By Ernie Tretkoff
The number of first-year physics and astronomy graduate students climbed to 3,076 in 2003, the highest number since 1994, according to a report released in October by the American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center. While the total number of new physics and astronomy graduate students has increased, the number of foreign students declined in the past two years, according to the report.
The report surveyed first-year graduate students for the academic years ending in 2002 and 2003. First-year students were defined as those entering a particular department for the first time, including those who had completed previous graduate study at another institution and transferred to their current department.
First-year graduate student enrollment has been rising steadily in the past few years. The number of graduate students fluctuates over time, the report points out. "The enrollment has never been steady. It has always been on the rise or on the fall. It's a roller coaster," said Patrick Mulvey, one of the authors of the report.
Several factors, including economic outlook and the ease with which foreign students can enter the US, influence graduate student enrollment, the report says. "Frequently, increasing graduate student enrollment coincides with poor economy. Students exiting an undergrad program sometimes, rather than entering the work force, seek shelter in a graduate program," said Mulvey. The number of students receiving bachelor's degrees in physics has also been increasing in recent years, which may explain some of the increase in first- year graduate student numbers, Mulvey added.
In the past several years, the percentage of incoming graduate students who are US citizens has increased, to 54% in 2003, up from a low of 47% in 2001. This upturn comes after a nearly 30-year decline in the percentage of students who were from the US, from a high of 80% in 1976.
The report points out that while it might be tempting to attribute this change to the impact of the events of September 11, 2001, the shift actually started with students who entered graduate school before that date.
Visa difficulties may have had an impact on the number of foreigners studying in the US, but according to the report the full effect may not show up until the class that entered in the fall of 2003, which was not included in this data set, because of delays in implementing new regulations. "The report doesn't really address enrollment changes due to visa issues," said Mulvey, "Because the report only goes up to the fall of 2002, it doesn't deal with all that post-9/11 stuff."
Asia sends far more students to the US than any other region, with China and India sending the most students. In 2002 and 2003, 29% of foreign first-year graduate students came from China, up from 25% in 1999 and 2000. The percentage of foreign students coming from Europe declined during that time period, from 37% to 25%.
The report also found that women are increasing their representation among physics and astronomy graduate students. In 2003 women made up slightly more than 20% of first-year students, up from about 16% in 1995.
Over 90% of first-year physics and astronomy graduate students reported that they considered themselves at least adequately prepared for graduate work, and most considered themselves "well prepared" or "very well prepared."
Foreign students rated their preparation for graduate school slightly higher than US students did. Almost half of the foreign students surveyed had completed some graduate study in physics or astronomy before entering their current departments, compared with about 10% of US students.
Among US students, the most popular subfields were astronomy and astrophysics (16%), followed by condensed matter (14%), and particles and fields (11%). Condensed matter was the most popular subfield among foreign students (22%), followed by particles and fields (10%) and astronomy and astrophysics (7%). Almost a quarter of first-year students have not yet chosen a subfield.
The vast majority (93%) of students entering physics or astronomy graduate school say they are aiming for a PhD. "
Though such a large proportion may set their sights on a PhD, every year at least a third of the graduate degrees are masters, most exiting from PhD departments, indicating that a significant number of students do not reach the goal they had when they began their graduate studies" the report says.
Most students who plan to earn a PhD hope to work in academia (70%) followed by industry (17%) and government or national labs (9%). The full report is available at www.aip.org/statistics.
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