75 percent), the environmental sciences (63 percent), and the computer sciences (62 percent); and for considerably less than half in the social sciences (20 percent) and psychology (32 percent). The proportion of graduate research assistants for whom the Federal Government was the primary source of support declined from 58 percent in 1975 to about 50 percent in 1985, where it has remained pretty much through 1995. Similar trends held for the environmental sciences, psychology, social sciences, medical sciences, and engineering. The physical sciences were more variable; chemistry and physics had declining federal shares in both 10-year periods, but astronomy showed little change in the first decade and a considerable decline in the second. The federal share of research assistants in the computer sciences declined from 61 to 49 percent between 1975 and 1986 and then proceeded to increase once again to 62 percent by 1995. (See appendix table 5-40 and figure 5-21.)
From the early 1970s to the late 1980s, NSF was the federal agency that was the primary source for the largest number of graduate RAs. It was surpassed by HHS (as a whole) in 1989 and by NIH in 1993. Between 1972 and 1995, the percentage of federal graduate RAs financed primarily by NSF declined from one-third to less than one-quarter, while the percentage financed primarily by NIH increased from one-sixth to one-quarter. The DOD share has fluctuated between 10 and 16 percent over the period. (See appendix table 5-41.)
Just as federal agencies emphasize different S&E fields in their funding of academic research, they also emphasize different fields in their support of graduate research assistants. HHS and especially NIH concentrate support in the life sciences (53 and 72 percent, respectively); as does USDA (72 percent). DOD concentrates its support in engineering (55 percent). NSF, on the other hand, has a more diversified support pattern, with one-third in engineering, 30 percent in the physical sciences, and 12 percent in the environmental sciences. (See figure 5-22 and appendix table 5-42.)
Although an agency may place a large share of its support for research assistants in one field, it may not necessarily be an important contributor to that field overall, particularly if it is a small agency in terms of its support for graduate research assistants. (See figure 5-23 and appendix table 5-43.) NSF is the lead supporting agency in mathematics (44 percent of federally supported RAs), the environmental sciences (42 percent), the physical sciences (37 percent), and engineering (29 percent). NIH is the lead support agency in the life sciences (58 percent), psychology (54 percent), and sociology (31 percent). DOD is the lead support agency in the computer sciences (43 percent) and-of those agencies included in the survey-in aeronautical/astronautical engineering (38 percent), electrical/electronic engineering (41 percent), and mechanical engineering (29 percent). USDA is the lead support agency in the agricultural sciences (61 percent) and economics (58 percent).
Between 1979 and 1995, there was a slight increase in the number of universities and colleges reporting at least one RA as a primary mechanism of support for their S&E graduate students (385 to 415), with the number reaching its highest level (435) in 1993. Not surprisingly, however, there was basically no change in the number of research universities or doctorate-granting institutions reporting the presence of graduate RAs 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. Thus, most of the fluctuation and the entire increase in the number of institutions reporting graduate RAs occurred among comprehensive; liberal arts; two-year community, junior, and technical; and professional and other specialized schools. (See text table 5-11.)
The data suggest that most of the increase in the number of institutions reporting RAs as a mechanism of support for their S&E graduate students is due to increasing support from nonfederal sources-probably from the institutions themselves-rather than from the Federal Government.
In addition, throughout this period, considerably fewer institutions reported students with RAs financed primarily by the Federal Government than with assistantships financed primarily from nonfederal sources. This difference is particularly
pronounced among the "other" Carnegie institutions, 98 of which report RAs supported by the Federal Government in 1995 compared to 185 that report RAs financed by nonfederal 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.