More Doctors Than Ever

humanities and sciences

Doctors of Science (and Engineering)

In 2009, 49,562 doctorate degrees were awarded in the United States. That's a 1.6% increase over the 2008 total, and a record number in the history of American higher education.

The latest report from the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) shows that the majority of this growth was in science and engineering fields such as the biological sciences, physical sciences, computer science and electrical engineering. This group accounted for 67.5% of all 2009 doctorates (33,470 degrees). Although that's just an increase of 1.9% above 2008, it represents a 29.1% jump over the last decade.

By contrast, 'non-science and engineering' fields only produced 16,092 doctoral graduates in 2009, a 1% increase over 2008, but only 6.1% growth since 1999. The most recent jump came primarily from humanities fields such as English and history, which increased 3.7% over 2008. However, growth in the last decade outside of science and engineering came more from health (48.8% increase since 1999) and professional degrees (28.9%). Education doctorates remained mostly flat during that time, and humanities degrees actually fell 7.3% over the period.

woman scientist

Women and Minorities Make Strides

So what's causing the growth in science and engineering doctoral education? The demographic breakdown of the NSF report suggests that some groups that have been historically underrepresented in these fields are starting to earn more advanced science and engineering degrees.

For example, the growth in the number of doctorates earned by people from racial and ethnic minority groups has started to outpace the growth of degrees earned by white students. That number climbed 6.4% between 2008 and 2009, and 34.3% between 2004 and 2009; the number of white Americans earning doctorates only grew by 6.1% and 22.3% in the same time periods.

In absolute numbers there is still a significant disparity - only 4,719 of the 33,470 science and engineering doctorates earned in 2009 went to racial and ethnic minorities - but the difference in growth numbers suggests that we may be moving toward greater racial equality in higher education. It's worth noting that these figures all represent American citizens and permanent residents, and are therefore not skewed by the number of foreign students who often come to the U.S. to study. In fact, the number of doctorate recipients with temporary visas in 2009 was down 3.5% from 2008.

Racial and ethnic minorities weren't the only underrepresented group that saw a large gain in doctoral education in recent years. Women actually accounted for all of the 1.9% growth in science and engineering doctorate degrees awarded between 2008 and 2009. That's still a smaller real number - 13,593 women earned science and engineering doctorates in 2009 vs. 19,849 men - but at the same time the number of male doctorate recipients declined slightly, suggesting that gender is another area in higher education that is moving toward a better balance.

tenured professor

Working Hard, But Hardly Working

Of course, as the job market continues to struggle, it's hard not to wonder: What are all these people doing with their doctorates?

The NSF looks at the number of 'definite commitments' that graduates have to measure the strength of the job market for doctoral recipients. Having a 'definite commitment' is defined as a certain return to a pre-doctoral position or acceptance of an offer for a new position in the coming year. These commitments were at high points in 2001 and 2006, but, unsurprisingly, dropped to significant lows between 2007 and 2009.

Not all fields suffered equally. The rate of definite commitments among doctorate recipients in professional fields, health, physical sciences, education and social sciences remained above 70% in every year between 2007 and 2009. By contrast, doctorate recipients in the humanities and life sciences had rates of definite commitments at 65% or lower in the same years.

This may be due to the fact that the fields that did the best have more job opportunities outside of academia. Science and engineering, health, education and, of course, professional fields all offer graduates the option to pursue professional careers in lieu of teaching. An Ed.D. can lead to a career in education administration, a Ph.D. in a health field can lead to an advanced medical practice and even science Ph.D.'s offer research opportunities outside of academia for business and manufacturing.


While not exclusively limited to teaching, the options for humanities graduates tend to skew more toward the ivory tower. In 2008, 86% of graduates of humanities doctoral programs ended up in academia, as opposed to only 15% of engineering doctoral recipients. And the number of positions there is declining. Researchers at Claremont Graduate University (CGU) found that the number of full-time faculty members at U.S. universities was at about 51% in 2007, down from 78% in 1970 when academia had its last heyday.

Some humanities scholars are resorting to adjunct work, which hardly pays the bills - positions can pay as little as $2,000 a semester. Others are being more creative. Elena Stover, a 2009 doctoral graduate from UCLA, turned to online poker to support herself when she couldn't find a teaching position. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Stover commented, 'After all this training, you should really have these career options, but in reality, it's really scarce.'

In fact, it may be the dismal situation in academia that is driving more and more people seeking advanced education into science and engineering. The research grants are larger and the job prospects are better. But hopefully as the economic situation improves and more universities develop the capacity to increase their full-time teaching staffs, the humanities and life sciences will once again offer viable education and career alternatives.

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