AIP Makes Data Available on Physics Enrollment, Degrees While the past decade has seen dramatic declines in the production of physics bachelor's degrees, enrollment in graduate physics programs, and conferment of master's and PhD degrees, some of these indicators seem to be leveling off. Two surveys conducted by the American Institute of Physics' Statistical Resource Center look at recent trends in physics enrollment and degree production.
According to the "Enrollment and Degrees Report," production of physics bachelor's degrees has fallen by 20 percent in the last five years, and PhD production has fallen by 11 percent in just four years. Although PhD production for the 1997-98 academic year continued to decline and this trend appears likely to continue over the next few years, the numbers for bachelor's degrees and first-year graduate enrollment are not as grim as in previous years. Major points from the study are summarized below, with selected quotes from the report.
The number of physics bachelor's degrees conferred for the 1997- 98 academic year (3,821) remained at essentially the same level as the previous year, although much lower than the peak of approximately 5,000 per year in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, physics departments that also offered graduate degree programs experienced a continued decline in the production of bachelor's degrees, and now PhD-producing departments confer fewer undergraduate degrees than do departments that only offer bachelor's programs. The number of students entering their first year of graduate school in physics during the 1998-99 academic year (2,417) remained virtually unchanged from the previous two years. Although the total number of physics students entering graduate programs has leveled off, the fraction who are US citizens continued to decline, setting "new all-time lows for the three-decade history of this report series." For the 1998-99 year, foreign citizens represented 52 percent of all students entering physics graduate programs.
Although their numbers have doubled in the past 20 years, "women remain a drastically underrepresented group among physics degree recipients at all levels," the report says. In the class of 1998, women received 19 percent of bachelor's and 13 percent of PhDs conferred in physics. For the same year, African-American students received 5 percent of bachelor's and 1 percent of PhD degrees, Hispanic students received 3 percent of bachelor's and 1 percent of PhDs, and Asian-American students received 5 percent of bachelor's and 5 percent of PhDs.
According to the report, "undergraduate astronomy degree production has not experienced the steady and sustained declines associated with physics bachelor's production in the 1990s," and actually increased between the 1996-97 and 1997-98 school years. Although production of astronomy PhDs has fallen somewhat in the past few academic cycles, "astronomy PhD production is not expected to fall with the magnitude and speed projected for physics."
The March 2000 "Enrollments and Degrees Report" is available on the AIP web site at http://www.aip.org/statistics.
A new report, "1998 Graduate Student Report: First-Year Students" takes a more detailed look at first-year graduate physics and astronomy students. Highlights from the report, with selected quotes, are included below.
Recognizing that "there recently have been some dramatic changes in the number and the citizenship of students enrolling in US physics and astronomy programs," the report shows the countries of origin for many foreign students. After growing through the late 1980s and early 1990s, the proportion of Chinese students has now declined, while the percentage of students from Central Europe is increasing.
The report found that of the US graduate students surveyed, 94 percent had taken physics in high school. A majority (58 percent) of these students decided to pursue graduate studies in physics or astronomy while an undergraduate, and 26 percent made that decision prior to college. The highest-ranking reason for choosing graduate study in physics or astronomy, by far, was "interest in the subject matter."
Of the first-year graduate students responding to the survey, 97 percent were enrolled as full-time students and 91 percent hoped to ultimately earn a PhD. Almost 95 percent of them were receiving some form of financial support. A significant majority (81 percent) felt that their undergraduate education had given them sufficient preparation for graduate study, although the US first-year students felt less well-prepared than the foreign students.
Of the US students intending to get a PhD, 37 percent of the physics students planned to pursue careers outside of academia, compared to 15 percent of the astronomy students.
The "1998 Graduate Student Report: First-Year Students" report will be available in November. See AIP's Statistical Resource Center web site at http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/undtrends.htm for additional information on statistics and trends in physics enrollment, career paths, demographics, and workforce dynamics.
Audrey T. Leath