Washington Update

NSF Spotlights COVID-19 Impacts in 2021 Survey of Earned Doctorates

By: Grace Steward
Wednesday, December 21, 2022
The National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics released the 2021 Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) Report earlier this month, revealing data on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on doctoral education. This edition of the annual census of all research doctorate degree earners in the United States also made a large shift in how it classifies fields of study.  The change in taxonomy singles out “biological and biomedical sciences” in its own category, where previously it was a part of the broad field of “life sciences.” The increased granularity will enable improved tracking of predoctoral training trends in fields of interest to FASEB. 

In 2021, nearly half of all doctorate recipients said their research had been disrupted by COVID-19. This disturbance was worst in the biological and biomedical sciences, where 66 percent of graduates reported disruption. Similar rates were seen in other fields where access to laboratories and other resources are critical to research. In line with this data, nearly half of those in the biological and biomedical sciences reported the timeline for completing their doctoral degree was delayed. Despite these disruptions, reduced or suspended doctoral funding remained in single digits for all science and engineering (S&E) fields.

In annual trends, the number of doctoral recipients dropped more than 5 percent, in the steepest one-year decline in SED history. In the biological and biomedical sciences, this decrease was about 3 percent. Despite the reduction in recent years, the number of doctorates awarded in the biological and biomedical sciences in 2021 was still more than 40 percent higher than those 20 years ago. With delays from COVID-19 impacting the time to degree completion, this will be an important long-term trend to watch in future years.

While the proportion of those pursuing postdoctoral training has increased in aggregate S&E fields since 2019, biological and biomedical sciences was the only field to see a decrease in postdoctoral commitments during this period, registering a 2 percent reduction. This is a trend that has persisted over the past 20 years, during which the field of biomedical and biological sciences has seen a 10-point drop in the postdoctoral rate compared to increases in every other broad field. This cannot be explained by the difference between median postdoctoral and industry salaries alone, as that difference is below average in biomedical and biological sciences compared to the S&E field average. Despite this downward trend, the biological and biomedical sciences field still has one of the highest postdoctoral rates of all fields.

The key aspects of this report show that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on biological and biomedical researchers and training. It also emphasizes the need for further analysis on the causes of postdoctoral decline in the biomedical sciences, so that we can implement informed and robust solutions to support the biomedical research ecosystem.