Washington Update

NSF Releases 2020 Survey of Earned Doctorates

By: Kyle Cavagnini
Thursday, December 16, 2021
National Science Foundation released the 2020 Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) results, detailing the 2019–2020 academic year. The SED, conducted by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, is an annual census of individuals earning research doctoral degrees from accredited U.S. academic institutions. Due to the survey collection timeframe, the 2020 SED does not capture the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; the 2021 survey includes questions about the pandemic’s impact. 

The total number of research doctorate degrees awarded in the life sciences declined slightly in 2020 (12,561), compared to 2019 (12,753) (see Table 11). However, the 2020 degree number is an 11 percent increase in life sciences doctorates awarded since 2010 (see Table 12). The percentage of life sciences degrees awarded to women has remained steady in the past decade at approximately 55 percent (see Table 15). 

Life sciences doctorates awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents declined in 2020 to 8,707, down 4 percent from 2019 (see Table 22, 2019 and 2020). Considerable rates of underrepresentation in life sciences degree conferral continue to be reported for systemically excluded populations. Notably, in 2020 6.4 percent of doctorates awarded went to Black or African American individuals and 0.3 percent went to American Indian or Alaska Native individuals, compared to their relative 13.4 percent and 1.3 percentage of the total U.S. population in the 2020 U.S. Census. These data emphasize that, while progress has been made to address systemic inequities and barriers within graduate education compared to 2000 and 2010 metrics (see Table 23), ongoing commitment to equity is necessary. 

The SED annually queries graduate debt. A majority (72 percent) of life sciences doctorate recipients reported no debt related to their graduate education. However, individuals identifying as Black or African American and American Indian or Alaska Native were more than twice as likely to use their own resources to fund a doctorate in life sciences compared to their white counterparts (see Table 35). 

The long-term trends captured in the annual SED illustrate progress and deficiencies in key areas of research doctoral education, including equity and inclusivity, financial burdens, post-trainee career attainment, time to degree, and international trainee populations. These important data inform the stakeholders crafting the future policies governing graduate education and the scientific workforce.