About the Survey

The Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) is an annual census conducted since 1957 of all individuals receiving a research doctorate from an accredited U.S. institution in a given academic year. The SED is sponsored by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) within the National Science Foundation (NSF) and by three other federal agencies: the National Institutes of Health, Department of Education, and National Endowment for the Humanities. The SED collects information on the doctoral recipient's educational history, demographic characteristics, and postgraduation plans. Results are used to assess characteristics of the doctoral population and trends in doctoral education and degrees.

Survey Description

Survey Overview (2020 survey cycle)

Purpose. SED collects data on the number and characteristics of individuals receiving research doctoral degrees from U.S. academic institutions.

Data collection authority. The information collected by the SED is solicited under the authority of the National Science Foundation Act of 1950, as amended, and the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010. The Office of Management and Budget control number is 3145-0019, expiration date 30 April 2022.

Survey contractor. RTI International.

Major changes to the recent survey cycle. None.

Key Survey Information

Frequency. Annual.

Initial survey year. Academic year 1957–58.

Reference period. Academic year 2019–20 (1 July 2019 to 30 June 2020).

Response unit. Individuals.

Sample or census. Census.

Population size. 55,283.

Sample size. Not applicable.

Key variables. Key variables of interest are listed below.

  • Academic institution of doctorate
  • Baccalaureate-origin institution (U.S. and foreign)
  • Birth year
  • Citizenship status at graduation
  • Country of birth and citizenship
  • Disability status
  • Educational attainment of parents
  • Educational history in college
  • Field of each degree earned (N = 336 fields)
  • Graduate and undergraduate educational debt
  • Marital status, as well as the number and age of dependents
  • Postgraduation plans (e.g., work, postdoc, other study or training)
    • Primary and secondary work activities
    • Source and type of financial support for postdoctoral study or research
    • Type and location of employer
    • Basic annual salary
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Sex
  • Sources of financial support during graduate school
  • Type of academic institution (e.g., historically Black colleges and universities, Carnegie codes, public or private) awarding the doctorate

Survey Design

Target population. The population for the 2020 SED consists of all individuals receiving a research doctorate from a U.S. academic institution in the 12-month period beginning 1 July 2019 and ending 30 June 2020. A research doctorate is a doctoral degree that (1) requires completion of an original intellectual contribution in the form of a dissertation or an equivalent culminating project (e.g., musical composition) and (2) is not primarily intended as a degree for the practice of a profession. The most common research doctorate degree is the PhD. Recipients of professional doctoral degrees, such as MD, DDS, DVM, JD, DPharm, DMin, and PsyD, are not included in the SED.

Sampling frame. The total universe in 2020 included 55,283 persons from 449 institutions that conferred research doctorates.

Sample design. The SED is a census.

Data Collection and Processing

Data collection. Two modes of data collection are used in the SED: self-administered Web survey and computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI). The proportion of SED completions using the Web has increased each year since it was introduced in 2001, and it reached 97.3% in 2020.

Nonrespondents are contacted via e-mail and mail with the URL of the SED Web survey. If the series of follow-up emails and mailings is unsuccessful, the survey contractor attempts to reach nonrespondents to complete an abbreviated survey by CATI. Approximately 2.7% of SED completions were from CATI in 2020. At the end of data collection phase, institutional coordinators are contacted to obtain information on a small number of critical SED data items for nonrespondents from their institution.

Data processing. The data collected in the SED are subject to automated editing and coding procedures. In addition, completed paper questionnaires undergo review and editing prior to data entry. Imputation is not performed for missing survey data items except for the month value used in calculation of the age at doctorate and time to degree variables.

Estimation techniques. The survey is a census, which does not require any sampling; weighting is not used to adjust for nonresponse.

Survey Quality Measures

Sampling error. Not applicable because the SED is a census.

Coverage error. Due to the availability of comprehensive lists of doctorate-granting institutions and the institutions’ high levels of participation in the survey, coverage error of institutions is minimal. Because the graduate schools collect the survey data from degree recipients at the time of doctorate completion, coverage error for the universe of doctorate recipients is also minimal. Comparisons of the institutions and the number of research doctorate recipients covered by the SED with the total number of doctorate recipients (including nonresearch doctorate degree recipients) reported by institutions to the National Center for Education Statistics confirm that there is minimal coverage error of doctorate recipients. In 2020, a small number of doctorate-granting institutions declined to fully enumerate their academic year 2020 doctorate recipients, resulting in a small percentage (less than 0.1%) of undercoverage in the universe.

Nonresponse error.

Unit nonresponse. Of the 55,283 individuals granted a research doctorate in 2020, 92.1% completed the SED. A limited number of SED critical data items (doctoral institution, year of doctorate, field of doctorate, type of doctorate, and, if available, baccalaureate institution, master’s degree institution, and sex) are constructed for nonrespondents from commencement programs, graduation lists, and other similar public records. Nonresponse was concentrated in certain institutions with 43 institutions accounting for 70% of the total unit nonresponse.

Item nonresponse. Among the 55,283 individuals who received a research doctorate in 2020, item nonresponse rates for the key SED demographic variables—sex, citizenship, country of citizenship, race and ethnicity, and location after graduation—range from 0.0% for sex to 7.2% for location after graduation.

Measurement error. Measurement error in the SED is attributable to several sources including errors in respondent reporting and errors that occur during data processing. Data reported by respondents about their educational history, including degree institutions and field of study, that are not self-coded within the survey instrument are reviewed and coded by trained coders. Generally, the percentage of responses that require manual coding is low. In 2020, 3.1% of doctorate fields of study were coded, as well as 7.5% of associate’s degree fields of study, 1.4% of bachelor’s degree fields of study, and 3.0% of master’s degree fields of study.

Data Comparability

Data availability. Each year’s survey data are compiled into the Doctorate Records File (DRF) and trend data are available back to 1958; more limited information (sex, institution, field, and year of doctorate) is contained on the DRF for PhDs who graduated in 1920–56.

Data comparability. No changes were introduced to the survey instrument, data collection procedures, or data processing methods in the 2020 cycle that affect data comparability. For a detailed history of changes in reporting procedures or data classification and their impact on data comparability, please consult the 2020 cycle Technical Notes at https://ncses.nsf.gov/sed.

Data Products

Publications. The data from this survey are published annually in a series reporting on all fields of study, the latest edition of which is Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2020 (https://ncses.nsf.gov/sed).

Information from the survey is also included in the series Science and Engineering Degrees by Race/Ethnicity of Recipients, in Science and Engineering Indicators, and in Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. Also available is the interagency report U.S. Doctorates in the 20th Century, which provides an overview of the development of a national resource—the American system of doctoral education—from 1900 to 1999.

Electronic access. Access to tabular data on selected variables from 1958 onward is now available in an interactive data tool from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES). Users can build custom tables of the number of doctorate recipients by academic discipline and institutional characteristics of either the doctorate-granting institution or the baccalaureate-granting institution of doctorate recipients. A few demographic data items are available in the data tool to create custom tables by academic discipline. The 2018 and 2019 SED restricted data are also available in the Restricted Data Analysis System (RDAS) for the data user to generate custom data tables with more comprehensive set of analysis variables. The 2017 and 2020 SED restricted data will be added to the RDAS as they become available.

Restricted access. Access to the Doctorate Records File, which contains cumulative SED data is available for researchers under a licensing agreement. For more information, see the NCSES Licensing Page.

Contact Us

For additional information about this survey, or the methodology report, please contact:

Kelly H. Kang
Survey Manager
Human Resources Statistics Program, NCSES
Tel: (703) 292-7796
E-mail: kkang@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