APS News

AIP Survey Finds Increase in Physics Degrees

In 2004, US physics departments awarded 495 bachelor’s degrees, a 36% increase from the low in 1999.

The number of bachelor’s degrees in physics continues to increase, and PhD production is expected to increase in the next few years as well, according to a recent report by the AIP Statistical Research Center.

The 2004 Enrollments and Degrees Report reports the results of a survey sent to all 767 US physics departments in the fall of 2004.

Among other findings, the survey found that increasing numbers of undergraduates are taking an introductory physics course; about 362,000 students took an introductory class in 2004.

In 2004, US physics departments awarded 4965 bachelor’s degrees, a 36% increase over the low in 1999.

 In fact, there had been steady declines in the 1990’s, but now undergraduate degree production has risen sharply for the fifth year in a row, the report states. Physics bachelor’s degrees account for less than 0.4% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in the US. Foreign citizens make up only about 6% of bachelors recipients.

About one-third of new bachelor’s degree recipients immediately enroll in graduate school in physics or astronomy, and an additional fifth immediately enroll in graduate school in some other field, mostly engineering. The rest enter the workforce.

The number of US citizens enrolling as first year graduate students increased slightly from 2003 to 2004, and is up by 50% from the low in 1998. However, the number of foreign citizens enrolling as first year graduate students fell by 11% from 2003 to 2004. The total number of first year graduate students in the fall of 2004 was 3040, a decrease of 4% from the previous year.

Some foreign students who expected to enroll in a graduate program were delayed by visa problems. Previous surveys found that in 2002 about 20% of foreign students were at least initially prevented from attending their intended graduate program. By 2004, only 12% were delayed or prevented from attending.

Foreign students made up about 43% of the first year students at US physics departments in 2004. This is the lowest percentage since the early 1990’s. According to the report, this is attributable more to changes in US citizen enrollment than to changes in the number of foreigners enrolling.

There were 1090 PhDs awarded in the class of 2004, about 26% fewer than the number of PhDs produced about a decade ago.

On average, PhD recipients in 2002 and 2003 reported taking six years of full time study and research to complete their degrees.

PhD production has been flat for the past several years. Based on first year enrollment figures and the average time it takes students to earn a degree, the report’s authors predict steady increases in the number of physics PhDs through the 2009-2010 academic year. The proportion of PhDs earned by foreign citizens has increased from 45% in 2000 to 54% in 2004, but the study predicts that US citizens will be the majority again within a few years.

In the PhD class of 2003, 68% accepted a postdoc as their first position. The percentage accepting postdocs continues to increase, according to the report.

The proportion of bachelors degrees in physics awarded to women increased since 1993 to a high of 23% in 2001, and has leveled out since then. The proportion of PhDs awarded to women dropped to 16% in 2004, down from the high of 18% in 2003.

Minorities continue to be underrepresented among physics degree recipients at all levels, the report states.

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) accounted for 52% of all physics bachelors and 31% of PhDs conferred to African Americans, the study found.




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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff