Data Sources: A Quick Look into the Latest Survey of Earned Doctorates Data

    Hironao Okahana, Assistant Vice President, Research & Policy Analysis


    It’s that time of year again! The NSF’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) has released the latest Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) data tables. SED is the comprehensive source of information about newly-minted research doctorates since 1957, collecting the annual census of this population. The higher education community monitors this survey with keen interest, as the SED data is often used as a key national indicator of doctoral education in the United States. The latest release of the data is based on those students who earned research doctorates between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2015. While the full NSF report is forthcoming, we have already seen the following headlines in leading media outlets for the higher education community: The New Ph.D.s: New federal data show American universities awarded a record number of Ph.D.s in 2015 and Economic Realities Have Altered Ph.D. Recipients’ Plans for Future. This article offers a quick look at statistics from the latest data release of SED compiled by the CGS research team. Full data tables are available on the NSF website and table numbers referenced in this article correspond to the web tables.


    In the 2014/15 academic year, 55,006 earned research doctorates from U.S. institutions, and a little less than two-thirds of them (64%) were U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Among U.S. citizens and permanent residents, women continue to hold the majority of earned doctorates (51%); however, only a little over one-third (36%) of international doctorates were earned by women. The overall share of international degree recipients among all earned doctorates has been relatively stable over the last decade, while the number of earned doctorates has grown steadily (Table 18). In the past seven years, about 70% of international doctoral recipients intended to stay in the United States after earning their degrees (Table 53). Interests vary substantially by their countries of origin. For example, Saudi Arabian (14%) and Thai (21%) students were least likely to intend to stay in the United States after earning their doctorates. Of those students from the two top countries of origin for earned doctorates with a temporary visa, China and India, more than 80% of earned doctorates intended to stay in the United States.


    Over the last decade, an increasing number of underrepresented minority (URM) students have earned research doctorates from U.S. institutions. Table 19 shows that during the 2014/15 academic year, record-breaking numbers of U.S. citizens and permanent residents of Hispanic/Latino heritage (2,451) and of Black/African American background (2,281) earned research doctorates. Also the number of earned doctorates by American Indian/Alaska Native students was the second highest in the last decade. While these are encouraging signs to achieving greater access and inclusivity in doctoral education, relative shares of these URM students have continued to stagnate (See Figure 1). Among U.S. citizens and permanent residents, American Indian/Alaska Native students have less than a 0.5% share of earned doctorates with 7.0% and 6.5% shares respectively for Hispanic/Latino students and Black/African American students. Facilitate more diversity in doctoral education will therefore remain a priority for the graduate education community.



    A notable new statistic included in this latest data release was median times to doctorate since starting a doctoral program (Table 31). In the prior iterations, median times to doctorates were only reported as times since starting any graduate school and since earning bachelor’s degrees. The inclusion of this new data point offers the most precise national benchmark for doctoral time-to-degree. Overall, the median time to earning a doctorate since starting a doctoral program was 5.7 years, with the longest time-to-degree being 6.9 years for humanities and arts and the shortest time-to-degree being 5.2 years for engineering.


    A little over two-thirds (68%) of doctoral recipients also hold a master’s degree, though not necessarily in related fields (Table 29). About 1 in 5 of those who hold a master’s degree earned a degree in a field not related to their doctorates. American Indian/Alaska Native (82%) and Black/African American (84%) students were particularly likely to have earned master’s degrees, suggesting that master’s programs are an important pathway for URM students leading to doctoral education. Interestingly, of those Black/African American students who earned master’s degrees, 3 in 10 hold a master’s degree in fields not related to their doctorates. Master’s attainment was the lowest in life science fields (49%), followed by physical science and earth science fields (51%), while it was the highest in education (86%), humanities and arts (83%), and psychology and social sciences fields (81%). Consequently, earned doctorates from these three fields had the longest times to doctorate since earning a bachelor’s degree, 14.8 years, 11.0 years, and 9.3 years, respectively. Also, about 1 in 5 U.S. citizens and permanent residents who earned research doctorates attended community college (Table 30).


    Each year, the Survey of Earned Doctorates offers a wealth of information about the individuals who completed their doctorates in the United States. We encourage you to check out data tables as a benchmarking resource. Each institution also receives an individualized data report from NSF that includes some comparative national data, and institutions can contact NSF to obtain micro data for earned doctorates from their institutions. If you have not taken advantage of these data resources, we highly encourage you to do so, and add them to your go-to data points to support program improvement.


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