Mind the gap: A description of US doctoral education, challenges, and the skills gap

Maxine P. Atkinson and Richard W. Slatta

In this overview of US doctoral education, we offer a description of doctoral recipients and the training they receive. We describe the job market for doctoral recipients and where they are employed. We address the topics most likely to be seen as potential challenges in US doctoral programs, including how doctoral students are funded, how much debt they carry after graduate school, and time to degree. We focus on the training challenges in US doctoral education. While US PhD programs are well respected globally, the training our students receive is still lacking. STEM students often follow careers in business and industry, yet their preparation for these jobs in graduate school is inadequate. Faculty usually know little about how to help them prepare for these careers. Humanities PhDs usually work in academe where their primary job is teaching, yet teacher training in their PhD programs is often lacking. We end with recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the most respected organization in higher education.

The face of doctoral education today

It would be deceiving to examine doctoral education in the US, or the challenges to this training, without considering disciplinary fields and the different challenges they face. As defined by the National Science Foundation (NSF), there are two major divisions of PhDs in the US: science and engineering, and the humanities. There is a big divide between science and engineering and the humanities in most aspects of doctoral education, including the number of doctorates awarded.

The divide between the number of doctorates awarded in science and engineering (collectively referred to as STEM - science, technology, engineering, and math) and the humanities has increased over time. In 1958,3,022 doctorates (34% of the total) were awarded in fields other than science and engineering, and 5,751 (66% of the total) were awarded to those in science and engineering (Chronicle of

Higher Education 2019). By 2018, 55,195 doctorates were awarded, 79% of them in science and engineering (National Science Foundation 2019).

Science and engineering includes the broad fields of life sciences, physical and earth sciences, mathematics and computer sciences, psychology and social sciences, and engineering. Science and engineering departments awarded more than 55,000 doctorates with the life sciences (23%) and engineering awarded the most (18%) (National Science Foundation 2019).

Humanities also include a large array of disciplines. The “historical categories” include English language and literature, history, languages and literatures other than English, linguistics, classical studies, and philosophy. English language and literature (or Letters, as NSF prefers) and history are by far the largest of the humanities disciplines. In 2018, Letters departments awarded 1,442 doctorates and History departments awarded 948 (National Science Foundation 2019).

 
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