Size of Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy Programs - Test

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FocusOn - Statistical Research Center - The AMerican Institutue of Physics

Size of Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy Programs - Test

Data from the AIP Enrollments and Degrees and Academic Workforce Surveys
January 1980
Patrick Mulvey, John Tyler, Starr Nicholson, and Rachel Ivie

This report presents data on the relative size of undergraduate physics and astronomy programs. Each year, many undergraduate physics and astronomy programs are required to undergo a departmental review and, in some cases, are asked to justify their continued degree-granting status. This focus on is intended to assist those departments by presenting data that will permit individual departments to see where they fit on the national landscape of physics and astronomy bachelor's degree production. 

This focus on provides data on the size of degree-granting physics and astronomy departments by examining the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded and the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) faculty members employed. The benchmarking data in this focus on is intended to allow physics and astronomy departments to see how they fit in the national landscape of physics and astronomy bachelor’s degree production.

Table 1

Bachelor's degrees and number of physics departments

THE 2014 ACADEMIC WORKFORCE SURVEY
During the spring semester of 2014, we contacted all physics and astronomy degree-granting departments in the US and asked for the number of full-time equivalent faculty members they employ.

The size of undergraduate physics and astronomy programs varies considerably by the highest degree a department offers; thus, the data in this focus on are presented separately for departments whose highest degree is a bachelors, masters, or PhD.

Bachelor’s Degree-Granting Physics Departments

Departments that award a bachelor’s as their highest physics degree are relatively small when compared to doctoral-granting physics departments, both in number of faculty members and the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded. Even so, in the 2013-14 academic year, these 496 departments awarded 3,150, or 42%, of the 7,526 physics bachelor’s degrees that year. Table 1 shows the average and median number of degrees conferred by type of department.

Table 2

Size of bachelor's class in physics departments offering only bachelor's degrees

Slightly more than half of the physics departments that award a bachelor’s degree as their highest degree averaged 5 or fewer degrees per year.

The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by a department is correlated with the number of full-time equivalent physics faculty they employ. Physics departments that award a bachelor’s degree as their highest degree typically have between 3 and 8 FTE faculty members and granted an average of 6.3 and a median of 5 bachelor’s degrees per department between 2012 and 2014. Figure 1 shows this correlation.

Figure 1

Size of bachelor's class by number of fte faculty

Physics departments that award a bachelor’s degree as their highest degree typically have between 3 and 8 full-time equivalent faculty.

Master’s Degree-Granting Physics Departments

Departments that award a master’s degree as their highest degree are relatively uncommon among physics departments, comprising only 7% of the 744 departments with undergraduate physics programs in 2014. These master’s-granting departments often fill an important niche in preparing students for both the workforce and for continued graduate studies.

Table 3

Size of bachelor's class in physics departments

About one-third of the physics departments that award a master’s degree as their highest degree averaged 5 or fewer bachelor’s degrees per year.

Physics departments that award a master’s degree as their highest degree are larger than bachelor’s-only departments and typically have between 9 and 16 full-time equivalent faculty members. These departments granted an average of 8.0 bachelor’s degrees per department between 2012 and 2014. Figure 2 shows the correlation between number of bachelor’s degrees and FTE faculty members in master’s-granting departments.

Figure 2

Size of bachelor's class

Physics departments that award a master’s degree as their highest degree typically have between 9 and 16 full-time equivalent faculty.

PhD-Granting Physics Departments

PhD-granting departments made up 26% of physics degree-granting departments in the US in 2014 and awarded a little over half (52%) of the bachelor’s degrees conferred in recent years

Table 4

Size of bachelor's class in physics departments

The undergraduate programs at PhD-granting physics departments vary considerably in size. There are a few (11%) relatively small departments averaging 5 or fewer bachelor’s degrees and some very large ones (9%) averaging 50 or more bachelors. PhD-granting departments awarded an average of 19.5 bachelor’s degrees annually between 2012 and 2014. It should be noted that the few very large PhD departments influence the average number of bachelor’s conferred at these departments. In fact, the median number of bachelor’s degrees at PhD departments is 13, much less than the average. Figure 3 shows the correlation between the number of FTE faculty members and bachelor’s degrees awarded by PhD-granting physics departments.

Figure 3

Size of bachelor's class

Astronomy Departments

In the academic year 2013-14, there were 72 departments in the US that conferred undergraduate astronomy degrees. Of these departments, 33 were separate astronomy departments, and 39 were part of a combined physics and astronomy department. The data in Table 5 and Figure 4 include data for only the 33 separate astronomy departments.

Table 5

Astronomy bachelors degrees

In the 2013-14 academic year, separate astronomy departments had between 2 and 66.5 FTE faculty members and averaged 8.5 astronomy bachelor’s degrees between 2012 and 2014. Figure 4 shows the correlation between the number of FTE faculty members and bachelor’s degrees awarded by the separate astronomy departments.

ThThere is considerably more variation in the number of bachelors conferred and full-time equivalent faculty at separate PhD-granting astronomy departments than at astronomy departments where a bachelors or masters is the highest degree offered.

Figure 4

Size of bachelor's class

Conclusion

The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by a department is correlated with the number of full-time equivalent faculty members they employ, and the correlation varies by highest degree offered by the department. The bachelor’s-only departments had a median of 5 bachelors conferred with a typical number of 4 to 9 FTE faculty members. PhD-granting departments had a median of 13 bachelors conferred with a typical number of 18 to 40 FTE faculty members.

While keeping in mind that some faculty members at PhD-granting departments may not have any undergraduate teaching responsibilities and instead focus on graduate students or research, bachelor’s-granting departments produce more bachelors per FTE faculty member than PhD-granting departments. Figure 5 shows that 25% of bachelor’s-granting departments produce about 1.5 bachelors or more per FTE faculty member. However, this is true only for about 5% of PhD-granting departments.

Figure 5

Average number of bachelor's degrees awarded

Download Figures and Tables

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