PhDs By The Numbers: Important Stats for Current and Job Seeking PhDs


Note from the authors: Using multiple sources and data analytics, we present to you important stats for empowering your PhD and career search.

As students, we spend a lot of time on our research and papers. It’s easy to get lost in the thicket and forget to think about how your experience ties into the greater field.

In this article, we will zoom out and check out the state of PhDs in America. Our main data source utilized is the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED).

In this article, you’ll be able to see:

  • The number of PhDs granted over the years
  • Relationship of jobs in academics to PhDs
  • Differences in degrees and gender
  • Finances/Debt of PhDs
  • Percentage of PhDs who enter a postdoc

The Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) is an annual census of all individuals receiving a research doctorate from an accredited US institution in a given academic year. The survey is sponsored by the NSF and 5 other federal agencies. The SED collects information on the recipient’s educational history, demographics, and postgraduate plans. The most recent available data is for 2017, although a 2018 data release is expected soon.

All graphs are done with Python’s seaborn graphics package. If you would like to replicate these graphs on your own, there is a link at the bottom to both the data and the code (hint: this is a good practice for people interested in data science).

Let’s get into it! We’ll start with an overview of doctorates granted over the last 60 years. The SED has been conducted annually since 1957. Since that time, there has been a steady increase in the number of earned PhDs since then. The numbers leveled out and dipped between 1972-1980. Since 1980, there hasbeen an increase in the number of PhDs granted since then.

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In contrast, there are on average 3,000 newly appointed faculty positions in Science and Engineering each year as demonstrated from data gathered between 1982 and 2011. This data was published in Nature Careers and Recruitment, in an article titled, “The Missing Piece to Changing University Culture,” by Maximiliaan Schillebeeckx et al. in 2013.

The surplus of PhDs amounts to an approximate ratio of 10 to 1 PhDs to open faculty positions in the field of science and engineering.

Taking a look at doctorates granted by broad fields of study and gender in 2017, we can see that across all fields, there is a fairly even split between male and female doctorate recipients. Broken down by the fields of study, there are gender differences. PhDs in Humanities and arts remain evenly split, as do ones in other subject categories. Female recipients make up a larger proportion of doctorates in Education, Psychology, Social Sciences, and Life Sciences. However, female doctorates are in the minority in Physical and Earth Sciences, Math and Computer Science, and Engineering. While we have made strides in increasing female participation in postgraduate education, there still remains work to be done in increasing female participation in STEM fields.

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Switching over to funding resources, 78.9% PhDs support themselves via various stipends, including teaching assistantships (20.6%), research assistantships (33.3%), or fellowships/grants (25%). Approximately 3% receive financial support from their employers.

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More about financials, here is a brief look at the education-related debt of doctorate recipients. A little over half (55.7%) have no debt, but there remains a substantial proportion with some amount of debt, including 10.1% with over $90,000 in educational debt.

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While a postdoc is not the only opportunity one can take after receiving a PhD, it is one of the more common paths. Nearly 39% PhDs have a postdoctoral commitment, with approximately 59% of PhDs in life sciences and physical and earth sciences going into postdocs. On the other end, less than 8.5% of PhDs in education have postdoctoral commitments. It’s okay if you aren’t interested in doing a postdoc after you finish your PhD. If you want to know more about career exploration, check out our post here.

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Sources (links) we used in this article:

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