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U.S. Graduate Education and the Ph.D. Degree

by Caroline Adenberger

The Bologna Process, which aims to standardize graduate studies of the member states of the European Union (EU) by 2010, is well underway. One of its declared goals is to reshape the different doctoral programs of the EU member states into a uniform, four-year doctoral program. The U.S. doctoral education serves as one of the models for the ongoing discussion about the future European doctoral degree.


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Graduate Education: A Fertile Training Ground For Future Researchers"
According to the Association of American Universities "...graduate education at the doctoral level in the U.S. is a combination of study and apprenticeship (...), which creates a fertile training ground for future researchers and invigorates university-based research with the energy and ability of bright young graduate students. Along with taking courses and seminars, a student works with a faculty mentor in teaching and research. This is a dynamic partnership that matches the skills of an experienced faculty member with the excitement and creativity of a young colleague..."

U.S. graduate programs involve specialized knowledge and concentrated study in one area, while undergraduate study allows the student to learn about a wide range of subjects while preparing to major in one of them.

There are two kinds of graduate degrees, professional degrees and research degrees, and two levels, master's and doctoral:

- The Master's Degree
It usually takes 1 to 2 years of study and is generally a final degree. The professional master's degree provides the student with a specific set of skills needed to practice a particular profession; it often involves some type of internship or fieldwork. The research master's degree provides experience in research and scholarship, and it may also involve writing a thesis. It may be a final degree or a step toward a doctorate.

- The Doctoral Degree
At the doctoral level, there are also professional degrees and research degrees. The most common of the highly specialized professional degrees are the M.D. for medical practice and the J.D. for law. The research doctoral degree involves both coursework and a particular research project. It usually takes four to six years of full-time study to get a Ph.D., depending on the field of study. The first two or three years usually involve classes, seminars and directed readings for preparing the Ph.D. candidate with a comprehensive knowledge of an academic field.

After this initial period of directed studies, the student has to pass written or oral exams to prove his or her knowledge. The successful completion of the exams and the formulation of a research project lead to the stage of candidacy. To be a candidate for a doctoral degree means that the student agrees with the institute to work on a project that includes original research and reporting about the research through a dissertation. Depending on the student, this project should take 1 to 2 years of work to complete. During this time, faculty members and a mentor guide supervise the research project, but the candidate must carry out the work independently and will be evaluated by a faculty committee at the end of his or her studies.

40,000 Doctorates a Year
Presently about 40,000 Ph.D.s (figure 1) are awarded annually in the U.S. Despite a lack of growth in 2002, the long-term trend in the number of new research doctorates has been growing: Over the last 40 years, the number of doctorates granted by U.S. universities has slightly increased by approximately 3.5 percent per year on average.

source: NSF/NIH/USED/NEH/USDA/NASA, Survey of Earned Doctorates

Approximately 400 U.S. institutions grant doctoral degrees. Out of these, only 49 award more than 50 percent of all doctoral degrees. As a result, doctoral education is concentrated in a few institutions, mainly the major research universities; offering Ph.D. programs is also a question of money. The largest "Ph.D. mills" are the major public universities, led by the University of California in Berkeley, which awarded 799 doctorates in the 2002 academic year, or 2 percent of all doctorates awarded in that time-period. The top private universities follow these major state universities in granting Ph.D.s.

The number of doctorates awarded (figure 2) are greatest in the life sciences with over 8,000 doctorates a year. Among all the doctorate recipients, as a result of a 30-year upward trend, about 50 percent are received by women. In 2002, 51 percent of all doctorates went to women, marking the first time in the U.S. women were awarded more doctorates than their male counterparts.

Figure 2. Percentage distribution of doctorate recipients by broad field, 1972 and 2002
source: NSF/NIH/USED/NEH/USDA/NASA, Survey of Earned Doctorates

About one third of all students enrolled in Ph.D. programs are non-U.S. citizens, and the majority of them are from Asian countries. The ratio of U.S. and international students varies in each field of study: The percentage of doctorates earned by U.S. citizens ranges from lows of 39 percent in engineering and 55 percent in the physical sciences, to highs of 90 percent in education and 81 percent in the humanities.

Duration of Ph.D. Programs
The median duration of attending graduate school in any graduate program is 7.5 years. Graduate school "time-to-degree" is shortest in the physical sciences with 6.8 years and engineering with 6.9 years, and is longest in the humanities with 9 years. The graph below (figure 3) indicates that one main reason for the different "time-to-degree" lies in the kind of financial support available to the students.

Figure 3. Primary sources of financial support for doctorate recipients by broad field of study
Source: NSF/NIH/USED/NEH/USDA/NASA, Survey of Earned Doctorates

Students in the sciences and engineering fields are well funded and have a reasonable "time-to-degree." In comparsion, those in the humanities and social sciences have limited funding resources. As a result of the limited funding, many doctoral students often need to take on additional work to support themselves, and in turn take longer to complete their Ph.D. program.

More detailed information on other
Ph.D.-related topics such as
- Financial support and student financial aid
- Postdoc situation

can be found on the website of the National Science Foundation.

(With special thanks to the Library and Information Service of the American Council on Education for their kind support.)


  • Hoffer, T.B., S. Sederstrom, L. Selfa, V. Welch, M. Hess, S. Brown, S. Reyes, K. Webber, and I. Guzman-Barron. 2003. Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 2002. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center. (This report gives the results of data collected in the Survey of Earned Doctorates, conducted for six Federal agencies, NSF, NIH, USED, NEH, USDA, and NASA by NORC) http://www.norc.uchicago.edu/issues/docdata.htm
  • Bowen, William, and Neil Rudestine. (1992) In Pursuit of the Ph.D. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • Nerad, Maresi. The PhD in the US: Criticisms, Facts, and Remedies. In: Higher Education Policy, June 2004, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 183-199 (17).



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