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Results from the Enrollments and Degrees and Academic Workforce Surveys
In an update to our July 2020 report, we examine the relative size of undergraduate physics and astronomy programs using the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred and the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) faculty members in the department. Program size results from combining these two measures.
Department’s missions are not homogenous, so the relationship of degrees conferred to the number of FTE faculty should not be used as a measure of productivity. This ratio measures resource allocation and must be considered as it relates to the department’s mission. This Focus On permits departments to see where they fit on the national landscape of physics and astronomy bachelor's degree production.
Physics Degree-Granting Departments
In the 2019–2020 academic year there were 766 physics degree-granting departments in the United States; 754 of these departments offered a physics bachelor’s degree. Collectively these departments conferred more than 9,000 physics bachelor’s degrees and about 200 astronomy bachelor’s degrees to the class of 2020.1 Physics degree-granting departments employed an estimated 10,100 FTE.2 Both the physics and astronomy bachelor’s degree data for combined physics and astronomy departments are included with the physics department data.
Distinct differences can be seen when comparing departments based on the highest physics degree they offer (Table 1). Physics departments that confer a bachelor’s degree as their highest physics degree comprise about two-thirds of departments that confer physics bachelor’s degrees but confer only a little more than a third (38%) of the physics bachelor’s conferred in recent years. Despite the fact there are far fewer departments that offer a PhD as their highest physics degree (199), they are responsible for conferring over half (55%) of all physics bachelor’s degrees in recent years.
Departments Where the Bachelor’s Is the Highest Physics Degree Offered
Figure 1 shows the number of departments that confer the bachelor’s as their highest physics degree by how many bachelor’s degrees they confer on average. There are 45 departments that confer both physics and astronomy bachelor’s degrees; for those combined departments we had included both astronomy and physics bachelor’s degrees in the number of bachelor’s degree conferred totals. As can be seen in the figure, over half of the departments average five or fewer bachelor’s a year. About 10% of these departments (51) averaged 15 or more bachelor’s a year.
Figure 2 shows the number of full-time equivalent faculty members by the average number of bachelor’s degrees conferred at departments where the highest physics degree offered is a bachelor’s. Also displayed are whether the departments are at a public or private institution. There is a version of Figure 2 without the institutions disaggregated by public or private status located in the Appendix. There is a noticeable difference in a department’s typical faculty-to-degree recipient ratio for the public versus private institutions. Departments at private institutions generally confer more bachelor’s degrees per FTE faculty member than departments at public institutions. There are about twice as many bachelor’s-only physics departments at private institutions than at public institutions.
Departments Where the Master’s is the Highest Physics Degree Offered
There are 53 physics departments where a master’s is the highest degree offered. On a by-department basis, master’s degree-granting departments average slightly more bachelor’s degrees than bachelor’s-only departments, but still far fewer than PhD-granting departments. Figure 3 shows the number of departments that grant the master’s as their highest degree offered by the average number of bachelor’s conferred.
Figure 4 shows the number of FTE faculty members by the average number of bachelor’s degrees conferred at departments where the highest physics degree offered is a master’s.
Departments Where the Doctorate is the Highest Physics Degree Offered
Departments that grant physics PhDs typically have more FTE faculty members and average more physics bachelor’s degrees than their physics bachelor’s- and master’s-granting counterparts. Figure 5 shows the number of PhD-granting physics departments by the average number of bachelor’s conferred. There are some very large undergraduate programs at these departments, with 28 departments averaging 50 or more bachelor’s.
Figure 6 shows the number of FTE faculty members by the average number of bachelor’s degrees conferred over a three-year period at departments that offer physics PhDs. The departments are disaggregated by whether they are at research-intensive (R1) institutions.3 A view of Figure 6 without the departments disaggregated by research level is in the Appendix. As can be seen in Figure 6, physics departments at research-intensive institutions typically confer on average more physics bachelor’s degrees and have larger numbers of FTE faculty members than departments at less research-intensive institutions.
Astronomy Degree-Granting Departments
There were 81 departments that conferred astronomy bachelor’s degrees in 2020; 45 of these departments are combined with physics departments and are included in the data presented for physics departments above. The remaining 36 departments are separate astronomy departments administered independently from the institution’s physics program. These separate astronomy departments conferred about 600 astronomy bachelor’s. Separate astronomy departments employed an estimated 770 FTE faculty.4 The majority of these separate astronomy departments (N=28) also grant PhDs in astronomy (Table 2).
Figure 7 shows the number of full-time equivalent faculty members by the average number of astronomy bachelor’s degrees conferred. The size of departments, measured both by the number of bachelors they confer and the number of FTE faculty members they employ, varies widely. A view of Figure 7 without the departments disaggregated by highest degree is in the Appendix.
This Focus On uses data from two AIP departmental surveys—the 2020 Academic Workforce Survey and the Survey of Enrollments and Degrees. The Academic Workforce Survey is conducted every two years. Departments are asked to provide the number of full-time equivalent faculty (FTE) members in their department. The faculty data in this Focus On is for the number of FTE faculty in the 2019–20 academic year. The Survey of Enrollments and Degrees is conducted annually and collects the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred at each department. The degree data in this Focus On comes from the classes of 2018, 2019, and 2020. Bachelor’s degree data were estimated for nonresponding departments; additionally, FTE faculty data were estimated for select nonresponding departments. Both the physics and astronomy bachelor’s degree data for combined physics and astronomy departments are included with the physics department data.
In 2021, the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research released an update to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which is a framework for describing an institution’s research intensity.
The full definitions for the 2021 Basic Carnegie Classification are located here: https://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/classification_descriptions/basic.php.
 Nicholson & Mulvey (2021). Roster of Physics Departments with Enrollment and Degree Data: Results from the 2020 Survey of Enrollments and Degrees, 2020. https://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/roster-physics-2020
 The American Institute of Physics (2022). Estimated Total Number of Full-Time Equivalent Faculty Members in Physics Departments by Highest Degree Awarded 2000–2020. https://www.aip.org/statistics/data-graphics/estimated-total-number-full-time-equivalent-faculty-members-physics
 Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research (2021). Carnegie Classifications 2021 public data file, http://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/downloads/CCIHE2021-PublicDataFil… <1/25/2022>.
 The American Institute of Physics (2022). Estimated Total Number of Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) Faculty Members in Stand-Alone Astronomy Departments, 2014–2020. https://www.aip.org/statistics/data-graphics/estimated-total-number-full-time-equivalent-fte-faculty-members-stand
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Size of Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy Programs
By John Tyler, Patrick Mulvey, and Starr Nicholson
Published: August 2022
A product of the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics
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