Overall Growth in Postdocs

The 66,247 postdocs reported in 2019 is the largest number of postdocs ever reported to the GSS. This represents a 2.3% increase in SEH postdocs between 2017 and 2019, mainly due to the 6.3% increase in temporary visa holders, but also because of a small 1.1% increase in the number of female U.S. citizen and permanent resident postdocs. The total number of U.S. citizen and permanent resident postdocs declined by 2.2% due to a 4.9% decline in male U.S. citizen and permanent resident postdocs between 2017 and 2019 (table 1).

Doctorate-Holding Nonfaculty Researchers

In contrast to postdoc positions, which provide additional training for early career researchers, NFRs hold nontenured staff research positions that do not have the terms of their employment limited by position duration or the number of years since earning a doctoral degree or equivalent credential. From 2017 to 2019, the number of NFRs reported to the GSS grew by 7.7%, representing an increase of 2,169 doctorates engaged in research outside of faculty rank or tenure. Unlike the rate of growth observed among postdocs and graduate students between 2017 and 2019, the number of male NFRs grew at a faster rate than the number of female NFRs between 2017 and 2019 (8.4% compared to 6.6%). In 2019, almost 60% of NFRs were male (table 3).

Rates of growth in the number of NFRs between 2017 and 2019 in various S&E fields of research varied widely, with the largest percentage increase being 59.9% in natural resources and conservation. At the other end of the range, the number of NFRs in engineering science, mechanics, and physics declined by 7.0% (table 3).

Data Source and Limitations

Conducted since 1966, the GSS is an annual survey of all academic institutions in the United States that grant research-based master’s or doctoral degrees in SEH fields. The 2019 GSS collected data from 20,249 organizational units (departments, programs, affiliated research centers, and health care facilities) at 714 eligible institutions and their affiliates in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The unit response rate was 97.4%. An overview of the survey is available at https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/srvygradpostdoc/.

In 2017, the GSS was redesigned to collect demographic and financial support data separately for master’s and doctoral students, to prioritize electronic data interchange as the primary means of data submission, and to use the U.S. Department of Education’s Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) codes to report fields of study for graduate student enrollment data. More information regarding the 2017 GSS redesign is available in the technical notes for the 2019 data tables (https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf21318). Further, in 2017, NSF updated the GSS fields of study to align with the NCSES Taxonomy of Disciplines to increase comparability with other NCSES surveys and more accurately reflect how disciplines are currently organized. For more information regarding the updated GSS taxonomy, see the 2018 GSS Methodology Report (available upon request).

Because of these changes, the data from 2017 to the present are not directly comparable to previously collected GSS data. Trend comparisons can be made using the 2017old estimates in the 2017 data tables, available at https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/gradpostdoc/2017/.

GSS health fields are collected under the advisement of NIH. These GSS fields are about one-third of all health fields in the U.S. Department of Education’s CIP taxonomy. NIH information on trends seen within these selected health fields can be found at https://report.nih.gov/nihdatabook/.

The full set of data tables from the 2019 survey are available at https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/srvygradpostdoc/. Data are also available in NCSES’s interactive data tool (https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/ids/gss). For more information about the survey, contact the GSS survey manager, Michael Yamaner.


1Several data reports have documented the decline in international graduate students from 2017 to 2019. These include the following: Institute of International Education. 2019. Open Doors, 2019 Fast Facts. Washington, DC. Available at https://opendoorsdata.org/fast_facts/fast-facts-2019/. National Science Board, National Science Foundation. 2019. Higher Education in Science and Engineering (Table 2-3). Science and Engineering Indicators 2020. NSB-2019-7. Alexandria, VA. Available at https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsb20197/international-s-e-higher-education#tableCtr1553. Okahana H, Zhou E. 2019. International Graduate Applications and Enrollment: Fall 2018. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools. Available at https://www.cgsnet.org/ckfinder/userfiles/files/Intl_Survey_Report_Fall2018.pdf. Zhou E, Mitic RR, West CPL, Okahana H. 2020. International Graduate Applications and Enrollment: Fall 2019. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools. Available at https://cgsnet.org/sites/default/files/civicrm/persist/contribute/files/CGS%20Fall%202019%20International%20Report.pdf?v=1.

2National Science Board. (2020). Vision 2030. NSB-2020-15. Washington, DC. Available at https://www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2020/nsb202015.pdf.

3The number of Hispanic or Latino students earning S&E bachelor’s degrees increased by an average of 8.9% per year from 2006 through 2016. For more information on bachelor’s completions in S&E by race and ethnicity from 2006 through 2016, see table 5-3 in https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/data. National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2019. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2019. Special Report NSF 19-304. Alexandria, VA. Available at https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/.

4Even though data comparability between 2017old and current data is limited because the 2017–19 GSS includes fewer fields than were collected from 2007 through 2016, in 2019, GSS institutions reported more postdocs than in any year before 2019. See table 1-1 for the postdoc counts reported to the GSS from 1979 through 2019 at https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf21318.

5In the GSS, a unit is defined as an organizational unit where graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and other doctoral degree–holding NFRs are enrolled and/or work. A unit can be a teaching unit, research unit, or both a teaching and a research unit. Research units can be research centers, health care facilities, and other organizations at the academic institution that appoint postdoctoral researchers and/or appoint doctorate-holding NFRs.

6Electronic data interchange is a method for transferring data between computer systems or networks using a standardized format.

7CIP is a taxonomy used for reporting postsecondary fields to the U.S. Department of Education for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, a mandatory survey for institutions receiving federal financial aid. Most institutions in the GSS already use CIP codes to report data on graduate students. The CIP taxonomy was developed by the National Center for Education Statistics, which updates the taxonomy about once a decade; CIP was last revised in 2010. For more information, see http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/cipcode/.

Suggested Citation

Arbeit C, Yamaner MI; National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES). 2021. Trends for Graduate Student Enrollment and Postdoctoral Appointments in Science, Engineering, and Health Fields at U.S. Academic Institutions between 2017 and 2019. NSF 21-317. Alexandria, VA: National Science Foundation. Available at https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf21317/.

Contact Us

Report Authors

Caren A. Arbeit
RTI International, under contract to NCSES

Michael I. Yamaner
Survey Manager
Human Resources Statistics Program, NCSES
Tel: (703) 292-7815
E-mail: myamaner@nsf.gov


National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics
Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences
National Science Foundation
2415 Eisenhower Avenue, Suite W14200
Alexandria, VA 22314
Tel: (703) 292-8780
FIRS: (800) 877-8339
TDD: (800) 281-8749
E-mail: ncsesweb@nsf.gov