Report

Special focus: COVID-19 pandemic impacts on doctorate recipients

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many aspects of the higher education and training of doctorate recipients. To measure the impacts of COVID-19 on new doctorate recipients’ graduate experiences and postgraduation plans, a set of questions was designed, tested, and included as a new module in the 2021 Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED). Doctorate recipients were asked whether they experienced one of six impact areas as a result of the pandemic: delay in their doctoral degree completion timeline; disruption in their research; reduction or suspension of their doctoral studies; change in their immediate postgraduate employment or education plans; change in longer-term career plans or goals; or change in their plans about where to live in the year after graduation. Respondents were also asked to report any other changes to their graduate experience or career plans. The COVID-19 impact module was fielded 1 month after the start of data collection; therefore, only 42,301 of the 52,250 (81%) doctorate recipients in the 2021 survey responded to these questions. This section summarizes the data from this population.

Overall impacts of the pandemic on 2021 doctorate recipients

Doctorate recipients who graduated in the 2021 academic year encountered multiple challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. The most frequent impact of COVID-19, mentioned by 48% of doctorate recipients, was a disruption of their research (figure 26). Doctorate recipients whose research was disrupted most frequently reported limited or no access to resources needed for research (84.6%), changes they had to make to their research plan (38% of them), and other kinds of disruptions (13%) (table D).

Nearly 39% of doctorate recipients indicated the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the timeline for completing their doctoral degree.

In addition, doctorate recipients reported the pandemic affected both short-term and long-term plans. For example, 38% of doctorate recipients indicated their immediate postgraduation employment or education plans had changed. More than two-thirds of these doctorate recipients attributed these changes to limited job opportunities (70%), while 15% said they had to accept a less-desirable job, and 22% indicated they had changed plans in other ways (table E).

Over 31% of doctorate recipients said their plans about where to live in the year after graduation had been affected, and 24% said their long-term career plans or goals had changed (figure 26). Among the latter, half mentioned they had changed their long-term career plans or goals for a different type of job or field, 36% for a different type of employer, 17% for new opportunities, and 27% for other kinds of changes (table F).

Only 7% of doctorate recipients said that the funding for their doctoral studies had been reduced or suspended.

Overall, more than three-quarters of doctorate recipients (77%) responding to the COVID-19 impact module reported their graduate experience and career plans were affected in at least one of these areas.

COVID-19 pandemic impacts among doctorate recipients: 2021
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COVID-19 pandemic impacts among doctorate recipients: 2021

(Percent)
COVID-19 impact Percent of doctorate recipients who responded to COVID-19 impact questions
My research was disrupted 48.0
The timeline for completing my doctoral degree was delayed 38.7
My immediate postgraduate employment or education plans changed 37.7
My plans about where to live in the year after graduation were affected 31.1
My long-term career plans or goals changed 24.1
Funding for my doctoral studies was reduced or suspended 7.1
My graduate experience or career plans changed in other ways 23.3
Note(s):

Percentages are based on the number of doctorate recipients who responded to COVID-19 impact questions, which were added to the survey in June 2020 (42,301 respondents).

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2021.

Doctorate recipients who said their research was disrupted as a result of COVID-19 pandemic, by type of disruptions: 2021

(Number and percent)
Note(s):

Multiple responses allowed.

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2021.

Doctorate recipients who said "My immediate postgraduate employment or education plans changed" as a result of COVID-19 pandemic, by type of changes: 2021

(Number and percent)
Note(s):

Multiple responses allowed.

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2021.

Doctorate recipients who said "My long-term career plans or goals changed" as a result of COVID-19 pandemic, by type of changes: 2021

(Number and percent)
Note(s):

Multiple responses allowed.

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2021.

COVID-19 pandemic impacts by doctorate field

The impact of COVID-19 varied by broad field. Doctorate recipients in fields where laboratories, equipment, and other facilities are indispensable—such as biological and biomedical sciences and physical sciences within S&E (figure 27) and visual and performing arts within non-S&E fields (figure 28)—indicated their research was disrupted in higher proportions than doctorate recipients in other fields. In contrast, those in mathematics and statistics and computer and information sciences had the lowest reported proportions of research disruptions among all fields.

Doctorate recipients in biological and biomedical sciences indicated the timeline for completing their doctoral degree was delayed in higher proportions than those in most other S&E broad fields. In contrast, those in mathematics and statistics and in psychology saw their degree timeline delayed least frequently.

Nearly 40% of doctorate recipients in geosciences, atmospheric sciences, and ocean sciences said that their plans about where to live in the year after graduation were affected, compared to 22% of those in psychology and 24% in health sciences.

Doctorate recipients in psychology and those in mathematics and statistics were the least affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of their immediate postgraduate employment or education plans or their long-term career plans or goals.

COVID-19 pandemic impacts among doctorate recipients, by broad field: 2021

(Percent)

S&E = science and engineering.

Note(s):

Percentages are based on the number of doctorate recipients who responded to COVID-19 impact questions, which were added to the survey in June 2020 (42,301 respondents).

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2021.