Sep 14, 2010

For the first time, more women than men in the United States received doctoral degrees last year, the culmination of decades of change in the status of women at colleges nationwide, according to a new study undertaken by the Council of Graduate Schools.

Nathan Bell, the report's author, was online at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions and comments about the study and discuss its implications.

POLL: Wives bringing in bigger paychecks

Thank you all for your questions. I look forward to answering your questions about the report and graduate education.

What was the rate of increase in females receiving PhDs in the 1970s, 1980, 1990s, and 2000s, if these number are readily available. I ask because isn't there a dramatic rate increase in this past decade?

The percentage of doctorates earned by women has actually increased steadily over the past few decades. As recently as 2000 women earned 44% of all doctorates, compared with fewer than one-third in 1980.  Based on the consistent growth in the share of doctorates earned by women over the past several years, it was clear that women would eventually earn the majority of the doctorates awarded. Indeed, that occurred in 2008-09.

Do you count an EdD as a PhD? Do you think an PhD in Education is equivalent to a PhD in Chemistry?

The only fields excluded from the survey are law, medicine, dentistry, chiropractic, and a handful of other "first-professional" degrees.  Our survey includes Ed.D. degrees (since this is a type of doctoral degree), as well as doctorates in professional fields such as business.

Your article doesn't mention the financial incentive to get a master's or PhD in Education. Most school districts pay a higher salary to employees with a graduate degree.

There is indeed a financial incentive to earn a doctorate. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that median annual salaries for individuals with doctorates are about $30,000 higher than the median annual salaries of individuals with bachelor's degrees. In 2008, the median annual salary of individuals with a bachelor's degree as their highest degree was about $51,000, while for individuals with a master's it was about $64,000, and for those with doctoral degrees it was close to $81,000.

What percentage of women PhDs had to pay tuition vs. being completely covered by fellowships?

Does this break down differently in different fields? In science and engineering, almost no male or female PhD student has to pay their own tuition. But I don't know much about other fields.

The percentage of students receiving financial support does vary by field and degree level (master's vs. doctorate). For example, students in science and engineering fields are more likely to receive research assistantships (RAs) than students in other fields. And master's level students are more likely to take out loans than doctoral students.  We have prepared a brief report on this. It is available online at

Is what you're seeing consistent with the rise in women achieving bachelor's and master's degrees? This may just be a natural progression... if more women get bachelors, then it is likely eventually more will get masters, and so on.

What we're seeing at the doctoral level is consistent with the increases that occurred at the bachelor's and master's levels. In about 1980, women began earning the majority of bachelor's degrees, and in 1986 they began earning the majority of master's degrees.

Universities are notoriously terrible employers when it comes to providing maternal leave, daycare options, etc. for their doctoral students and professors. Women often misguidedly enter academia in the hopes of being able to achieve a career-balance in a non 9-5 office setting, only to find university employers even worse than what they were trying to avoid. Will these new statistics bring about any impetus for a sea-change that recognizes the need for supporting families?

Many U.S. universities are now focusing more on addressing the needs of their students and faculty in relation to work-life balance. In our Ph.D. Completion Project here at the Council of Graduate Schools, we have noted the importance of family leave and other work-life policies in contributing to the ability of students to complete their doctoral programs.

Why do you think there are still more women earnings PhDs in the "soft" sciences (education, social work, etc) instead of the "hard" sciences (chemistry, math, etc)?

It is true that women are underrepresented in the natural sciences and engineering, but we are seeing improvement. Twenty years ago, women earned about 10% of all doctorates awarded in engineering, while today they earn nearly 22%. Given the low numbers twenty years ago, it may take more time for trends to change.

Because of the trend in women gaining bachelor's and master's degrees, the PhD statistics do not seem that surprising. Did you find anything in your survey that surprised you or were not expecting? Thanks

You are correct. It wasn't a surprise to those of us who track these trends based on what we saw in recent years. What I found interesting this year is that the growth in graduate enrollment was led by men this year - the rate of increase was larger for men than for women. This reverses a long term trend. This does not mean that next year men will earn the majority of doctorates, but it indicates the continued interest of men in earning graduate degrees.

Thank you for the opportunity to answer your questions today. I invite you to peruse the new Council of Graduate Schools’ report, available at


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Nathan Bell
Nathan Bell is the director of research and policy analysis for the Council of Graduate Schools.
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