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Useful Stats: 40+ year trends in postgraduate science, engineering, and health

February 08, 2024
By: Conor Gowder

The number of graduate students in science, engineering, and health has grown from approximately 328,000 to 760,000 from 1975 to 2021, a 132% increase, according to the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS). When compared to a 60% increase (from 9.7 to 15.4 million) in total undergraduate enrollment across all fields of study over the same time period, the scale of growth can be better seen. However, while the number of graduate students in science has seen an upward trend over the 46-year period, the number of graduate students in engineering has stagnated since 2014.

This edition of Useful Stats uses the full range of NSF GSS data to explore trends in graduate students and postdoctoral appointees (postdocs) in science, engineering, and health. Some notes about the data: 2007, 2010, 2014, and 2017 data include re-imputations, expansions, or other changes to the data collection process of the survey; other years, such as 1978, include estimated data. The specific level of graduate study (Masters, PhD) was not made available until 2017. Other methodological nuances and changes can be found on the GSS survey page.

 

Count and distribution of graduate students and postdoctoral appointees

Since 1975, the number of graduate students in science, engineering, and health have nearly doubled, from approximately 328,000 in 1975 to 760,000 in 2021. Postdocs have increased by over threefold over a similar period where data is available, from 18,000 in 1979 to 63,000 in 2021. See Figure 1 for more detail on trends over time.

Figure 1: Science, engineering, and health graduate student and postdoctoral appointees from 1975-2021, when available

 

While all three graduate fields of study have increased, the rate at which they have done so varies. While science has consistently held the lion’s share of graduate students, followed by engineering and health, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, enrollment in health increased much faster. From 1990 to 2006, graduate student enrollment in health doubled, from 55,000 to 111,000, while science and engineering grew at much more modest rates (26% and 14% increases, respectively).

However, 2006 was the peak of U.S. graduate enrollment in health, with the number of students dropping 26% by 2021 (see Figure 1).

Engineering graduate student enrollment has stagnated since 2014, hovering around 165,000, with the not-so-unexpected exception of a drop in 2020 enrollment due to the pandemic.

Science, however, reached an all-time-high in 2021, with nearly 510,000 enrolled graduate students in the field—a 10% increase (45,000 students) over the prior year.

Figure 2, below, shows the annual percentage share of the graduate enrollment for each field for 1975-2022, the years for which data is available.

Figure 2: Percentage share of graduate students and postdoctoral appointees in science, engineering, and health fields

 

An immediate difference can be seen when comparing graduate student enrollment to postdoc appointments, with a significantly larger proportion of postdoc appointments in health fields and a growing share in engineering. Since 1979, the first year of available postdoc data, there has been significant growth across all fields; engineering grew 682%, followed by health at 294% and science at 197%.

Science and engineering postdoc appointments have stagnated at or around their current values for a little over a decade, while engineering has continued to steadily increase, as seen in Figure 1.

An upcoming SSTI Digest article will explore a more specific breakdown of science and engineering fields of study for graduate students and postdocs.

useful stats, higher ed, enrollment, s&e