What influences the path to the doctorate?
Some paths to the doctoral degree are less traveled and some are more difficult to navigate, owing to a variety of influences that shape doctoral study. These paths may lead to different postgraduate destinations.
Highest parental educational attainment: 1993–2013
Parental education: Overview
The parents of recent doctorate recipients are better educated than the parents of earlier cohorts of doctorate recipients. The share of doctorate recipients from families in which neither parent has earned more than a high school degree is declining, and the proportion of families in which at least one parent has earned a bachelor's degree or higher continues to climb, rising from just over half of doctorate recipients in 1993 to more than two-thirds in 2013.
Parental educational attainment, by race and ethnicity: 1993–2013
Parental education: By race and ethnicity
The pattern of rising parental educational attainment is visible among all races and ethnicities for U.S. citizen or permanent resident doctorate recipients. Nonetheless, doctorate recipients from underrepresented minority groups are less likely to have at least one parent with a bachelor's degree than are Asian or white doctorate recipients.
As of 2013, approximately half of American Indian or Alaska Native, black or African American, and Hispanic or Latino doctorate recipients belonged to families in which neither parent had been awarded a college degree. In comparison, roughly three-fourths of Asian doctorate recipients and white doctorate recipients came from families with at least one college-educated parent, and half had at least one parent who had earned an advanced degree.
Primary source of financial support: 2003–13
Sources of financial support: Overview
Research assistantships and teaching assistantships are the most important sources of financial support for a growing proportion of doctoral students. Compared with years past, fewer doctoral students now rely primarily on their own resources—loans, personal savings, personal earnings, and the earnings or savings of their spouse, partner, or family—to finance their doctoral studies. The proportion of doctoral students relying on fellowships or grants as their most important source of financial support has remained relatively stable since 2004.
Primary source of financial support, by field of study: 2013
Sources of financial support: By field of study
In 2013, fellowships or grants were the most common primary source of support for doctoral students in life sciences. Research assistantships were the dominant source in physical sciences and in engineering, and teaching assistantships were the most common source for doctoral students in humanities. In other non-science and engineering (non-S&E) fields and in social sciences, similar proportions of doctorate recipients reported fellowships or grants, teaching assistantships, and their own resources as their primary source of financial support. Doctoral students in education fields were the most likely to rely on their own resources, with nearly half reporting this as their primary source of support.
Graduate education-related debt, by field of study: 2013
The amount of education-related debt incurred by doctorate recipients during graduate school is an indicator of the availability of financial support. In 2013, more than two-thirds of doctorate recipients in life sciences and more than three-quarters of those in physical sciences and engineering reported no debt related to their graduate education when they were awarded the doctorate. In social sciences, humanities, education, and other non-S&E fields, that proportion dropped to approximately one-half.
Within each broad field of study, roughly 8% to 11% of doctorate recipients had incurred low levels ($10,000 or less) of education-related debt by the time they graduated. The shares of doctoral graduates with education-related debt burdens over $30,000 were greatest in the social sciences, education, humanities, and other non-S&E fields.
Median time to degree, by field of study: 1993-2013
Time to degree
The time between entering graduate school and earning the doctorate has fallen in all fields of study over the past 20 years, particularly in education. Since 2006, there has been little change in the duration of study of doctorate recipients in S&E fields, and there have been continued declines in the duration of study of non-S&E doctorates. Despite these trends, it still takes years longer to earn a doctorate in non-S&E fields than it does to complete doctoral training in S&E fields.