Fields of study
As researchers expand their understanding of the world, new fields of study emerge and existing fields change. Observing which fields of study are attracting growing proportions of students can provide early insight into where future research breakthroughs may occur.
Field of study trends
Doctorates in science and engineering (S&E) fields are a growing share of all doctorates awarded. Every broad S&E field except for psychology and social sciences increased both its number and share of all doctorates over the past 2 decades. Psychology and social sciences increased in the number of doctorate recipients, but its share of all doctorates declined. Engineering had the largest growth among S&E fields in the past 20 years, from 13% of all doctorates in 1999 to 18% in 2018 (figure 7).
Within non-S&E fields, the number of doctorates awarded in education has declined over the past 2 decades, leading to a large, steady drop in the relative share of doctorates in that field. The number of humanities and arts doctorates increased during this period, but the field’s relative share of doctorates fell almost 3 percentage points to 9% of all doctoral degrees awarded in 2018. The number of doctorates in other non-S&E fields—such as business management and communication—increased, but their share remained fairly level (figure 8).
Temporary visa holders
Though the number of doctorate recipients who are U.S. citizens and permanent residents has increased in every broad field of study except education over the past 2 decades, the share of doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders increased in every broad field of study during this period. In 2018, temporary visa holders earned the majority of doctorates awarded in engineering (57%) and in mathematics and computer sciences (55%). Since 1999, the proportion of temporary visa holders increased the most in those two broad fields and in the category of other non-S&E fields (figure 9).
Doctorate recipients on temporary visas: 1999 and 2018
S&E = science and engineering.
Percentages are based on the number of doctorate recipients who reported citizenship.
National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2018. Related detailed table 17.
Minority U.S. citizens and permanent residents
In 2018, 70% of the 35,404 doctorate recipients who were U.S. citizens and permanent residents were white; 9% were Asian, 7% were Hispanic or Latino, another 7% were black or African American, and 3% identified as more than one race. The remaining doctorate recipients were either American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, or did not report their race or ethnicity.
Among minority U.S. citizens and permanent residents, doctorate recipients of different racial or ethnic backgrounds are more heavily represented in some fields of study than in others. In 2018, Asians earned a larger proportion of doctorates than other racial and ethnic minority groups in life sciences, physical sciences and earth sciences, mathematics and computer sciences, and engineering. Blacks or African Americans were the largest U.S. minority population in education and in other non-S&E fields. Hispanics or Latinos earned a larger proportion of doctorates in psychology and social sciences and in humanities and arts than did any other minority group (figure 10).
Doctorates awarded to minority U.S. citizens and permanent residents, by race, ethnicity, and broad field of study: 2018
S&E = science and engineering.
Excludes U.S. citizen and permanent resident respondents who did not report race or ethnicity. Hispanic may be any race; race categories exclude Hispanic origin. Missing data have been suppressed for reasons of confidentiality.
Women’s share of doctorates awarded has grown over the past 2 decades in all broad fields of study. In 2018, women earned half or more of the doctorates awarded in life sciences, psychology and social sciences, education, humanities and arts, and other non-S&E fields.
Though women earned nearly a quarter of the 2018 doctorates awarded in engineering and in mathematics and computer sciences and a third of the doctorates in physical sciences and earth sciences, their relative shares of doctorates awarded in those fields grew over the past 20 years. From 1999 to 2018, women’s share grew considerably in life sciences (from 45% to 56%), in engineering (from 15% to 24%), in physical sciences and earth sciences (from 24% to 33%), and in psychology and social sciences (from 55% to 59%). Women’s growth in mathematics and computer sciences has been modest, from 23% to 24% during this period (figure 11).
Share of doctorates awarded to women, by broad field of study: 1999–2018
The largest relative growth of female doctorate recipients over the past decade has been in the fields of other engineering and materials science engineering; geosciences, atmospheric sciences, and ocean sciences; physics and astronomy; and other social sciences. Over the same period, the number of women doctorate recipients declined in education research and history (figure 12).