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Doctoral Degree Recipients Rise While Postgraduate Employment Prospects Fall

December 12, 2012

The National Science Foundation's "Survey of Earned Doctorates" (SED) provides annual statistics about the number and demographic characteristics of individuals receiving doctorates from all accredited U.S. institutions. The SED includes data on students who receive research doctoral degrees-primarily PhDs and EdDs. It does not include recipients of "professional" doctorates such as MD, DDS, JD, DPharm, and PsyD.

The 2011 SED shows that the overall number of doctorates conferred rose over the past year, due in part to a noticeable rise in awards to non-U.S. citizens. The number of noncitizens obtaining doctorates rose by 4.5 percent between 2010 and 2011, compared with a 0.6 percent gain in awards to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Among U.S. citizens, degrees conferred to Latinos increased rapidly (8.4 percent), while the number received by African Americans declined by 2.5 percent. The number of White non-Hispanic awardees was essentially flat.

Student Loan Debt Rises While Employment Prospects Dim

A greater share of the newly minted doctoral recipients left their graduate institutions with student loan debt. In 2011, 50 percent of the students who borrowed money during their graduate studies had graduate school debt of $30,001 or more, compared with 43 percent in 2002. Certain fields had even higher incidence of heavy debt load. In education, the share of new doctoral recipients with student loans greater than $30,000 rose from 46 percent in 2002 to 59 percent in 2011, while humanities graduates with high loan balances rose from 45 percent to 52 percent. In contrast, among new doctorates in engineering who had student loan debt, the proportion who borrowed more than $30,000 declined slightly (from 34 percent to 33 percent).

Regardless of field, the share of doctoral recipients who had confirmed jobs or postdoctoral appointments immediately after graduation has steadily declined over the past decade. In life sciences, for example, the share of new doctorates with postgraduate employment or postdoctoral study commitments fell from 72.9 percent in 2001 to 62.5 percent in 2011. Engineering graduates saw a similar decline over this time span, from 72.5 percent to 64 percent. The drop was more pronounced in humanities, falling from 65.4 percent to 57 percent. Overall, the share of doctoral recipients with job offers or postdoctoral study commitments fell to 65.5 percent in 2011 from 72.9 percent in 2001, suggesting that the decreased employment opportunities for doctorates predates the onset of the economic decline that began in late 2007.

Copies of the results from the "2011 Survey of Earned Doctorates" are available for no charge from the SED Website. A companion report, "Doctoral Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2011" is also available.


Ken Redd
Director, Research and Policy Analysis