Survey of Earned Doctorates Survey Description

  1. Survey Overview
  2. Key Survey Information
  3. Survey Design
  4. Data Collection and Processing
  5. Survey Quality Measures
  6. Data Comparability
  7. Data Products
  8. Contact Information

Survey Overview (2016 survey cycle)

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The Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) collects data on the number and characteristics of individuals receiving research doctoral degrees from U.S. academic institutions.
Data collection authority
The information collected by the SED is solicited under the authority of the National Science Foundation Act of 1950, as amended, and the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010. The Office of Management and Budget control number is 3145-0019, expiration date 31 May 2018.
Major changes to recent survey cycle

Key Survey Information

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Initial survey year
Academic year 1957–58.
Reference period
Most recent year of available data, the academic year 1 July 2015 to 30 June 2016.
Response unit
Sample or census
Population size
Sample size
Not applicable.
Key variables
Key variables of interest are listed below.
  • Academic institution of doctorate
  • Baccalaureate-origin institution (U.S. and foreign)
  • Birth year
  • Citizenship status at graduation
  • Country of birth and citizenship
  • Disability status
  • Educational attainment of parents
  • Educational history in college
  • Field of each degree earned (N = 331 fields)
  • Graduate and undergraduate educational debt
  • Marital status, as well as the number and age of dependents
  • Postgraduation plans (e.g., work, postdoc, other study or training)
    • Primary and secondary work activities
    • Source and type of financial support for postdoctoral study or research
    • Type and location of employer
    • Basic annual salary
    • Race and ethnicity
    • Sex
    • Sources of financial support during graduate school
    • Type of academic institution (e.g., historically black colleges and universities, Carnegie codes, public or private) awarding the doctorate

Survey Design

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Target population

The population for the 2016 SED consists of all individuals receiving a research doctorate from a U.S. academic institution in the 12-month period beginning 1 July 2015 and ending 30 June 2016. A research doctorate is a doctoral degree that (1) requires completion of an original intellectual contribution in the form of a dissertation or an equivalent culminating project (e.g., musical composition) and (2) is not primarily intended as a degree for the practice of a profession. The most common research doctorate degree is the PhD. Recipients of professional doctoral degrees, such as MD, DDS, DVM, JD, DPharm, DMin, and PsyD, are not included in the SED.

Sample frame

The total universe in 2016 included 54,904 persons from 436 institutions that conferred research doctorates.

Sample design

The SED is a census of all individuals receiving a research doctorate from a research doctorate-granting U.S. academic institution in the academic year 1 July through 30 June of the next year.

Data Collection and Processing

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Data collection

Three modes of data collection are used in the SED: Web-based surveys, self-administered paper surveys, and computer-assisted telephone interviews (CATI). The Web-based survey is the primary mode of SED completion. When students apply for graduation, institutional coordinators at the universities give students the link to the survey registration website (institutional coordinators at a small number of universities hand out both a paper survey and the link to the survey registration website). Students who sign up at the survey registration website receive PIN and password information via e-mail, as well as the URL of the Web-based SED. The proportion of completed surveys from respondents using the Web-based SED has increased each year since it was introduced in 2001, and it reached 94% in 2016.

Paper surveys are mailed to institutional coordinators at the universities. For most institutions, these surveys are used as reference copies. For a small number of institutions, the institutional coordinator distributes the paper surveys to students receiving research doctorates. The institutional coordinators collect the completed surveys and return them to the survey contractor for editing and processing.

Both paper and Web-based questionnaire instruments are used in follow-up mailings and e-mails to nonrespondents. If the series of follow-up mailings and e-mails is unsuccessful, the survey contractor attempts to reach nonrespondents using a computer-assisted telephone interview (CATI) abbreviated questionnaire. Approximately 1.5%–3.0% of SED completions each year use the CATI-based instrument. Institutional coordinators are also asked to complete an electronic form to fill in a small number of critical SED questionnaire items for nonrespondents from their institution.

Data processing

The data collected in the SED are subject to automated editing procedures. No imputation is performed for missing data items.

Estimation techniques

The survey is a census, which does not require any sampling; weighting is not used to adjust for nonresponse.

Survey Quality Measures

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Sampling error

Not applicable because the SED is a census.

Coverage error

Due to the availability of comprehensive lists of doctorate-granting institutions and the institutions' high levels of participation in the survey, coverage error of institutions is minimal. Because the graduate schools collect the questionnaires from degree recipients at the time of doctorate completion, coverage error for the universe of doctorate recipients is also minimal. Comparisons of the institutions and the number of research doctorate recipients covered by the SED with the total number of doctorate recipients (including nonresearch doctorate degree recipients) reported by institutions to the National Center for Education Statistics confirm that there is minimal coverage error of doctorate recipients.

Nonresponse error
Unit nonresponse.

Of the 54,904 individuals granted a research doctorate in 2016, 91.8% completed the SED. Records for nonrespondents are constructed from limited information (doctoral institution, year of doctorate, field of doctorate, type of doctorate, and, if available, baccalaureate institution, master’s degree institution, and sex) collected from commencement programs, graduation lists, and other similar public records. Student nonresponse is concentrated in certain institutions with 44 institutions accounting for 68% of the total unit nonresponse.

Item nonresponse.

Item nonresponse rates in 2016 for the five key SED demographic variables—sex, citizenship, country of citizenship, race and ethnicity, and location after graduation—range from 0.0% for sex to 8.0% for location after graduation.

Measurement error

Measurement error in the SED is attributable to several sources, including error in recording respondent data (calculated at 0.19%), and editing error (calculated at 0.22%) for some variables due to the difficulty of defining some concepts. For example, an SED respondent may classify his or her doctoral field of specialization differently than the department or university does in its institutional reporting to the Completions component of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Data Comparability

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Data availability

Each year’s survey data are compiled into the Doctorate Records File (DRF) and trend data are available back to 1957–58; more limited information (sex, institution, field, and year of doctorate) is contained on the DRF for PhDs who graduated from 1920–56.

Data comparability

Because of procedural changes implemented during the 1990 survey cycle to improve the completeness of race, ethnicity, and citizenship data, the data from 1990 and later years are not directly comparable to data before 1990.

Data Products

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The data from this survey are published annually in a series reporting on all fields of study, the latest edition of which is Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2016.

Additional data from this survey for earlier years are published in Science and Engineering Doctorates: 1960–91 (NSF 93-301). Also available is the interagency report U.S. Doctorates in the 20th Century, which provides an overview of the development of a national resource—the American system of doctoral education—from 1900 to 1999.

Information from the survey is also included in the series Science and Engineering Degrees, in Science and Engineering Degrees, by Race/Ethnicity of Recipients, in Science and Engineering Indicators, and in Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering.

Electronic access

Access to tabular data on selected variables from 1958 onward is now available in a new interactive data tool on the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) website. Users can create custom tables of the number of doctorate recipients by academic discipline and institutional characteristics of either the doctorate-granting institution or the baccalaureate-granting institution of doctorate recipients.

Access to the 2016 SED data is also available in WebCASPAR, the existing NCSES data system. The 2016 SED data release is the last time any new NCSES data will be added to WebCASPAR. The WebCASPAR system will continue to operate without new data updates until the end of 2018, at which point the system will become inaccessible to users.

NCSES created the SED Tabulation Engine in 2007 to strengthen the confidentiality protections applied to SED data while still meeting the needs of SED data users. This tool provides users with limited access to race and ethnicity, sex, and citizenship data from 2007 onward in a way that does not disclose personally identifiable information. Content from the SED Tabulation Engine will eventually transition to the new NCSES interactive data tool.

Restricted access
Access to restricted data for researchers interested in analyzing microdata can be arranged through a licensing agreement. For more information, see the NCSES Licensing Page at

Contact Information

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For additional information about this survey, or the methodology report, please contact:

Kelly Kang
Project Officer
Human Resources Statistics Program
National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics
National Science Foundation
2415 Eisenhower Avenue, Suite W14200
Alexandria, VA 22314
Phone: (703) 292-7796