Graduate Students

Doctoral Degrees Increased Last Year, but Career Opportunities Remained Bleak

December 05, 2014

The number of earned doctorates awarded by American universities increased 3.5 percent in 2013, to 52,760, according to data from the National Science Foundation.

However, the snapshot of new Ph.D.’s, which comes from an annual report on doctoral-degree attainment known as the "Survey of Earned Doctorates," highlights a bleak part of post-Ph.D. life. For new doctoral recipients, starting a postgraduate career is still an uphill struggle and appears to be getting tougher.

Over all, the proportion of new doctoral recipients who reported having a firm commitment for a job or postdoctoral position fell to 62.7 percent in 2013—down a couple of percentage points from the previous two years and the lowest in at least a dozen years.

Some disciplines reported better prospects than others. The proportion of social-science scholars with postgraduation commitments was nearly 70 percent, while for both physical-science and education Ph.D.’s, for example, it was about 66 percent.

But all the fields the survey examines have experienced a slide in postgraduation commitments over the past decade.

Although the overall economy is showing signs of improvement, the effects of the recession aren’t yet a thing of the past in the academic-job market. Signs of recovery are uneven across fields and within them. And it’s unclear when, if ever, the number of academic jobs for Ph.D.’s, new or otherwise, will return to prerecession levels.

In the latest survey, some 15,000 new Ph.D.’s said they had accepted jobs in the United States, with about half of those positions in academe.

The proportion is much higher for those in the humanities. Of the 1,897 humanities scholars who reported having a job in the United States after graduation, nearly 83 percent said they had an academic position, roughly the same as a decade ago. However, the survey doesn’t distinguish between tenure-track and adjunct positions, which a growing number of scholars in the humanities hold.

The survey also shows how postdoctoral study has become the first stop for more scholars. Of those with post-Ph.D. commitments, the proportion who opted for postdoctoral study increased from 32.8 percent in 2003 to almost 40 percent last year.

The largest share of doctorates awarded were in the science and engineering fields—about 75 percent. The life sciences led that group with 12,305 degrees, a figure that has risen by almost 45 percent since 2003.

The data also showed an uptick in the diversity among doctorate recipients. Last year 24,396 doctoral degrees were awarded to women, up from 23,543 in 2012. The number of doctorates awarded to men rose to 28,353 in 2013, up from 27,378 a year earlier.

There was a sharp increase in the number of Ph.D.’s awarded to Asian scholars—13,432 in 2013, compared with 12,853 a year earlier. The gains for Hispanic and black scholars were more muted. The number of Hispanics who earned doctorates rose by four, to 3,067. The number of black scholars awarded Ph.D.’s in 2013 rose to 2,652, up 123 from the year before.

The survey is sponsored by the NSF and several other federal agencies, and is administrated by NORC at the University of Chicago.

Audrey Williams June is a senior reporter who writes about the academic workplace, faculty pay, and work-life balance in academe. Contact her at audrey.june@chronicle.com, or follow her on Twitter @chronaudrey.

Correction (12/10/2014, 11:25 a.m.): This article originally included an incorrect name for the survey's administrator. It is NORC at the University of Chicago, not the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.