Executive summary

Doctoral education trains scientists, engineers, researchers, and scholars, all of whom are critical to the nation’s progress. These individuals create and share new knowledge and new ways of thinking that lead, directly and indirectly, to new products, services, and works of art. Annual counts of doctorate recipients from U.S. universities are measures of the incremental investment in human resources devoted to science, engineering, research, and scholarship, and these counts can serve as leading indicators of the capacity for knowledge creation and innovation in various domains.

Changes in the characteristics of this population over time reflect political, economic, social, technological, and demographic trends. These include the following:

  • Increased representation of women, minorities, and temporary visa holders
  • Emergence of new fields and changes in the relative popularity of other fields, particularly within science and engineering (S&E)
  • Changes in completion time for doctoral study
  • Expansion of the postdoctoral pool
  • Shifting academic employment opportunities after graduation
  • Different pathways to the doctoral degree

Understanding these connections is necessary to informing policy discussions regarding this country’s doctoral education system.

In addition, this report highlights changes in doctorate recipients’ graduate experiences and postgraduation plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. The data in this report cover the 2021 academic year (1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021) and are collected from doctorate students who complete the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) as they approach graduation. This is the first year in which the data collection fully coincided with the pandemic, and this report includes the results of questions that were specifically added to the survey to measure the pandemic’s impact on doctorate recipients.

Key takeaways from the 2021 data include the following:

  • The number of doctorate recipients from U.S. universities dropped for the second consecutive year. The decline from 55,224 doctorate recipients in 2020 to 52,250 in 2021 was the steepest 1-year decline (-2,974) in the history of the SED.
  • Between 2020 and 2021, the number of U.S. citizen and permanent resident doctorate recipients decreased by 8% to 31,674, while temporary visa holders decreased by 5% to 17,638.
  • The decline in the number of doctorate recipients between 2020 and 2021 was proportionately larger in non-S&E fields (-10%) than in S&E fields (-4%). The fields with the largest declines in the number of doctorate recipients were humanities and arts (-787), education (-463), health sciences (-338), and physical sciences (-307).
  • In 2021, nearly half of doctorate recipients who responded to questions about the impacts of COVID-19 said their research had been disrupted. For 85% of them, disruptions stemmed from limited or no access to resources.
  • While nearly 40% of doctorate recipients who responded to COVID-19 impact questions indicated the timeline for completing the doctoral degree was delayed by the pandemic, only 7% said funding for their doctoral studies had been reduced or suspended.
  • The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic varied largely by field and nature of doctoral work, with research disruptions reported in larger proportions by doctorate recipients in fields where laboratories, equipment, and other facilities are indispensable, such as biological and biomedical sciences, physical sciences, and visual and performing arts.
  • While the proportion of doctorate recipients with definite commitments increased in most S&E fields in the past two years, academic employment rates were down and the postdoctorate rate in the United States increased in all fields except biological and biomedical sciences.
  • Compared to those with firm postgraduation commitments, larger proportions of S&E doctorate recipients who were still seeking employment or negotiating job offers reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had delayed their doctoral completion timeline, changed their immediate postgraduate employment or education plans, changed their long-term career plans or goals, or affected their plans about where to live in the year after graduation.