The American system of doctoral education is widely considered to be among the world's best, as evidenced by the large and growing number of international students each year—many of them among the top students in their countries—who choose to pursue the doctoral degree at U.S. universities. But the continued preeminence of U.S. doctoral education is not assured. Other nations, recognizing the contributions doctorate recipients make to economies and cultures, are investing heavily in doctoral education. Unless doctoral education in the United States continues to improve, the world's brightest students, including U.S. citizens, may go elsewhere for the doctoral degree, and they may begin careers elsewhere as well.
Annual counts of doctorate recipients are measures of the incremental investment in human resources devoted to science, engineering, research, and scholarship, and they can serve as leading indicators of the capacity for knowledge-creation and innovation in various domains. The changing characteristics of this population over time—including the increased representation of women, minorities, and foreign nationals; emergence of new fields of study; time it takes to complete doctoral study; expansion of the postdoctoral pool; and reduced academic employment opportunities after graduation—reflect political, economic, social, technological, and demographic trends and events. Understanding the connections between these larger forces and the number and characteristics of doctorate recipients is necessary to make informed improvements in this country's doctoral education system.
Doctorate recipients begin careers in large and small organizations, teach in universities, and start new businesses. Doctoral education develops human resources that are critical to a nation's progress—scientists, engineers, researchers, and scholars who create and share new knowledge and new ways of thinking that lead, directly and indirectly, to innovative products, services, and works of art. In doing so, they contribute to a nation's economic growth, cultural development, and rising standard of living.