Press Release

National Survey Documents Drop in Doctoral Degrees in Science and Engineering

By SpaceRef Editor
January 6, 2003
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A 2001 nationwide survey conducted for the National Science Foundation (NSF) reports that for the first time in nine years, the number of doctoral degrees (Ph.D.s) awarded by U.S. universities dropped to below 41,000.* And since 1998, when total Ph.D.s reached an all-time high, a significant decline in science and engineering (S&E) doctorates has led a rollback of total Ph.D.s to pre-1994 levels. However, analysts cite a two-year turn upward in 2000-2001 graduate enrollments in S&E that could reverse the downward trend in doctorates produced in those fields.

The latest statistics from NSF’s Science and Engineering Doctorate Awards, 2001, are a compilation of detailed statistical tables derived from the nationwide Survey of Earned Doctorates, a report of data collected on doctorates conferred in all academic fields at 416 universities. NSF is an independent federal agency with an annual budget of nearly $5 billion that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, as well as reporting statistical information on these broad areas of national interest.

NSF, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Education are the primary funding agencies for the national survey, with additional support from NASA, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Agriculture. The data are collected for NSF’s Division of Science Resources Statistics (SRS) under a contract with the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago.

The 2001 survey of doctorates reveals that the numbers of non-science and engineering Ph.D.s awarded since 1995 have remained nearly constant, staying at just over 15,200 per year on average over the last six years, with small up-and-down movements each year. Meanwhile, S&E doctorates, since reaching a high point of almost 27,300 in 1998, have dropped by 7 percent since, to just over 25,500 in 2001.

“From 1998 to 2001, the decline in science and engineering Ph.D.s was almost across-the-board,” said Susan T. Hill, SRS project officer for the surveys. But Hill cautions against any general conclusion that this is a long-term trend. “If you look at the last two years we have available — 1999 and 2000 – the number of students enrolling in graduate S&E programs is rising. And some of the soon-to-be-published numbers appear to indicate another increase in graduate enrollments for 2001.”

Among survey highlights, women have showed slow, steady increases in obtaining doctorates in most fields. In 2001, women were awarded about 44 percent of the doctorates for all fields combined. However, women are still underrepresented in many science and engineering fields. In 1997, women represented just 32.8 percent of the total S&E doctorates awarded. And by 2001, women had received 9,300 Ph.D.s, or 36.5 percent of the S&E total for the year.

In the physical sciences, women still represent less than one-quarter of earned doctoral degrees and in engineering, just 16.8 percent. In physics, women have gained only 1 percentage point over 10 years, earning just 11.9 percent of the doctorates in 1992, and only 13 percent in 2001. In computer sciences, women earned 18.8 percent of the doctorates in 2001.

On the other side of the coin, women have always done well in the field of psychology, and in 2001 they passed the two-thirds mark in the total Ph.D.s awarded in that field.

According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, African Americans remain underrepresented in most fields. About 8.2 percent of blacks among U.S. citizens and permanent residents received non-S&E doctorates in 2001. In 1998, they received 7.4 percent. In science and engineering, blacks earned just 3.5 percent of the 1998 doctorates, and about 4.3 percent in 2001. This percentage has remained nearly level over the past three years.

U.S. citizens earned almost 70 percent of the doctorates in all fields for 2001. In science and engineering, 15,000 of the 25,000 Ph.D.s, or a little less than 59 percent went to U.S. citizens (in 1998, it was 59.5 percent). In engineering, just 41.1 percent of the doctorates went to U.S. citizens (in 1998, it was 43.3 percent).

Other findings in the 2001 S&E doctorate statistics include:

  • Engineering doctorates – following a peak of more than 6,300 in 1996 – Ph.D.s
    dropped sharply to 5,332 in 1999, stabilized in year 2000, and now have
    rebounded to more than 5,500 in 2001;

  • Physical science doctorates have declined from 1994 through 2001, but
    remained almost steady over the past year at nearly 3,400. In physics, the
    declines in doctorate degrees from 1994 through 2001 were almost twice as steep (-23 percent) as the decline in chemistry (-12 percent). Only earth, atmospheric and ocean sciences experienced increases in doctorate awards;

  • Doctorates in mathematics also continue downward from 1,177 in 1998 to just
    over 1,000 in 2001. Doctorates in computer science and agricultural sciences
    have followed the same general pattern as for mathematics Ph.D.s.

More than 92 percent of the 40,744 receiving research doctoral degrees in 2001 returned the survey, and according to NSF, just 10 institutions accounted for 29 percent of those not responding to the survey.


* The SED represents a survey of all research doctoral degrees (most are Ph.D.s) but excludes non-research doctorates such as PsyDs, D. Min’s. and certain Ed.Ds.

For more information on the S&E Doctorate Awards, see:

For the NORC report, on all fields of study, see:

SpaceRef staff editor.