By Richard M. Todaro
The number of people receiving physics bachelor's degrees continued to drop in 1999, reaching a 40-year low, and the number of people receiving physics PhD degrees slid in 1999, marking the fifth consecutive decline, according to a just-released report from the American Institute of Physics.
But the report notes that the number of undergraduate students in their junior year who were enrolled in physics programs in 1999-2000 rose four percent over the previous year.
"In the near future, I expect an increase in the number of physics bachelor's degrees," said Patrick Mulvey, a technical research associate with the American Institute of Physics and lead author of the report. "I look to see if that number is rising or falling. I use that as a method to anticipate whether the number of degrees are going to be doing in a year or two."
Mulvey also said that an upturn in such undergraduate physics program enrollment will likely eventually translate into an increase in the number of physics PhD degrees.
"The majority of people who go on to get a PhD in physics have a bachelor's of science in physics. Almost half of all people with bachelor's physics degrees continue with graduate school. This is not true of other fields."
Other significant findings in the report include the growing representation of women receiving physics bachelor's degrees, and the continued significant under-representation of Hispanics and African Americans among physics degree recipients at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
In a fall 1999 survey of 762 degree-granting physics departments across the United States, Mulvey and co-author Starr Nicholson found that 3,646 physics bachelor's of science degrees were conferred in the class of 1999. This represents a decline of 175 degrees or about five percent over the class of 1998 and a drop of 1,304 degrees or 26 percent over the class of 1991.
The vast majority of these degrees or about 93 percent of the total-were awarded to US citizens, since foreign students as a rule generally do not study physics at the undergraduate level in the United States.
Women earned 21 percent of the physics bachelor's degrees conferred in 1999, a new high and up 3 percent over the 1998 number. Back in 1978, women accounted for just 9 percent of the total receiving bachelor degrees in physics. By contrast, women earned 13 percent of the physics PhD degrees conferred in 1999, a number up from 7 percent in 1978.
African Americans and Hispanics were once again poorly represented among bachelor's degree recipients in 1999. Only 160 African Americans received a physics bachelor's degree in 1999, a number that represents just under five percent of the total number of US citizens that received such degrees.
The 3,646 physics bachelors of science degrees conferred in 1999 was almost 40 percent below the peak number achieved in 1969 when a combination of Cold War military-industrial complex needs, the Vietnam War, and the Apollo space program helped turn out about 6,000 physics bachelor's degrees, and it is the lowest number since the mid-1950s. After dropping in the 1970s, physics bachelor's degree production was relatively flat in the 1980s before beginning its decade-long slide in the 1990s.
At the graduate level, the report found the number of Ph.Ds conferred to the class of 1999 was 1,262, a drop of about five percent over the previous year. This number is off about 15 percent from the class of 1994.
The number of physics Masters degrees conferred has fallen even more dramatically during the same period. In 1999, there were 671 physics Masters degrees conferred, down 14 percent from 1998 and off 37 percent from the class of 1994.
As with bachelor's degrees, the number of PhDs conferred in the past half century has reflected social trends and the two numbers have mostly moved in tandem. PhD degree production soared in the 1950s and 1960s before falling in the 1970s and stabilizing in the 1980s.
A notable exception occurred between 1991 and 1994, when PhD degree production spiked 34 percent even as bachelor's degree production began its decade long decline. The spike is attributable to a temporary change in US immigration policy toward Chinese students studying in the US in the wake of the Chinese government crackdown on the pro-democracy movement.
The report indicates why changes in the number of foreign students should affect the physics graduate degree numbers so much. Whereas US students accounted for 93 percent of the bachelor's degrees recipients in the class of 1999, they accounted for just 58 percent of the physics Master's degrees recipients and 53 percent of the physics PhD degree recipients among the class of 1999.
The proportion of US citizens receiving physics graduate degrees is likely to fall even more. Foreign students now comprise 49 percent of the physics graduate school population in the United States and they accounted for 53 percent of the 1999 first year graduate students.
By contrast, the number of African Americans and Hispanics receiving graduate degrees in physics remains very low. Only 24 African Americans received Master's degrees and only 10 received PhD degrees in physics in 1999. Among Hispanics, the numbers were 9 and 10, respectively.
Mulvey said that growth in the number of foreign students is likely to propel an overall increase in PhD production in coming years. His report found that for the first time since 1992, the number of first-year graduate student enrollments had a "significant increase," rising four percent over the previous year to 2,510 students, and that most of this increase came from a jump in foreign students.
"There was a six percent jump in foreign students compared to a one percent increase in US students, which equated to a four percent increase overall," Mulvey said.
In a November 2000 report, Mulvey found that 95 percent of first-year foreign students had received the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in physics. He also estimated that over half of foreign students enrolling in graduate physics programs in the United States in 1997-1998 had more than the equivalent of a bachelor's degree, with many having the equivalent of a Master's degree.
"Much of this discrepancy in educational background is attributable to the differences between undergraduate programs in the US and undergraduate-equivalent programs abroad, which may cover the physics curriculum in greater depth and require more years to complete," Mulvey wrote in that report.
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