The Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS) is an annual census of all U.S. academic institutions granting research-based master's degrees or doctorates in science, engineering, and selected health (SEH) fields as of fall of the survey year. The survey, sponsored by the NCSES of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health, collects the total number of graduate students, postdoctoral appointees (postdocs), and doctorate-level nonfaculty researchers (NFRs) by demographic and other characteristics, such as source of financial support. Results are used to assess shifts in graduate enrollment and postdoc appointments as well as trends in financial support.

The concept of NFRs was introduced in the GSS in 1979. Before that time, counts were collected for a combined "postdocs and/or research associates" category. However, emphasis in 1979 was in collecting specific data on postdocs, and only limited data items were collected on NFRs. Also in 1979, "research associates" was changed to "nonfaculty research staff with doctorates," and data were collected separately for postdocs and NFRs. The NFR category was kept to ensure that institutions would not lump the previously reported research associates into the new postdoc category. Growth in postdoc employment led to a more extensive series of questions for postdocs than for the new NFR category. For example, sex and medical degree status were gathered for both groups, but sources of support and foreign status were collected for postdocs only. The definition of NFRs has remained relatively constant over time with two criteria: (1) NFRs are doctorate-holding staff who are neither postdocs nor faculty, and (2) NFRs are primarily involved in research.

Starting in 2008, NSF began addressing known issues with the postdoc and NFR data collections by emphasizing to respondents that non-degree-granting units, like centers or research institutes, were eligible for the GSS. In 2009, NSF conducted a Postdoc Pilot Study to determine if schools could provide more detailed postdoc and NFR data and whether having separate respondents provide data on graduate students and on postdocs and NFRs improved reporting of the postdoc and NFR data. Based on the results of this study, a new series of items about postdocs and NFRs was added to the 2010 GSS.[2] Appendix A shows the changes in the GSS NFR questions between 2009 and 2010.

In addition, the protocols for collecting data changed, and institution presidents were asked to appoint a postdoc coordinator in addition to the school coordinator responsible for reporting graduate student data. The letters to the presidents included information on counts of postdocs and NFRs reported by their school coordinators as well as information on how the data are used by external organizations, such as in the Carnegie Classification. The designation of a postdoc coordinator at institutions, the expanded set of questions, and the heightened awareness of the value and use of the items contributed to an increase in the number of postdocs and NFRs reported in the survey.

As shown in figure 1, the percentage of GSS organizational units (academic departments, programs, research centers, or health care facilities) reporting NFRs increased from 19% in 2009 to 26% in 2010, and the number of NFRs increased even more sharply from 14,059 to 21,345.

The large increase in NFRs and the sheer magnitude of this type of employment indicates the significance of NFRs to the science and engineering workforce. This working paper examines the consistency of NFR reporting since 2010, analyzes key reporting patterns, and attempts to validate the GSS data to better understand the overall quality of the NFR data. Schools and units, rather than institutions, were used to analyze the consistency of reporting to prevent masking of inconsistencies at the institution level. Some of the major concerns about the quality of NFR data that this working paper addresses include (1) inconsistent reporting from year to year, (2) the lack of a common definition for NFRs across respondents, and (3) the inability of reporting units to accurately differentiate postdocs and NFRs.


[2] For more information on the Postdoc Pilot Study and associated efforts to improve postdoc reporting, see Einaudi P, Heuer R, Green P. 2013. Counts of Postdoctoral Appointees in Science, Engineering, and Health Rise with Reporting Improvements. InfoBrief NSF 13-334. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Available at