Doctoral seesaw

Throughout most of the 1990s, the number of doctoral degrees that U.S. universities awarded in science and engineering climbed steadily, according to a new national survey. By 1998, the class of newly minted Ph.D.s peaked at an all-time high of 27,300, after which new doctoral awards started falling.

By 2001, the most recent year for which data are available, U.S. institutions awarded just 25,500 science and engineering Ph.D.s–the lowest number since 1993. Over the same period, Ph.D.s in health, the humanities, education, and other fields remained fairly constant, according to data compiled by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Va.

For science and engineering, the recent decline “was almost across-the-board,” although some fields suffered more than others, observes NSF’s Susan T. Hill. For instance, annual chemistry doctorates have declined by 12 percent since 1994, while physics doctorates have gone down 23 percent. However, Hill points out, a new 2-year upswing in graduate-school enrollments suggests that the science and engineering dip may be bottoming out.

The new survey contains some encouraging sociological data. For instance, women in 2001 earned 36.5 percent of all doctorates in science and engineering, whereas in 1997 they received only 32.8 percent of such degrees.


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Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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