Path to the doctorate

Some paths to the doctoral degree are less traveled and some are more difficult to navigate, owing to a variety of influences that shape doctoral study. These paths may lead to different postgraduate destinations.

Parental education

Overview

The parents of recent doctorate recipients are better educated than the parents of earlier cohorts of doctorate recipients. The share of doctorate recipients from families in which neither parent has earned more than a high school diploma declined in the past 20 years. Meanwhile, the shares from families in which at least one parent has earned a bachelor’s degree or at least one parent has an advanced degree increased (figure 13).

Doctorates awarded, by highest parental educational attainment: 2000–19

(Percent)
Year Neither parent with more than high school diploma At least one parent with some college At least one parent with bachelor's degree At least one parent with advanced degree
2000 25.2 13.3 22.4 39.2
2001 23.9 13.6 22.3 40.1
2002 23.6 13.5 22.9 40.1
2003 23.2 13.3 23.2 40.2
2004 22.7 13.4 23.8 39.7
2005 22.2 13.5 24.7 39.2
2006 21.7 13.3 25.5 39.0
2007 21.2 13.4 25.9 39.1
2008 20.8 13.3 25.4 40.0
2009 20.1 13.0 25.3 41.2
2010 19.1 13.0 25.3 42.0
2011 19.0 12.9 25.4 42.0
2012 18.9 12.4 25.6 42.5
2013 18.5 12.7 25.4 42.9
2014 18.1 12.2 26.1 43.0
2015 18.0 12.3 26.5 42.7
2016 17.6 12.7 26.0 43.2
2017 17.4 13.3 26.1 42.7
2018 16.2 12.9 26.4 44.0
2019 16.5 13.1 26.4 43.6
Note(s):

Percentages are based on the number of doctorate recipients who responded to the item on the highest educational attainment for either parent. Percentages may not sum to 100% because of rounding and because of doctorate recipients who reported "not applicable" for both father's and mother's education beginning in 2004. Advanced degree includes master's degree, professional degree, and research doctorate.

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2019. Related detailed table 33 and table 34.

Race and ethnicity

The pattern of rising parental educational attainment is visible among all races and ethnicities for doctorate recipients who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Nonetheless, doctorate recipients who are underrepresented minorities—American Indian or Alaska Native, Black or African American, or Hispanic or Latino—are less likely to have at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree than are Asian or White doctorate recipients.

In 2019, about 75% of doctorate recipients who were Asian or White came from families having at least one parent who had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with between 49% and 59% of doctorate recipients who were American Indian or Alaska Native, Black or African American, or Hispanic or Latino (figure 14).

Parental educational attainment of U.S. citizen or permanent resident doctorate recipients, by race and ethnicity: 2000 and 2019

(Percent having at least one parent with a bachelor's degree or higher)
Year American Indian or Alaska Native Asian Black or African American Hispanic or Latino White
2000 44.3 65.7 38.1 48.7 66.0
2019 48.5 74.6 49.9 58.7 76.9
Note(s):

Percentages are based on the number of doctorate recipients who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2019. Related detailed table 33 and table 34.

Sources of financial support

Overview

In 2019, doctorate recipients reported research assistantships or traineeships as the most frequent primary source of financial support, followed by fellowships, scholarships, or dissertation grants and teaching assistantships. A third of doctorate recipients were primarily supported by research assistantships or traineeships; 25% by fellowships, scholarships, or dissertation grants; and 21% by teaching assistantships. About 15% of doctorate recipients relied primarily on their own resources—loans, personal savings, personal earnings, and the earnings or savings of their spouse, partner, or family—to finance their graduate studies, and 5% relied on such other sources as employer reimbursement and foreign support (figure 15).

Primary source of financial support for doctorate recipients: 2019

(Percent)
Source Percent
Teaching assistantship 21.4
Research assistantship or traineeship 33.4
Fellowship, scholarship, or dissertation grant 24.8
Own resources 15.2
Other sources 5.2
Note(s):

Percentages are based on the number of doctorate recipients who responded to the primary source of financial support item. Research assistantship or traineeship includes other assistantships and internships or clinical residencies. Own resources includes loans, personal savings, personal earnings outside the institution sources listed, and earnings or savings of spouse, partner, or family. Other sources includes employer reimbursement or assistance and foreign support.

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2019. Related detailed table 35.

Field of study

The primary sources of financial support used by doctorate recipients vary by field of study. In 2019, research assistantships were the most common primary source of financial support for doctorate recipients in engineering, physical sciences and earth sciences, and life sciences. In mathematics and computer sciences, teaching assistantships were slightly more frequent than research assistantships. Fellowships, scholarships, or dissertation grants and teaching assistantships were the most common source of support for comparable shares of doctoral students in humanities and arts. Nearly half of doctorate recipients in education relied on their own resources as their primary source of support. In psychology and social sciences, between 25% and 29% of doctorate recipients reported either fellowships, scholarships, or dissertation grants, teaching assistantships, or their own resources as their primary source of financial support (figure 16).

Primary source of financial support for doctorate recipients, by broad field of study: 2019

(Percent)
Broad field of study Teaching assistantship Research assistantship or traineeship Fellowship, scholarship, or dissertation grant Own resources Other sources
Life sciences 13.0 37.1 33.0 11.5 5.5
Physical sciences and earth sciences 25.5 50.5 18.3 3.5 2.3
Mathematics and computer sciences 38.4 36.3 14.6 5.3 5.3
Psychology and social sciences 28.8 16.8 26.3 24.5 3.6
Engineering 11.4 57.4 20.2 4.6 6.4
Education 11.8 15.7 12.8 47.2 12.4
Humanities and arts 39.2 2.1 37.8 18.9 2.0
Other non-S&E fields 21.5 18.5 27.0 27.0 6.0

S&E = science and engineering.

Note(s):

Percentages are based on the number of doctorate recipients who responded to the primary source of financial support item. Research assistantship or traineeship includes other assistantships and internships or clinical residencies. Own resources includes loans, personal savings, personal earnings outside the institution sources listed, and earnings or savings of spouse, partner, or family. Other sources includes employer reimbursement or assistance and foreign support.

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2019. Related detailed table 35 through table 37.

Graduate debt

The amount of education-related debt incurred by doctorate recipients during graduate school is an indicator of the availability of financial support. In 2019, large majorities (71% and above) of doctorate recipients in physical sciences and earth sciences, mathematics and computer sciences, engineering, and life sciences reported holding no debt related to their graduate education when they were awarded the doctorate (figure 17). These are also fields that tend to receive the support of federal government and academic institutions in the form of research assistantships or traineeships; fellowships, scholarships, or dissertation grants; or teaching assistantships. In psychology and social sciences, humanities and arts, and other non-S&E fields, the share of doctorate recipients with no debt was about half; in education, it was less than half.

Graduate debt of doctorate recipients, by broad field of study: 2019

(Percent)
Broad field of study No debt $10,000 or less $10,001–$30,000 $30,001 or greater
Life sciences 71.3 7.1 7.2 14.5
Physical sciences and earth sciences 82.0 6.4 5.2 6.3
Mathematics and computer sciences 83.6 5.4 4.3 6.7
Psychology and social sciences 53.8 6.9 9.0 30.3
Engineering 80.3 6.8 6.1 6.8
Education 47.0 6.4 10.0 36.6
Humanities and arts 56.9 8.9 10.5 23.7
Other non-S&E fields 57.2 6.5 9.7 26.6

S&E = science and engineering.

Note(s):

Percentages are based on the number of doctorate recipients who responded to the graduate debt item.

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2019. Related detailed table 38 through table 40.

Within each broad field of study, 5% to 9% of doctorate recipients had incurred low levels ($10,000 or less) of graduate debt. The shares of doctoral graduates with graduate debt burdens over $30,000 were greatest in education (37%), psychology and social sciences (30%), other non-S&E fields (27%), and humanities and arts (24%).

In 2019, doctorate recipients in the fields with the lowest median cumulative debt—physical sciences and earth sciences, engineering, and mathematics and computer sciences—had among the highest median expected annual salaries. In these fields, median expected salaries at graduation were more than triple the median cumulative debt. Median debt among those in business management and administration was higher ($50,000) but their median expected salary was more than double their median debt (figure 18).

Median expected basic annual salary and median cumulative education-related debt for debt-holding doctorate recipients with definite employment commitments in the United States, by field of study: 2019

(Dollars)
Field of study Median cumulative education-related debt among those with debt Median expected basic annual salary among those with debt
Life sciences 45,000 79,500
Physical sciences and earth sciences 30,000 88,000
Mathematics and computer sciences 25,000 100,000
Engineering 25,000 98,295
Psychology 80,000 65,000
Social sciences 55,000 68,000
Education 70,000 68,000
Humanities and arts 50,000 52,000
Business management and administration 50,000 122,000
Communication 55,000 57,950
Other non-S&E fields 75,000 70,000

S&E = science and engineering.

Note(s):

Definite employment commitment excludes postdoctoral study. Calculation of median debt excludes doctorate recipients reporting no debt.

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2019.

In contrast, doctorate recipients in the fields with the highest median cumulative debt (psychology, social sciences, education, communication, and other non-S&E fields) reported among the lowest median expected annual salaries. In psychology, median cumulative debt was $15,000 higher than median expected salary at graduation. In education, communication, and other non-S&E fields, doctorate recipients’ median expected salary was about the same as their median cumulative debt.

Time to degree

Earning a doctorate in non-S&E fields takes years longer than completing an S&E doctorate. The longest median time to degree from graduate school entry to doctoral award is in education. Over the past 20 years, median time to degree declined slightly or remained level in most S&E fields and in humanities and arts; it fell from 14.2 to 11.9 years in education (figure 19).

Median time to degree of doctorate recipients, by broad field of study: 2000–19

(Years from graduate school entry to doctorate)
Year Life sciences Physical sciences and earth sciences Mathematics and computer sciences Psychology and social sciences Engineering Education Humanities and arts Other non-S&E fields
2000 7.7 6.7 7.2 7.9 7.2 14.2 9.7 10.2
2001 7.3 6.6 7.2 7.9 7.1 13.9 9.7 10.7
2002 7.4 6.7 7.3 8.2 7.2 14.1 9.7 10.2
2003 7.2 6.7 7.7 8.2 7.3 13.2 9.7 10.2
2004 7.0 6.5 7.1 8.0 7.2 12.7 9.7 9.8
2005 7.1 6.6 7.2 8.2 7.3 13.0 9.9 10.3
2006 7.0 6.5 7.2 8.0 7.0 12.7 9.7 9.8
2007 7.0 6.5 7.0 8.0 6.7 12.6 9.7 9.4
2008 6.9 6.4 7.0 7.7 6.7 12.7 9.3 9.1
2009 7.0 6.3 7.0 7.7 6.9 12.4 9.7 9.6
2010 6.8 6.5 7.0 7.7 6.9 12.5 9.5 9.3
2011 6.9 6.6 6.9 7.8 6.8 11.7 9.3 9.3
2012 6.9 6.4 7.0 7.7 6.7 11.9 9.2 8.9
2013 6.9 6.3 6.9 7.7 6.7 11.7 9.3 9.0
2014 6.7 6.3 6.9 7.9 6.5 11.7 9.3 9.0
2015 6.7 6.2 6.7 7.7 6.7 11.7 9.2 8.9
2016 6.7 6.1 6.9 7.9 6.5 11.7 9.3 9.0
2017 6.8 6.2 7.0 7.8 6.7 12.0 9.3 9.3
2018 6.8 6.3 6.8 7.8 6.7 11.9 9.4 9.2
2019 6.9 6.3 6.9 8.0 6.8 11.9 9.5 9.3

S&E = science and engineering.

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2019. Related detailed table 31 and table 32.