Overview Survey Design Survey Quality Measures  Trend Data Availability of Data Contact Information

1. Overview (2012 survey cycle) Top of Page.

a. Purpose

The Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS)—sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—is an annual survey of all academic institutions in the United States granting research-based master’s degrees or doctorates in science, engineering, or selected health (SEH) fields. The GSS provides data on the number and characteristics of graduate students, postdoctoral (postdoc) appointees, and doctorate-holding nonfaculty researchers in SEH fields. NSF uses the results of this survey to assess shifts in graduate enrollment and postdoc appointments and trends in financial support.

b. Respondents

NSF distributes the GSS to coordinators at eligible institutions. From each eligible institution, data are collected separately for each SEH unit (academic departments, programs, research centers, or health care facilities). Coordinators may choose to respond to the GSS or to delegate data collection activities to respondents in these units or to other institutional personnel, as needed.

c. Key variables

Count data are available for the following groups, by the following characteristics:

Graduate students[1]


Doctorate-holding nonfaculty researchers[4]

The following information is available for academic institutions:

The following information is available at the school level:

The following information is available at the unit level:

2. Survey Design Top of Page.

a. Target population

For 2012, the GSS target population was all academic institutions in the United States and its territories (Guam and Puerto Rico) that grant research-based master’s degrees or doctorates in SEH fields as of fall 2012. This includes data for branch campuses, affiliated research centers and health facilities, and separately organized components, such as medical or dental schools, schools of nursing, and schools of public health.

b. Sample design

The GSS is a census of all eligible U.S. academic institutions with SEH fields, as described above. Within eligible institutions, data are collected for schools. The schools provide data at the unit level. The 2012 survey universe consisted of 565 institutions, including 367 doctorate-granting institutions and 198 master’s-granting institutions.[6] There were 684 schools within these institutions: 485 schools at doctorate-granting institutions and 199 schools at master’s-granting institutions. The remaining units within the eligible schools did not grant graduate-level degrees but have postdocs or doctorate-holding nonfaculty researchers in SEH fields.

c. Data collection techniques

NSF collects GSS data through coordinators at eligible schools. When a new coordinator is needed, schools are asked to designate the coordinator most knowledgeable about the graduate or postdoc data for their school. Some schools chose to assign a separate graduate student coordinator and postdoc coordinator, whereas others chose to have one coordinator report all data.

Once coordinators are confirmed, they are provided access to the GSS Web survey to report aggregate counts on graduate students, postdocs, and doctorate-holding nonfaculty researchers in each eligible unit, as of the fall term of the academic year. A hard copy of the survey worksheets and GSS-eligible code lists are also mailed to the school coordinators as reference. A Web survey is the primary mode of data submission.

Based on the review of respondent data and explanatory comments by the respondents, follow-up telephone calls are made to improve the accuracy of uncertain responses. In the 2012 survey cycle, approximately 25% of all school coordinators revised data as a result of these follow-up calls. This proportion was similar to the rates from 2009 and 2010 and substantially lower than the 40% in 2011 resulting from changes to the GSS code list and a comprehensive effort to exclude ineligible management and practitioner-oriented programs from the GSS.

d. Estimation techniques

The survey is a census of eligible units; therefore, weighting for sampling is not necessary. Imputation rather than weighting is used to adjust for unit nonresponse; imputation is also used for item nonresponse.

3. Survey Quality Measures Top of Page.

a. Sampling variability

Given that the GSS is a census, it is distributed to all institutions known to be eligible; therefore, there is no sampling variability.

b. Coverage

In the 2012 GSS survey cycle, 726 units were added and 559 units were deleted from the GSS universe of eligible units (see table1). Overall, these unit additions and deletions indicate that coordinators continue to refine their unit lists by including new, eligible units and excluding ineligible or defunct units.

TABLE 1. Unit list modifications: 2011–12
Activity 2011 2012
Units at start of data collection 13,711 13,785
Units added to institutions 959 726
Units deleted from institutions 885 559
Total units at end of data collection 13,785 13,952
Net difference 74 167

c. Nonresponse

Unit nonresponse. Of the 565 institutions in the 2012 survey cycle, 560 (99.1%) were classified as complete respondents, 1 (0.2%) was classified as a partial respondent, and 4 (0.7%) were classified as nonrespondents. Among the 684 schools, 679 (99.3%) were complete respondents, 1 (0.1%) was a partial respondent, and 4 (0.6%) were nonrespondents. At the unit level, 11,914 (85.4%) of the 13,952 units were complete respondents; 1,984 (14.2%) were partial respondents, and the remaining 54 units (0.4%) were nonrespondents.

Item nonresponse. Of the 355 items collected in the 2012 GSS, the average item nonresponse rate was 4.6%, ranging from 0.6% for total full-time graduate student data to 7.6% for data on nonfaculty researchers’ doctoral degree type. All missing data are imputed. Consistent with past imputation procedures, imputed values are derived from reported data for the unit from prior cycles, when available. Otherwise, imputation is based on data provided by similar units at a peer institution.  

Missing values from the new postdoc and nonfaculty researcher data collected beginning in 2010 were imputed for the first time in 2012 using more detailed imputation procedures. Thus, the 2010 and 2011 postdoc data updated in 2012 supersede all previously released data.

d. Measurement

Cognitive interviews, usability tests, pilot tests, site visits, review of reported data over time, and other methodological activities conducted with the institutions and their coordinators pointed to a number of possible sources of measurement error. For example, reviewing reported data and conducting follow-up telephone interviews with school coordinators has shown that coordinators may be overreporting units with graduate students who are working toward practitioner degrees, particularly in health fields, that are not eligible for the GSS. In addition, methodological research showed that graduate students’ financial support data were difficult for respondents to report and, therefore, may be less reliable than other survey data. Also, interviews and usability tests with respondents have found that data on postdocs and doctorate-holding nonfaculty researchers are particularly challenging for some school coordinators to report.

4. Trend Data Top of Page.

NSF has collected graduate enrollment and postdoc data for SEH fields since 1966. Not all data items were collected from all institutions in all survey years, and eligibility criteria for institutions and fields have undergone periodic revision. For these reasons, NSF recommends use of only the latest trend data in historical analyses. NSF encourages analysts intending to do trend analyses not covered in this report to contact the NSF survey manager for additional information. For details on the historical changes, see “Technical Notes,” in the Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering series (http://nsf.gov/statistics/gradpostdoc/).

5. Availability of Data Top of Page.

NSF releases the data from this survey annually through InfoBriefs and data tables in the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) series Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering. The information from this survey is also included in Science and Engineering Indicators and Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering.

NSF includes selected data items from this survey for individual doctorate-granting institutions in the NCSES Academic Institution Profiles series (http://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/profiles/).

Data for the years 1972–2012 are available as public use files and in the WebCASPAR system (http://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/webcaspar/).

6. Contact Information Top of Page.

To obtain additional information about this survey or the methodology report, contact:

Kelly H. Kang
Project Officer
Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering
National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics
National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 965
Arlington, VA 22230

Phone: (703) 292-7776
E-mail: kkang@nsf.gov


[1] To be included in the survey, graduate students must have been enrolled for credit in a research-oriented SEH master’s or doctorate program in fall 2012. Candidates for MD, DO, DVM, or DDS degrees; interns; and residents were counted if they were concurrently working on a doctorate as part of a joint medical and PhD program or working on another SEH master’s or doctoral degree.

[2] Each institution reports full-time and part-time students according to its own policies and definitions.

[3] This survey defines postdocs as (1) holding a recent doctorate, such as a PhD or equivalent (e.g., an ScD or DEng), or a first-professional degrees in a medical or related field, or a foreign degree equivalent to a U.S. doctoral degree generally awarded within the last 5–7 years; and (2) having a limited-term appointment primarily for training in research or scholarship under the supervision of a senior scholar in a unit affiliated with a GSS institution.

[4] This survey defines doctorate-holding nonfaculty researchers as individuals involved principally in research activities who are not postdocs or members of the faculty.

[5] The term school refers to a graduate school, medical school, dental school, nursing school, or school of public health; an affiliated research center; a branch campus; or any other organizational component within an academic institution that grants an SEH degree, appoints postdocs, or employs doctorate-holding nonfaculty researchers.

[6] Institutions are classified as doctorate-granting institutions if at least one GSS-eligible unit confers doctoral degrees.