AIP FYI #144: Trends in First-Year Graduate Physics & Astronomy Students

Status Report From: American Institute of Physics
Posted: Tuesday, November 9, 2004

In 2003, the number of first-year physics and astronomy graduate students reached the highest level since 1994, according to a report by the American Institute of Physics' Statistical Research Center. The October 2004 report also highlights an upturn in the number of US citizens who are starting graduate school in physics and astronomy, while the numbers of students from China and India continue to grow as well.

The report presents the results of surveys of first-year graduate students for the academic years ending in 2002 and 2003. "Total enrollment of first-year physics and astronomy graduate students has fluctuated considerably over time," the report says. "After reaching a recent peak of 3,481 in 1992, the number fell to a low of 2,559 by the end of the decade. Since then, the number has been rising slowly but steadily, reaching the latest high of 3,076 in 2003." After an almost thirty-year decline, the number of first-year students from the US hit a low of 47 % in 2001, but the report finds that "Beginning with the students who entered in the fall of 2001, the percentage of students who were from the US began to rise, reaching 54% in 2003." The report goes on to say, "Although it might be tempting to ascribe this shift to the impact of the events of September 11, 2001, the shift actually started with students who had already begun their studies in the US prior to that date," and may be partly attributable to more US citizens earning bachelors in physics and astronomy and to a poor job market.

Of foreign students, China and India provide "an increasing number," while "Europe showed significant declines." "These findings are a bit surprising," the report states, "considering many recent press reports about visa difficulties being especially severe for prospective Chinese students. However...the class of 2002-03 was the first to enter after 9/11, and delays in the implementation of many of the new regulations mean that the full impact may not show up until we analyze the responses of those entering in the fall of 2003."

The report finds "significant growth in the enrollment of women among first-year physics and astronomy graduate students...rising from 16% in 1995 to slightly more than 20% in 2003." It says that teaching assistantships are the most common type of financial support for first-year graduate students, although "it is expected that a large proportion of the teaching assistants will move into research assistantships by the time they are in their third year of study." It also says that, "For US students, the most popular subfields are astronomy and astrophysics (16%), condensed matter (14%), and particles and fields (11%). Among foreign students, condensed matter (22%) is first, followed by particles and fields (10%)." Most of those students planning to obtain a PhD want to work in academia, while "an industrial setting is the most popular goal" for those who only plan to complete a masters degree.

The report, "Graduate Student Report: First-Year Physics and Astronomy Students in 2002 and 2003," (R-207.34), is available on the AIP web site, along with many other reports on physics education and workforce issues, at Select "Graduate Education" and click on "Full Reports."

Audrey T. Leath Media and Government Relations Division The American Institute of Physics (301) 209-3094

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