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Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States: Continuity and Change

Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States: Continuity and Change


Many changes have taken place in size and structure of the research-doctorate enterprise in this country since 1982, when the National Research Council (NRC) issued its first report on the status of research-doctorate programs in the Sciences (including the broad fields of Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences and Mathematics, and Social and Behavioral Sciences), Engineering, and Arts and Humanities in the United States (Jones, Lindzey, and Coggeshall, 1982). From 1980 to 1992, for example, the number of institutions awarding a Ph.D. grew from 325 to 364, an increase of more than ten percent. In 1993, the number of doctoral degree recipients in all fields in the United States reached an all-time high of 39,754. Aware of these changes and of the academic community's interest in the earlier assessment of research-doctorate programs, the Conference Board of Associated Research Councils in 1990 asked the NRC, as a member of the board, to update the 1982 study.

After a planning phase in 1991, the NRC appointed the Committee for the Study of Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States and asked that they undertake a four-year study, taking the 1982 assessment as their starting point. This report represents an effort to build upon and update the information collected for the 1982 study, to collect new information, to analyze key components of the new database, and to make that data base available to interested researchers and scholars for further analysis. It focuses on "research training programs" although we recognized that doctoral education has a range of purposes, and graduates follow a variety of career paths in academia, industry, and government. The study examines programs in the following 41 fields:

Arts and Humanities: Art History, Classics, Comparative Literature, English Language and Literature, French Language and Literature, German Language and Literature, Linguistics, Music, Philosophy, Religion, Spanish and Portuguese Language and Literature.

Biological Sciences: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; Cell and Developmental Biology; Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior; Molecular and General Genetics; Neurosciences; Pharmacology; Physiology.

Engineering: Aerospace Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Industrial Engineering, Materials Science, Mechanical Engineering.

Physical Sciences and Mathematics: Astrophysics and Astronomy, Chemistry, Computer Sciences, Geosciences, Mathematics, Oceanography, Physics, Statistics and Biostatistics.

Social and Behavioral Sciences: Anthropology, Economics, Geography, History, Political Science, Psychology, Sociology.


A critical step in designing a study of research-doctorate programs in the U.S. is to define the target population both to establish the boundaries of the analysis and to assure that a cost-effective procedure can be developed for collecting information about the programs included in the study. The concentration of available resources on a limited number of disciplines seemed to the committee both practical and necessary, although inevitably resulting in the exclusion of some important areas of graduate study.

Field Coverage

The committee selected fields to include in the 1993 study based on a combination of three factors:

·The number of Ph.D.s produced nationally;
·The number of programs training Ph.D.s within a particular field; and
·The average number of Ph.D.s produced per program.

Fields included in the study also have met a criterion of "robustness," that is, they have awarded a minimum of about 500 degrees in about 50 programs for the years 1986 to 1990.

The 41 fields covered in this report consist of:

· All fields in the 1982 report, although the Biological Sciences are represented differently;
· Eight new fields: Comparative Literature, Religion, Aerospace Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Industrial Engineering, Materials Sciences, Astronomy and Astrophysics, and Oceanography; and
· Some new fields in the broad area of Biological Sciences.

Eligibility Criteria

Based on the analysis of degree production patterns and on reports from "Institutional Coordinators" (ICs) who compiled and submitted information about programs at their institutions, the committee identified 3,634 research-doctorate programs at 274 U.S. universities--105 private and 169 public institutions--which met the criteria and are included in the study. This sample represents about 35 percent more programs than the number included in the 1982 study. Taken together, these programs involved about 78,000 faculty members and trained about 90 percent of the total number of Ph.D.s produced in these fields between 1986 and 1992. Of the 228 institutions in the 1982 study, 214 participated in this one and many added more programs for review.

Data Collection Strategies

The committee used diverse strategies for collecting the two primary types of data contained in this report.

To generate reputational measures--faculty opinion of program quality--the committee conducted the National Survey of Graduate Faculty in Spring 1993. The survey instrument was a questionnaire designed to elicit ratings on the scholarly quality of the program faculty, the effectiveness of each program in educating research scholars and scientists, and the relative change in program quality over the years. The questionnaire replicated key questions appearing on the 1982 survey form thus permitting the calculation of "change" measures for the 1,916 programs appearing in both studies.

To collect data on the characteristics of the 3,634 programs included in this study, the committee decided to update some statistics from the 1982 study (such as number of faculty and number of graduates) and include, exclude, or improve upon other 1982 data depending on whether the data sets were still available and/or relevant. In many cases, a careful matching of faculty lists with various sources of information occurred. In other cases data were drawn from the Doctorate Records File (DRF) on a program by program basis. Among the new data included in this report are statistics related to the participation of women in research-doctorate education. Appendix G describes the chief data sets used in generating the descriptive statistics found in this report.


Educators and policymakers agree that certain distinctive features of the doctoral training environment facilitate the preparation of research scholars and scientists. These include a blend of well-prepared graduate students, talented faculty, and sufficient institutional resources to permit the independent exploration of promising new research directions.

The National Survey of Graduate Faculty

Survey forms were sent to a sample of faculty raters chosen from lists provided by ICs in all 41 fields included in the study. Each rater received a questionnaire with approximately 50 programs in their field selected at random from the roster of participating programs. For each institution they were asked to rate, raters were given a faculty roster provided by the ICs. The committee set as its goal a total of at least 100 ratings per program. Raters were asked to comment on two dimensions of program quality: (1) "scholarly quality of program faculty," and (2) "effectiveness in educating research scholars/scientists." Ratings for "scholarly quality of program faculty" were pooled and an average rating calculated using a five-point scale ranging from 0 to 5, with 0 signifying "not sufficient for doctoral education" and 5 signifying "distinguished." Of the 3,634 programs included in the study, about 62 percent were rated as "distinguished," "strong," or "good," although this varied by field:

Table ES-1 Percentage of Programs Whose "Scholarly Quality of Program Faculty" Rated on Average as "Distinguished," "Strong," or "Good"

Arts and Humanities 68%
Biological Sciences 65%
Engineering 63%
Physical Sciences and Mathematics 59%
Social and Behavioral Sciences 56%

Each rater was also asked to comment on the effectiveness of a program in "educating research scholars/scientists." Mean ratings were calculated using a five-point scale with 0 representing "not effective" and 5 representing "extremely effective." About two-thirds of the programs were considered to be "extremely effective" or "reasonably effective." Fewer than 10 percent were considered to be "not effective" in this regard.

Program Rankings and Use of
Quality Groupings by Quarter

Responding to comments that the presentation of study results by alphabetical listing of programs in the 1982 report created some difficulties for readers, the committee decided that providing a rank ordering of programs within fields is a more convenient way for readers to review and interpret the 1993 information.

The committee chose the mean rating of the "scholarly quality of program faculty" as the dimension along which to array program information. Thus, replies from respondents to the National Survey of Graduate Faculty were pooled, a mean rating was calculated for each program, and a rank ordering was produced within each of the 41 fields in the study.

Rank ordered information requires careful interpretation, of course. A program may be ranked first with respect to "scholarly quality of program faculty," but well down the list with respect to another dimension. As a result the committee created a separate appendix that illustrates the relative standing of programs with respect to a number of variables.

Given the large number of programs within a field, and to facilitate a broad understanding of the data and findings, the committee organized institutions within each field into four groups or "quarters" based on the mean rating of the "scholarly quality of program faculty." Admittedly these are arbitrary groupings. However, these quality groupings represent an efficient way to highlight differences in program characteristics within a field or across fields.

What follows is a brief overview of some of the more interesting observations that can be made from the data collected by the committee and organized in the numerous companion appendix tables.

Program Characteristics Associated with "Quality"

A strong positive correlation between the number of faculty and its reputational standing has been demonstrated in the past but has not been explored thoroughly. From data collected by the committee, the size-"quality grouping" relationship was found to be the strongest in the Biological Sciences and weakest in the Arts and Humanities. By and large, however, top-rated programs in most fields tended to have a larger number of faculty and more graduate students than lower-rated programs.

Another factor thought to be associated with the relative rating of the "scholarly quality of program faculty" is faculty involvement in research and scholarship. Owing to differences in patterns of scholarship across participating fields, the committee developed three measures in these area: (1) patterns of federal grant support for the period 1986 -1992; (2) publication and citation patterns for the period 1988-1992; and (3) selected "awards and honors" among faculty in the Arts and Humanities.

As would be expected from the important role academia has come to play in conducting research in the national interest, the vast majority of research-doctorate programs included in the study had faculty who received some type of federal grant support between 1986 and 1992. A large fraction of top-rated programs in most fields had faculty who had received federal support during that period, although the relationship between "quality grouping" and grant support was weaker in the Arts and Humanities and a number of disciplines comprising the Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Analysis of publication/citation patterns in the Sciences and Engineering showed a similar pattern. However, the clearest relationship between ratings of the "scholarly quality of program faculty" and these productivity measures occurred with respect to "citation"with faculty in top-rated programs cited much more often than faculty in lower-rated programs who published.

To explore the relationship between "quality" scores in the Arts and Humanities and "scholarship," the committee compiled a list of awards and honors using a variety of sources. The list was matched against a list of faculty members provided by the ICs. From this analysis, the committee observed that a larger share of faculty in top-rated programs in the Arts and Humanities were likely to have received a prestigious award than faculty in lower-rated programs. This relationship was most evident in the fields of Classics, Comparative Literature, Philosophy, and English Language and Literature, reflecting in part the sources of information that were used to compile this listing of awards and honors. There is a need to extend the analysis begun by the committee to include other types of awards and honors to explore institutional differences across all fields of the Arts and Humanities.

"Change" Measures

Because of the care that was taken in designing the 1993 National Survey of Graduate Faculty, it was possible to identify 1,916 doctoral programs in 27 fields appearing in both the 1982 and 1993 studies and to analyze changes in program ratings since 1982. The committee found a remarkable degree of stability in those ratings, with 85 percent of participating programs that appeared in the top quarter in 1982 appearing again in the top quarter in 1993. (See Table ES-2.)

Table ES-2 Relative Distribution of Research-Doctorate Programs Appearing in Both the 1982 and 1993 Studies by Mean Rating of "Scholarly Quality of Program Faculty" in Quality Grouping (a)

Quality Grouping in 1982 Quality Grouping of 1982 Set in 1993

Top2nd3rd 4thTotal

Top 399 6630468
2nd 81287103 12483
3rd 8112248 110478
4th 011113363 487

(a) Based on average ratings for "Scholarly Quality of Program Faculty." See Appendix R for details.

Patterns of stability and change were analyzed across each of the 27 fields, where it was found, overall, that somewhat fewer programs rated in the top quarter in the Arts and Humanities in 1982 remained in the top quarter in 1993 (80 percent) than the fraction observed in some of the other broad fields (e.g. 89 percent in the Social and Behavioral Sciences). (See Table ES-3.)

Table ES-3 Percentage of Research-Doctorate Programs Remaining in the "Top Quarter" Between 1982 and 1993 When Mean Rating of "Scholarly Quality of Program Faculty" Is Considered by Broad Field and Quality Grouping (b)

Broad Fields Total Number
in Both Studies
Total Number
in Top Quarter
IN 1982
Number Remaining
in Top Quarter
1993 (%)
Arts and Humanities 43110382 (80)
Engineering3017464 (86)
Physical Sciences and Mathematics 535132116 (88)
Social and Behavioral Sciences 576141125 (89)

NOTE: Biological Sciences are excluded from this table since only one field, Physiology, is common to both studies.

(b) Based on average ratings for "Scholarly Quality of Program Faculty" in 1982 and in 1993. See Appendix R for details.

The committee also considered the relative distribution by "quality grouping" for programs appearing for the first time in the 1993 study in one of these 27 fields. They found that these programs received a mix of high, medium, and low ratings, although the chances were much higher that these newly participating programs would appear at the bottom half of the quality distribution in 1993. (See Figure ES-1.)

Figure ES-1Relative distribution of research-doctorate programs appearing in the 1993 study for the first time in fields included in both the 1982 and 1993 study, by broad field and 1993 quality grouping. Based on "Scholarly Quality of Program Faculty." See Appendixes J—N.

Changes in selected characteristics of the 1,916 programs since 1982 were analyzed in three areas: (1) average number of faculty (Fall 1980 versus Fall 1992); (2) average number of graduates (1975-1980 versus 1987-1992); and (3) median time to degree. With the exception of most fields in the Arts and Humanities and in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, the number of faculty and of graduates increased for programs appearing in the 1982 study regardless of quality grouping.

In the Arts and Humanities and in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, faculty rosters were essentially the same size in 1992, but the relative number of program graduates dropped considerably especially from programs rated in the top-quarter in 1982.

It took graduates in the 1980s longer to earn a degree on average than graduates of these programs took 10 years earlier. The longer time to degree was more pronounced for graduates from programs rated in the bottom quarter in 1982 for most fields.

Selected Information About Program Graduates

The committee generated a variety of statistics about graduates of these 3,634 programs. These data revealed that:

· Ph.D. recipients completing their doctoral studies in programs rated in the top quarter in 1993 typically completed their studies more rapidly than graduates of lower-rated programs regardless of field. However, graduates in the Arts and Humanities took longer to complete their studies than graduates in other fields, although the relationship of "quality grouping" and "time to degree" still holds.

The reasons for this observation are complex and linked in part to differences in the readiness of students to undertake doctoral studies and differences in the academic culture. Another factor is thought to be differences in patterns of student support, in which greater dependence on teaching assistantships (TAs) than on research assistantships (RAs) may account for the time it takes a student to earn a degree. From data collected by the committee it was observed that:

· Graduates from lower-rated programs in many fields tended to utilize TAs as a primary source of student support at a greater rate than graduates of higher-rated programs.

The committee also reviewed information about patterns of doctorates awarded to women and to individuals from racial/ethnic minority groups relative to the "scholarly quality of program faculty." Overall, the committee found essentially no relationship between "quality" and patterns of enrollment and degree attainment for women. Although top-rated programs in most fields enroll and graduate many more students on average than lower-rated programs, women tend to be represented in the same percentages across quality groupings within a field. An exception appears to be certain subfields of Engineering in which top-rated programs are slightly more likely than lower-rated programs to enroll and graduate women. However, the total fraction of women remains quite low in those fields in comparison to other fields included in this study.

Approximately 143,000 individuals earned their doctorates between 1986 and 1992 from the 3,634 programs in this study. Of these, about 6,000 graduates were members of a racial/ethnic minority group. As Figure ES-2 reveals, the majority of these graduates earned their degrees in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. When analyzed by "quality grouping," the overall picture that emerges is that minority students tended to come from top-rated programs. Approximately twice as many minority doctorates come from the Social and Behavioral Sciences as from any other broad field.

Figure ES-2Relative distribution of minority Ph.D. recipients by broad field and by quality grouping (1986-1992). Based on "Scholarly Quality of Program Faculty." See Appendixes J—N.

The analysis of minority participation in doctoral studies by "quality" grouping is complicated by the fact that there was a tendency in 1993 for the 48 participating programs located at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) or Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) to be rated in the bottom half of the "quality groupings." Added to that, larger programs associated with top-rated institutions graduated more individuals from racial/ethnic minority groups. However, as seen in Table ES-4, the majority of graduates from racial/ethnic minority groups completed their doctoral studies at institutions whose programs were rated in the top half of doctoral programs included in the study.

Table ES-4Relative Distribution of Graduates from Participating HBCU/HSI Institutions by Quality Grouping (c) (for All Fields)

Type of Institutions Top

All (1986-1992) 66,22036,800 22,60017,500
U.S. Citizens 41,20023,600 14,80012,100
Minorities2,3001,500 1,0001,000
Minority Graduates

(c) Based on the 1993 average of "Scholarly Quality of Program Faculty."

Electronic Data Access

Many types of analysis are possible beyond those reported by the committee. To facilitate further exploration of the data, the committee has prepared an electronic file of the statistics report, which is available through the NRC. (See Note 12 of Chapter 1 for details.)


The committee accomplished the five goals established at the outset of the project, namely:
  1. upda ting the 1982 Assessment,
  2. expanding the "objective" measures developed by the previous committee,
  3. calculating "change" measures and demonstrating their potential for monitoring trends in graduate education,
  4. preparing a selection of findings and making them available in electronic form, and
  5. presenting findings in a format understandable to most readers, namely rank ordered and by quality groupings.

We believe that the information contained here will be useful to general readers, policymakers, current or potential research-doctorate students and advisers, a range of educators and administrators, and researchers although each of these groups may have specialized interests and needs for that information.

The committee encourages researchers to use this data base to conduct additional analyses that could yield important insights into the nature of and changes in research-doctorate education over the last decade. A list of priority issues for analysis appears in the last chapter of this report, as does a list of additional types of studies that the committee believes should be incorporated into future assessments of research-doctorate education.

It is not within the purview of this report to recommend changes in educational policies or practices to address what seem to be negative trends, nor to encourage positive developments. Rather, these data are presented to encourage the debate that is needed to assure all who have an interest in and concern about the quality of advanced study whether members of the academic or policy community, or of the general citizenry that the training provided to research scholars and scientists is strong enough to meet the challenges that face our nation and our world in the coming decades.

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