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Chapter 1. Introduction


The 20th century was a remarkable era in the history of the United States. This nation, which had been an emerging power on the international scene in 1900, had by century's end become the world's leading power. One of the many factors contributing to this strength was the growth of U.S. doctoral education.

This report describes the history and growth of doctoral education in the United States from 1900 to 1999 and shows changes in the characteristics of persons who complete a doctoral education. It builds on a publication that examined trends in doctoral education in the first three-quarters of the 20th century: A Century of Doctorates: Data Analyses of Growth and Change, published in 1978 by the National Academy of Sciences and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the U.S. Office of Education (NAS/NRC 1978).

A vast majority of Ph.D.s, however, graduated in the last 25 years of the century and are not represented in A Century of Doctorates. Moreover, the characteristics of recent doctorate recipients differ in many ways from those of Ph.D.s a generation earlier. The early 1970s marked the end of a long period of expansion in U.S. doctoral education that began after World War II. By 1974, the last year examined in A Century of Doctorates, major changes in doctoral education were just becoming established or would soon become evident: increased representation of women, minorities, and foreign nationals; interruption in the growth of doctoral awards in science and engineering fields; emergence of new fields, such as computer sciences; lengthening of the time it takes to complete doctoral study; expansion of the postdoctoral pool; and reduced academic employment opportunities after graduation.

Some of these trends could not be identified in the earlier report because the relevant data had not yet been collected. Data on race and ethnicity, for instance, were not collected until the mid-1970s. Other useful information began to be collected during the 1980s and 90s. And data available to describe characteristics of doctorate recipients and the graduate education enterprise continued to increase in scope as additional questions were added to the federally sponsored Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), which was the data collection instrument for this report. Now, for example, it is possible to examine the disabilities of recent Ph.D.s, their debt status at graduation, their primary sources of support in graduate school and doctoral study, and their parents' levels of education.

Data Sources

The primary source of data for this report was the Doctorate Records File, a data bank containing information collected on nearly all of the more than 1.35 million doctorate recipients who received degrees since 1920. For those who earned doctorates between 1920 and June 1957, the data bank contains limited information about their doctoral institution, field of study, graduation year, and sex; this information was gathered from public sources, such as institutional lists and commencement programs. Since July 1957, more detailed data have been collected annually through the SED, which is administered to all new Ph.D.s shortly before they graduate.

The SED data are especially important because the doctorate recipients themselves provide the information. The result is unusually rich data on the demographic characteristics of doctorate recipients, their educational paths, the financial support they received during graduate school, levels of debt related to their education, and their immediate postgraduation plans.

Three important secondary sources were used to supplement the information obtained from the Doctorate Records File. Data on doctoral graduates from 1900 to 1919 came from early annual and biennial reports of the U.S. Office of Education (1869–1916, 1917–56) and from 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait (USED/NCES 1993). The aforementioned A Century of Doctorates provided much of the historical context for the findings through 1974.

Data Notes and Further Information

This report examines data on research doctorates. The specific kind of research doctorate awarded was first tracked in the SED in 1973. Since then, 85–89 percent of the doctorates awarded each year have been Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees.1 This report focuses on the Ph.D. degree, but it includes data collected for about 50 kinds of research doctorates. The terms "Ph.D." and "doctorate" are used in this report to refer to all such degrees. Data on nonresearch and professional degrees, such as the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.), Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.), Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.), Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.), and Juris Doctor (J.D.), are not included. See appendix C for definitions and further explanation of key terms.

Data in chapters 3 through 6 are taken from the Doctorate Records File and thus date from 1920. Although Survey of Earned Doctorates data were collected first in the 1957–58 academic year (referred to as 1958 in published reports), the trends based exclusively on SED data are discussed in 5-year cohorts beginning with 1960, and data for much of the report are grouped in 5-year intervals for ease of discussion. Percentages cited in the text are rounded to the nearest whole number if 1 percent or greater and are rounded to the nearest tenth if less than 1 percent. See appendix C, "Technical Notes," for detailed information on data used in this report.

The content of the printed report is available in electronic form on the NSF website at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf06319/. Also on the website are tables containing supporting data for the figures presented in the report and detailed supplemental tables showing doctoral awards from 1920 through 1999 by field of doctorate and by state and institution, baccalaureate institutions of Ph.D.s from 1920 through 1999, and country of citizenship of non-U.S. citizen doctorate recipients, by visa status, from 1960 through 1999.

Questions or comments about this report may be directed to Susan T. Hill, NSF (sthill@nsf.gov; 703-292-7790), or Lori Thurgood, SRI International (lori.thurgood@sri.com; 703-247-8528).


National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council (NAS/NRC). 1978. A Century of Doctorates: Data Analyses of Growth and Change. Prepared by L.R. Harmon. Washington, DC.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (USED/NCES). 1993. 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait. Washington, DC.

U.S. Office of Education. 1869–1916. Annual Report of the United States Commissioner of Education. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Office of Education. 1917–56. Biennial Survey of Education in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.


1   The remainder are distributed among Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) degrees (7–11 percent), Doctor of Musical Arts/Doctor of Music (D.M.A./D.M.) degrees (0.6–1.3 percent), and Doctor of Science (D.Sc./Sc.D.) and Doctor of Arts/Doctor of Arts in Teaching (D.A./D.A.T.) degrees (0.4 percent or less). There are several other kinds of doctorates for specific fields and professions, such as the Doctor of Engineering (D.Eng./Eng.D.), Doctor of Public Health (D.P.H.), and Doctor of Social Work (D.S.W.) degrees; these account for very small percentages of the total number of doctorates awarded each year.


Front Matter

Chapter 1. Introduction

Chapter 2. Historical Background

Chapter 3. Field Choices and Demographic Characteristics of Doctorate Recipients

Chapter 4. Path to the Doctorate

Chapter 5. Baccalaureate and Doctoral Institutions

Chapter 6. After the Doctorate

Appendix A. Detailed Doctoral Fields and Demographic Characteristics of Ph.D.s

Appendix B. Top 50 Baccalaureate and Doctoral Institutions and Doctorate Production by State

Appendix C. Technical Notes


List of Tables

List of Figures

Figure Reference Tables (web only)

Supplemental Tables (web only)


Susan  T. Hill,
Project Officer
Human Resources Statistics Program
(703) 292-7790
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U.S. Doctorates in the 20th Century | NSF 06-319 | October 2006

National Science Foundation Division of Science Resources Statistics (SRS)
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