Ten Ways U.S. Doctoral Degrees Have Changed In The Past 20 Years

By Michael T. Nietzel, Contributor
U.S. universities granted 55,283 doctoral degrees in 2020. That's 33% more than in 2000. getty

New data - available this month from tables in The Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) - reveal several substantial changes in the United States’ production of doctoral degrees, an important indicator of the country’s preparation of scientists, engineers, educators and other scholars at the highest level of educational attainment.

The SED is the annual census of individuals who receive research doctoral degrees from accredited U.S. academic institutions. It’s been collected since 1957 and is used by universities, government agencies and other institutions to understand major trends in the nation’s doctoral education.

The survey is sponsored by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) within the National Science Foundation (NSF) and by three other federal agencies: the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Education, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Here are ten key changes occurring in the nation’s production of doctoral degrees over the past 20 years.

1. Overall production has increased. In 2000, 41,369 earned doctorates were awarded in the United States. In 2020, 55,283 doctorates were granted, an increase of 33%. Year-over-year increases occurred in 14 of the 20 years during the past two decades.

2. International recipients make up an increasing share of those earning doctorates. In 2000, U.S. citizens and permanent residents were awarded 72% of all earned doctorates. By 2020, that percentage had decreased to 62.4%. In 2020, the three top countries of origin for visa holders earning a U.S. doctorate were China, India, and South Korea.

3. Although men still earn the majority of doctorates, the proportion earned by women continues to increase. In 2000, 43.9% of doctoral degrees were awarded to women; that percentage increased to 45.9% in 2020.

4.While earned doctorates increased by 15% between 2010 and 2020, the increases were markedly different for various ethnic and racial groups (2010-2020 was the longest time period for which these data were available in the new tables).

  • Asian doctoral recipients increased from 11,583 to 15,102, or 30% during this time period.
  • Hispanic/Latino recipients went from 1,842 in 2010 to 2,851 in 2020, a 55% increase.
  • Doctorates awarded to Black/African Americans increased by 30% - from 2,380 in 2010 to 3,095 in 2020.
  • The number of doctorates awarded to American Indians/Alaska Natives decreased from 129 in 2010 to 100 in 2020.
  • White recipients went from 25,964 in 2010 to 27,783 in 2020, a 7% increase.

5. Increasingly, doctoral degree recipients are raised in families with high levels of eduction. In 2000, 61.6% of individuals earning a doctorate had grown up in a family where at least one of the parents had received a bachelor’s degree or higher. By 2020, that percentage had increased to 70.5%.

6. The number of doctorate-granting institutions has jumped from 403 in 2000 to 449 in 2020, an 11% increase.

7. The proportion of doctorates in the sciences and engineering have increased while those in the social sciences, humanities and education have declined.

  • Doctorates in engineering jumped from 12.9% of all doctorates in 2000 to 18.9% in 2020.
  • Life science doctoral degrees increased from 20.8% of all doctorates awarded in 2000 to 22.7% in 2020.
  • The share of doctorates in the physical and earth sciences went from 9.8% in 2000 to 11.3% in 2020.
  • Math and computer sciences increased their share from 4.6% in 2000 to 7.9% in 2020.
  • Among the major fields showing proportional declines over the past two decades, psychology and the social sciences slipped from 18% to 16.2%, humanities and the arts decreased from 13.2% to 8.9%. and education dropped dramatically from 15.6% to 8.5%.

8. The time required to complete a doctorate from the point of entering graduate school has decreased from a median of 8.5 years in 2000 to 7.5 years in 2020.

9. In 2010, about 80% of d0ctoral degrees were awarded by institutions classified by Carnegie as “very high research” universities. In 2020, that percentage had declined slightly to 78.6%. Among the 20 universities granting the most research doctorates in 2020:

  • 15 were public universities.
  • 19 were members of the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU). The sole outlier was Walden University, a for-profit, on-line university, headquartered in Minneapolis.

10. The percentage of recipients who are employed in various sectors of the U.S. economy has shifted substantially over the past two decades. In 2000, 48.6% of those earning their doctorate took employment in academia; by 2o2o that percentage had dropped to 39.6%. On the other hand, 26% of doctoral recipients were initially employed in business and industry in 2000, but by 2020 that percentage had jumped to 40%. There were only small changes in the proportion of doctoral degree holders working for government or nonprofit organizations over this time period.

The full report of this most recent data is expected to be available to the public in November 30, 2021.

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