Washington Update

NSF Releases 2021 Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in S&E

By: Jacqueline Robinson-Hamm
Thursday, February 9, 2023
On January 17, National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) released the most recent iteration of the Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS) with data from fall 2021. NCSES published an accompanying InfoBrief that highlights graduate enrollment increases and postdoctoral appointee decreases over time.

In the biological and biomedical sciences, the number of graduate students is at an all time high of slightly more than 100,000. As of 2011, there were approximately 75,000 biological and biomedical graduate students. In 2021, the overall number of enrolled graduate students disaggregated into 58,155 doctoral students and 42,728 master’s students. Postdoctoral appointees did not see appreciable growth like their graduate student counterparts. Instead, the number of postdoctorates in biological and biomedical sciences stayed relatively steady over the past decade: 21,107 in 2011 and 20,245 in 2021. Despite being a relatively small population overall, doctorate-holding nonfaculty researchers also saw meaningful gains, from only 6,224 in 2011 to 8,187 in 2021 in the biological and biomedical sciences.

Temporary visa-holding postdocs in the biological and biomedical sciences continued to hold the majority, at about 54 percent, compared to U.S. citizens and permanent resident in 2021. Graduate students in the biological and biomedical sciences were in stark contrast, with only 13.7 percent of master’s students and 25.6 percent of doctoral students holding temporary visas.

Of the U.S. citizens and permanent residents, white graduate students and postdoctorates remained the majority racial identity in the biological and biomedical sciences in 2021. Although representation is increasing for some historically excluded ethnic and racial identities, the percent share of the whole tended to decrease with each educational and career stage. For example, Hispanic and Latino biological and biomedical scientists made up 11.8 percent of master’s students in 2021, but only 9.4 percent of doctoral students and 3.7 percent of postdoctorates. Similar decreases in representation were seen for Black or African American biologists: 9.5 percent of master’s students, 4.3 percent of doctoral students, and only 1.4 percent of postdoctorates.

Female representation remained strong for 2021 graduate students in biological and biomedical scientists, with 66.2 percent of master’s and 57.5 percent of doctoral students self-identifying as female. Postdoctoral appointees were not quite at parity—45.9 percent were female. 

Primary source of support for biological and biomedical scientists in 2021 varied by career stage. Most master’s students, 68.5 percent, relied on self-support, whereas doctoral students and postdoctorates tended to receive funding from other sources. PhD students were most often supported by institutional funds (54.4 percent) and federal funding (35.5 percent), and majority of postdocs were supported by federal funds (56.2 percent). Assessing federal funding sources only, National Institutes of Health was the largest contributor to both doctoral student and postdoctoral funding at more than 70 percent each. 

Additional information about the scientific workforce can be viewed here