February 22, 2001

Colleges Award Fewer Ph.D.s, Cornell Included

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The number of doctorates awarded in the United States fell for the first time in 14 years, a trend reflected at Cornell. Figures show that the University has suffered a general decline in the numbers of Ph.D.. earned.

Between 1998 and 1999, the annual “Survey of Earned Doctorates” identified a 3.6 percent drop in Ph.D. awards at universities nationwide, a trend which Cornell followed with a 7.4 percent decline between 1999 and 2000. In the 1998-1999 school year, however, the year the survey examined, the University saw an increase in the number of its Ph.D. recipients.

“These trends closely follow trends in admissions five to nine years earlier,” said Walter Cohen, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School, “since that’s how long it takes to get a doctorate, depending on discipline.”

“Survey of Earned Doctorates” found that the average time it took for a student to complete a doctoral program was 7.3 years.

According to Cohen, fluctuations in entering doctoral class size — which began their downward trend in 1992 — and bottomed out in 1997, will be reflected in the future number of Ph.D.’s awarded at Cornell.

“My sense is that, compared to national trends, our decline began a little early but so did our recovery,” Cohen said. “But as you can see, our number of Ph.D.’s granted hasn’t yet gone as low as it will. After it does so in the next two to four years, it will rise.”

In 1990, prior to the decline, 3,138 students enrolled in Ph.D. programs at Cornell while only 2,701 students enrolled in 1997.

Doug Elliot, associate director of graduate admissions, speculates that the dip in Cornell doctorates awarded may be due to an increasing number of students enrolling in masters and professional programs.

“I feel that in getting a Ph.D. you have to be sure that you want to dedicate at least four or five years to a subject,” said Dana Warren grad. “I did not know for sure that I did and that contributed significantly to my decision to pursue a masters degree.”

Pat Carr grad, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, suggested a different explanation for the drop.

“With the bolstered economy … the economic opportunities are greater to not be in school,” he said.

While over two-thirds of Ph.D. recipients nationwide reported having definite commitments for employment or postdoctoral study or research, half also reported that they completed their doctoral programs with debt. Upon receiving their doctoral degree, 13.3 percent reported a debt of $30,000 or more.

Nationally, women and minority Ph.D. students earned the highest percentage of overall doctorates ever.

The “Survey of Earned Doctorates,” prepared by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center and sponsored by six federal agencies including the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education, found that 42.5 percent of doctorate recipients were women while nearly 16 percent where racial/ethnic minorities.

“In my department there is a pretty constant, fairly high international and female component,” Carr said. “In the geology department, about a third are women.”

Carr’s experience is consistent with the overall figures at Cornell as the 1999-2000 recipients included 36 percent women.

According to Elliot, the number of female Ph.D. students increased steadily until 1993-1994 where it averaged out.

Minority students at Cornell earned 8.7 percent of the doctorates in 1999-2000.

According to Elliot minority awards have been increasing steadily since the late 1970’s with less dramatic growth for underrepresented minorities which made up 4.5 percent of the class.

Archived article by April Sommer