The Long Haul to a Doctorate
[Reprinted from a collection of essays, Headline
News, Science Views, published by National Academy Press, 1991. At
the time this essay was published, Susan Coye was a project officer
with the National Research Council]
Universities are opening for the fall term, and young people who
received their bachelor's degrees this past spring are coming face to
face with their decision to either enter graduate school or go to work
For many bright students, the choice was easy. They decided to spend
two years in business school or three years in law school, an
investment likely to yield a healthy starting salary and desirable
career track. But for other top graduates, those interested in science
and engineering fields, the decision was more agonizing. For them,
getting a doctorate takes about seven years, followed by up to three
years in a postdoctoral appointment.
Little wonder that many of these graduates are saying, "Thanks,
but no thanks." There is a growing decline of Americans pursuing
doctorates in scientific and engineering fields, and one reason is
that it takes longer and longer to earn a Ph.D.
This is a dilemma not only for the students themselves but for any
American who wants new medicines, better transportation, a cleaner
environment or new consumer products. A steady supply of doctoral
recipients is essential to teach, do research and create the knowledge
that private industry uses to develop new products and services.
Although graduate enrollments are rising in the sciences and
engineering, most of the increase is now due to foreign students - and
many of them return to their homeland.
In 1967, it took about five years to earn a doctorate in technical
fields. Now it takes two years longer. Since many students take time
off during their studies, the mean total time between receiving a
bachelor's and doctoral degrees actually is 10 years. During the past
two decades, this "total time to the doctorate" has
increased by as little as four months in economics to nearly three
years in the health sciences, with increases of at least two years in
mathematics, psychology and the social sciences.
For students, this means more debt, less income and perhaps
postponing the start of a family. Although most scientists do love
their work, few are so single-minded as not to consider other career
options. If they choose to become lawyers, investment bankers or
something else, their skills and insight probably are lost forever to
We also are missing the opportunity to diversify the scientific work
force by widening our country's traditional pool of technical talent -
white male doctoral students. As the number of these students declines
in physics, chemistry, earth sciences, mathematics and engineering,
more women and minorities are acutely needed to fill the ranks. But
their talents, too, will be lost as many of them size up the current
situation and head elsewhere.
Taxpayers also suffer. Graduate students pay only about 12 percent of
the approximate $25,000 annual cost of their education. The rest
generally comes from federal research grants, the budgets of state
universities and other public sources. Adding a couple of years to the
time required of 13,000 American students adds up to "real money"
that otherwise might be spent on financial aid for minority students,
new research facilities or other pressing needs.
Some have suggested that this disturbing trend is the result of the
additional time needed to cover the explosion in scientific knowledge.
After all, there is much more to learn than there was in Thomas
Edison's era. Yet this justification fails to explain why students in
the same field take such varying lengths of time to complete their
degrees. Those with fellowships or research assistantships usually
complete their degrees more quickly than others. In fact, students
paying their own way often need five or six years more to complete
their doctorates. In other words, the problem is not scientific
complexity so much as financial inadequacy.
The problem goes beyond money to include market forces, university
policies, student readiness and other factors. Whatever the reasons,
the road to the doctorate has become too prolonged, both for students
and for society generally. If our nation wants continued technical
advances, it must make it easier for its sons and daughters to get the
advanced training they need.