Physics Enrollments and Degrees Growing

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Publication date: 
26 August 2005

A survey of the class of 2003 in physics departments around the country shows continued large increases in the number of undergraduate physics degrees produced, a "remarkably rapid rise" in the number of U.S. students starting physics graduate school, and, for the first time in almost a decade, an increase in the number of physics PhDs awarded. Information from this survey, conducted by the American Institute of Physics's Statistical Research Center, has been compiled in the "Enrollments and Degrees Report, 2003."

Ninety-six percent of the physics and astronomy departments contacted responded to the survey. Those results show that, after "hitting a four-decade low" in 1999, physics bachelor's degree production has continued to increase sharply, climbing to 4553 bachelor's degrees awarded in 2003. The report finds that the number of students choosing to take an introductory physics course has also been "slowly rising," to about 360,000 during the 2002-2003 academic year. "Foreign citizens and permanent residents continue to make up only a small fraction of the undergraduate physics degrees conferred in the U.S." at only 6% of the class of 2003, the report says. Approximately half of new physics bachelors were found to continue to graduate school immediately after receiving their undergraduate degree, with about two-thirds remaining in physics or astronomy. However, the report notes that "only about 1 in 7 of U.S. physics bachelor's recipients eventually receive a physics or astronomy PhD."

A total of 3168 students entered U.S. graduate programs in physics in 2003, the fifth consecutive increase in a row. The fraction of international students in first-year graduate classes has dropped from 55% in 2000 to 46% in 2003, a decline which the report says is not due to a decrease in the number of foreign students, but to "a remarkably rapid rise in the number of entering U.S. students." From a low in 1998, the report shows that "new U.S. student enrollments have increased 47% while new foreign student enrollments have increased only 16%." The report also finds that "although some of the shifts in recent incoming foreign student enrollments can be attributed to heightened visa regulations, it should be noted that foreign student enrollments experienced a decline prior to [September 11, 2001] and have now risen for the students entering in the fall of 2003."

In the class of 2003, 672 students "exited physics departments with a master's degree," according to the report. It found that slightly over a quarter of the U.S. citizens who left a department with a master's degree, and about three-quarters of the foreign students, continued in a graduate program at another department.

The 1106 physics PhDs awarded in 2003 represent "a 1% increase in physics PhD production over the class of 2002," the report says; "this increase marks the end of 8 years of steady declines." For the first time, in the classes of 2002 and 2003, "foreign citizens comprised over half of the new doctorates (52%)." The report found "a sharp increase in the proportion of new PhDs accepting postdocs," from 45% at the end of the last decade to 68% of the class of 2003.

The proportion of women earning undergraduate degrees in physics grew steadily from 1994 to 2001, and leveled out about 22% in the classes of 2002 and 2003, the report says. It also found that women made up 21% of the 2003 class of exiting master's degree recipients, and reached "an all time high" of 18% at the doctoral level. The report notes that "this recent sharp increase is largely a result of an increase in the proportion of women among PhD recipients who were foreign citizens."

According to the report, "Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans continue to be seriously under-represented among physics degree recipients." It found that the 35 Historically Black Colleges and Universities that have physics degree programs "were responsible for conferring 49% of all the physics bachelor's degrees conferred to African-Americans in the class of 2003."

The responses from astronomy departments showed that "the number of astronomy bachelor's degrees conferred in recent years has risen sharply to an all time him" of 325 in 2002 and 2003. The report attributes this largely to "a sharp increase in the number of women receiving astronomy bachelor's degrees." A total of 22 exiting astronomy master's degrees were conferred in 2003, and 88 astronomy PhDs. "Women and foreign citizens," the report says, "each comprise about a quarter of the new astronomy doctorates. This is only the second time in over a decade that astronomy PhD production has fallen below 100 degrees." But it adds that with first-year astronomy enrollments growing, "it is likely that PhD production will not remain at this lower level."

AIP's Statistical Research Center produces a number of reports on enrollments, degrees, employment, and demographics in the fields of physics and astronomy. The report highlighted above, "Enrollments and Degrees Report, 2003," (AIP Pub. No. R-151.40) and other products of the Statistical Research Center can be found at

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