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Spring 2000

Crisis in Graduate Enrollments?

Table 1. Salaries (9-10-month contracts) of recent doctoral graduates in science and engineering.

Engineering $50,000
Chemical engineering 49,500
Computer science 47,000
Mathematics 36,000
Chemistry 35,525
Earth and space sci. 33,000
Microbiology 33,000
Physics 33,000

From Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, Salary and Employment Survey 1998. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1 March 2000.

Only a few years ago, the UCAR community was worried about overproduction of graduate students (see "Are we graduating too many atmospheric scientists?" in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 1996, 1225-1267). The universities and the National Weather Service were hiring very few new graduates, and a significant concern was whether there would be enough suitable jobs for the large and increasing number of graduates in the atmospheric and related sciences (including oceanography, space science, and the earth sciences). There were even suggestions that departments of atmospheric science should begin limiting the number of graduates. The community eventually decided that it was not up to the universities to artificially limit graduates and that growing opportunities in the private sector could make up for the reduced hiring in the universities and the government. This decision may turn out to have been very wise, but not necessarily for the reasons given at the time.

During the past year, members of the UCAR Board of Trustees have expressed concern about a perceived sudden drop in the number of qualified students applying to their graduate departments. Gabor Vali (University of Wyoming) was the first to sound the alarm, but his concerns resonated with the other trustees. To ascertain how widespread the problem is, UCAR will be conducting a short survey of all UCAR member institutions in the next few weeks, asking for some simple quantitative and qualitative estimates of the magnitude of the problem.

Figure 1. Number of Ph.D.s awarded in the atmospheric sciences, oceanography, and marine studies. From Science and Engineering Doctorate Awards: 1998, NSF Division of Science Resource Studies, Arlington, VA, NSF 00-304.

Figure 2. Age distribution of full-time doctoral scientific and engineering faculty, including full, associate, and assistant professors and instructors. From Science and Engineering Indicators: 1998, National Science Board, NSF, Arlington, VA, NSB 98-1.

Figure 3. Age distribution of full-time doctoral scientific and engineering faculty (defined as in Figure 2) at research universities and other academic institutions. From Science and Engineering Indicators: 1998.

In the meantime, Gabor has pointed out several interesting studies that provide evidence that the perceived problem may be real and widespread. Figure 1 shows the number of Ph.D.s awarded in the atmospheric sciences (A), oceanography alone (O) and with marine sciences (M), and the sum of all of these. After a steady rise throughout most of the 1990s (the period when our community was concerned about overproduction), the number of Ph.D. graduates in all of these fields dropped precipitously in 1998. For comparison, the number of doctoral degrees in all sciences increased at an average rate of 2.2% per year over this period and did not drop in 1998.

If the sudden decline in doctoral degrees in 1998 is the start of a widespread and persistent trend, the implications for our field could be significant and disturbing. In an extreme case, the viability of some graduate departments may be threatened. More generally, the opportunities and challenges offered by the global environment, where the atmospheric sciences play a critical role, demand a steady supply of young, energetic, and creative talent.

It is a common perception that the faculty in departments of atmospheric and related sciences is aging, following the trend in all scientific and engineering fields. As Figure 2 shows, the percentage of doctoral faculty aged 21-45 has declined from about 65% in 1973 to about 45% in 1995. The percentage of faculty under 35 has decreased even more, from about 30% in 1973 to about 12% in 1995. Figure 3 shows the same shift in another way; the age distribution of doctoral scientists in the universities shifted dramatically toward higher ages from 1973 to 1995. Assuming that, on average, scientists are most creative in their younger years, the vitality of the scientific work force is a serious issue.

It is important to understand the reason for the drop in graduates shown in Figure 1 and, if it continues, to address the underlying causes. Many of us believe that the intellectual excitement of the atmospheric sciences, the importance of the field to society, and the availability of powerful observational and theoretical tools to advance the science have never been higher. Perhaps our community is not communicating these aspects of our field to students across a range of disciplines, backgrounds, and cultures. More practical issues, such as the long time and great effort needed to obtain a doctorate and the relatively meager financial rewards at the end of the process, may be among the most important reasons for the declining interest. For example, the salaries of new doctorates in the earth and space sciences run considerably below those in other disciplines, as the table shows.

Whatever the reasons for the decline in the number of graduate applications and the number of doctoral graduates, we as a community should seek ways to increase the number of qualified applicants. An important aspect of any strategy is to increase the diversity in our field. Caucasian males, who have for so long dominated the field, compose only 33% of the primary and secondary student population in the United States. In addition to all the other good reasons for increasing diversity, the demographics say that we must extend our human resource recruiting pool to all people of the nation.

On behalf of the UCAR trustees, I ask all UCAR member institutions to complete the survey that will be sent out soon. Thanks.

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Edited by Carol Rasmussen, carolr@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Thu May 4 14:53:14 MDT 2000