APS News

Physics Bachelor's Degrees Show 40% Gain in Six Years

The number of physics degrees awarded at all levels in the US increased in 2005. The information comes from the recently released Enrollments and Degrees Report, 2005, from the AIP statistical research center, which surveys physics departments annually.

The number of physics bachelor’s degrees has been increasing steadily for the past 6 years, reaching 5113 in 2005. This represents a 40% increase over the recent low in 1999. Astronomy bachelor’s degrees have risen sharply in the past few years, with 343 awarded in 2005.

The recent gain “substantially outpaces gains seen in degree production for related majors during the same time period,” the report says, but physics remains a relatively unpopular major, with just 3.6 out of every 1000 bachelor’s degrees in all fields in 2005, and about 2% of the bachelor’s degrees in natural sciences, math, and engineering, according to the report.

The study mentions several possible reasons for the upward trends, including increases in the college age population, the proportion of high school graduates going to college, and the number of high school students taking physics. In addition, the report suggests that some efforts by the physics community may also be responsible for some of the increase in physics majors, though the effect of those programs is hard to measure. The study mentioned two such initiatives: the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics’ Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics: Project Report (SPIN-UP), and a workshop for new physics faculty organized by AAPT.

Based on junior enrollment figures and the predicted college age population, “It is probably safe to predict that physics bachelor’s production will continue to increase for at least the next few years,” the report says.

As reported in the August/September APS News, APS supports doubling the number of bachelor’s degrees, in part to produce more high school physics teachers.

Graduate degrees have been increasing as well, the study found. There were 1244 physics PhDs in the class of 2005, which is 2.8 % of all PhDs in the U.S., and a 14% increase over the previous year.  The number of masters degrees, both terminal and enroute to PhD, has been increasing as well. The number of PhDs is predicted to continue to increase for at least the next few years, based on first year graduate student enrollment.

The percentage of non-US citizens among physics PhD recipients reached an all time high in 2005, at 60 percent of the class. However, “because first-year student enrollments among US citizens rose sharply in the early 2000’s, it is expected that US citizens will return to being the majority of physics PhDs by 2008 or 2009,” the report says.
Women and minorities continue to be underrepresented among physics degree recipients at all levels. Among bachelor’s degree recipients, in 2005, 21% were women, similar to the preview few years. Among PhDs, the representation of women declined to 14% of the class of 2005, down from 18% in 2002. The report points out that the number of women is small, and “although short-term trends can seem significant, it is advisable to view the overall trend for several years.”

The report is online at www.aip.org/statistics/catalog.html.