from abroad.3 Trends in the enrollment of foreign graduate students—a substantial portion of students in many fields and a majority in some—are also affected by many factors, including home country political conditions and employment and training opportunities, the availability of home country financial support for graduate education abroad, and opportunities for permanent residence and eventual employment in the United States.

While acknowledging that a host of factors influences trends in graduate enrollment in different disciplines, this chapter seeks to relate trends in federal obligations for university research to graduate enrollments in subfields of science, engineering, and health, and to anticipate what recent increases and reductions in research support mean for the production of people with advanced technical degrees. To the extent that graduate enrollment is affected by changes in research funding, changes in enrollment should appear within a year or two. Analyzing trends in awarded doctoral degrees is more complicated because of the substantial time lag between initial enrollment and completion of Ph.D. degree requirements—on average between 6.6 and 7.5 years in the natural sciences, engineering, and social sciences.4 Thus, it may take 7 years for enrollment increases in a field to show up in doctoral award data, although the effect of declining enrollment on doctorates may show up earlier as students drop out of degree programs or switch fields.

The analysis that follows draws principally on data from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSPSE), which allows us to examine trends in graduate enrollment by field, by mechanism of support (i.e., research assistantship, teaching assistantship, traineeship or fellowship) and by source of support (i.e., federal government agency, nonfederal sources, institutional support, and self-support). Federal support is in the form of research assistantships, fellowships, and traineeships. Research assistantships (RAships) now account for a large majority of students with federal support in most fields except for the medical sciences, where traineeships and fellowships are the dominant mode of government support. RAships are typically the only form of federal government support for which non-U.S. citizens are eligible. Self-support includes loans (including federal loans), personal and family contributions, and foreign government grants for foreign nationals’ study in the United States. The analysis also draws on data gathered on doctorate awards by field for U.S. and non-U.S. citizens from the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED). The field classification used in both surveys is similar but not identical to the classification of research fields used in the Federal Funds Survey and in Chapter II. Here aeronautical and astronautical engineering are combined as “aerospace engineering.” Environmental biology is combined with biological sciences, and “health sciences” encompasses most of the clinical fields that comprise “medical sciences.”5

In general we find a high but not perfect correlation between declining research funding in the mid-1990s and declining graduate student enrollment and Ph.D. production through 1999.6 Fields that experienced increasing federal research support show a mixed pattern of enrollment and Ph.D. output. The anomalies—fields with rising research funding and declining enrollment (aeronautical, astronautical, chemical, civil, and materials engineering; astronomy, agricultural sciences, atmospheric and ocean sciences and psychology)7 —underscore that there are other factors at work and demonstrate the complexity of any causal analysis or, to the extent that the decreases are of concern, of any attempt to boost enrollment and Ph.D. awards.

The data may be misleading in one respect. Although the role of federally funded research assistantships, fellowships, and traineeships varies greatly among fields, in general less than one-third of graduate students are reported to be supported principally by federal funds and in some cases—e.g., much of engineering, computer science, and agriculture—the share is closer to 20 percent. This might lead one to conclude that federal research funding is a relatively small factor in enrollment trends. Yet the data on sources of support reflect students’ principal funding at a snapshot in time. Over the typical 6 to 7 year graduate education career leading to the Ph.D., students are likely to receive support from different sources. Thus, the proportion of students who during their tenure receive some support from federal research grants and contracts is undoubtedly higher than one third. Moreover, the availability of research assistantships enables institutions to allocate resources to other purposes and thus has powerful indirect effects on enrollment and institutional operations generally.


William G.Bowen and Neil L.Rudenstine. 1992. In Pursuit of the Ph.D., Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. 1995. Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.


Allen R.Sanderson, Bernard L.Guoni, et al. 2000. Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report, 1999, pp. 54. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center.


See Appendix.


The decline in graduate enrollment in science and engineering is not explained by an overall decline in the number of students graduating from U.S. institutions with appropriate bachelor’s degrees. In fact, that number increased by 12.9 percent from 1992 to 1997, the last year for which NSF data are available, although there may have been declines in bachelor’s degrees in certain fields and in certain years during the decade.


Of these ten fields, four had declining research funding through 1997. There are no cases of declining research funding and rising enrollments.

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