APS News

Physics Bachelor's and PhDs Continue to Trend Upward

The number of physics bachelor’s degrees has increased for the seventh straight year, according to a recent report from the American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center.

The report, released in September, is based on an annual survey of physics departments in the US. This year’s report contains data on the class of 2006, the most recent year for which data are available.

In 2006, according to the report, 5373 bachelor’s degrees were awarded, five percent more than the previous year, and 47% more than in 1999.

Some of the increase in physics bachelors is accounted for by the increase in college age population and the increased number of people attending college, the report notes. Efforts to improve the undergrad experience for physics majors and efforts to increase number of physics bachelor’s degrees may also be having an effect, but that is difficult to measure, the report says.

Though numbers are increasing, physics bachelor’s degrees represent only one third of one percent of all bachelor’s degrees, and only about 2% of all bachelor’s degrees in the natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering.

About 15% of physics bachelors eventually receive a PhD in physics. About a third of physics bachelor’s degree recipients immediately enroll in physics graduate school, the report notes.

Physics PhD production was also up, with 1380 physics PhDs awarded in 2006. This is an increase of 11 percent from the year before and 26 percent from 2004. It amounts to 3% of all PhDs conferred in the United States.

The report also noted that there are 760 departments that offer a physics degree, and 187 of those offer a PhD as the highest degree. During the 2005-2006 academic year, 378,000 students took an introductory physics course.

In the fall of 2006, there were 2976 first year graduate students enrolled in physics PhD programs. International students continue to make up a substantial portion of new physics graduate students, making up more than 40 percent of first year students in the fall of 2006. However, this proportion is decreasing; more than fifty percent of first year physics graduate students were foreigners five years earlier. The proportion of physics PhDs awarded to foreigners in 2006 was 57 percent, down from a high of 60 percent the year before. Similar to recent years, foreign citizens made up only 7 percent of physics bachelor’s degree recipients.

The proportion of women among physics bachelor’s degree recipients was the same as the previous year, 21%, and is still among the lowest in the natural sciences and engineering. Women earned 17% of physics PhDs in 2006. As in previous years, underrepresented minorities continue to make up only a very small portion of physics degree recipients. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) still produce more than half of the African American physics bachelor’s degree recipients.

The report, and more information is online at the AIP Statistical Research Center.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan