Graduate, Post-Graduate Trends in U.S. and Non-U.S. S&E Students

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Publication date: 
18 August 2004

Graduate enrollments in science and engineering (S&E) fields reached a record high in the fall of 2002, according to data collected by NSF through 2002. After a downward trend beginning in 1994 and reaching a low of 404,856 in 1998, graduate S&E enrollments began rising again. They reached a peak of 455,355 in 2002, an increase of 6 percent over previous-year enrollments.

According to an NSF InfoBrief, "Graduate enrollment in 2002 grew in all major S&E fields and in nearly all subfields." Enrollment in engineering and mathematical sciences grew the fastest, with gains of more than 9 percent over 2001. Computer sciences and biological sciences experienced 6 percent gains in enrollments between 2001 and 2002, while graduate enrollment in physics increased by 4 percent over the same period.

The number of women among S&E graduate students increased more than 6 percent between 2001 and 2002, and as a fraction of S&E graduate students, women increased from 35 percent in 1992 to over 41 percent by 2001 and 2002. "The number of female students has increased every year for the last 20 years," the InfoBrief states, while the "enrollment of men declined every year from 1993 to 1998" before beginning to increase again. Underrepresented minority graduate student enrollment in these fields has increased every year in the past decade, while white, non-Hispanic student enrollment declined from 1994 to 2000.

The InfoBrief also looked at first-time S&E graduate enrollment among foreign-born, temporary visa holders, and found that between 2001 and 2002, "full-time, first-time enrollment of temporary visa holders was down about 8 percent for men and 1 percent for women. In contrast, full-time, first-time enrollment increased by almost 14 percent for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, with increases of 15 percent for men and more than 12 percent for women." The data seem to support indications that policies implemented after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks may have "adversely affected" first-time enrollments for certain foreign-born students. The InfoBrief found that, in 2002, "first-time graduate enrollment of students with temporary visas declined in all S&E major fields except biological and social sciences.... The greatest loss was in computer sciences."

This NSF InfoBrief (NSF 04-326, June 2004), entitled "Graduate Enrollment in Science and Engineering Fields Reaches a New Peak; First-Time Enrollment of Foreign Students Declines," can be found at

Another NSF InfoBrief, on the movement overseas of U.S.-born S&E doctorate recipients, finds that "relatively few U.S.-born S&E doctorate recipients from U.S. universities plan to work or study abroad at the time of receiving their doctorates." The number planning to study or work outside of the U.S. in 2002 was 289, or 3 percent of U.S. native-born S&E PhDs, and the InfoBrief reports that except for two brief upturns, this number has remained around 300-400 for "each year since the mid-1960's."

In 2002, of all students with PhDs from U.S. institutions, "more non-U.S. citizens than U.S.-born citizens plan to go abroad after graduation." Among non-citizens who had future plans when they were surveyed, "5 percent of S&E doctorate recipients with permanent residency visas and 25 percent of S&E doctorate recipients on temporary visas had definite plans for work or study abroad."

For U.S.-born S&E PhDs, the top destinations for postdoctoral study or employment since 1982 have remained Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, Switzerland, and Australia. "The majority (71 percent) of U.S.-born S&E doctorates in 2002 who had definite plans for work or study abroad were planning postdoctoral fellowships, research associateships, traineeships, or other study," the InfoBrief states. "Another 26 percent had definite plans for employment abroad.... The remaining 3 percent had definite plans for military service or other plans."

This InfoBrief (NSF04-327, June 2004), entitled "Emigration of U.S.-Born S&E Doctorate Recipients," can also be found at