Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What Happens to Grad Students

In honor of a fresh new batch of grad students here at CU (one of whom is my new office-mate) and some great data released by the American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center, here's a quick look at what happens to graduate students on average in physics and astronomy programs across the country over the past decade.

Overall the number of incoming graduate students in physics and astronomy programs has risen by an average of 1.5% per year, which is only slightly faster than the overall population growth rate in the US of 1.2%.  The growth rates for PhD's awarded in physics and astronomy were 3.9% and 3.2% respectively, while the growth rates for terminal master's degrees was 2.7% in physics and a whooping 4.8% in astronomy (although that corresponds to an increase of 1.2 terminal master's degrees in astronomy per year).  In graphical form, here are the trends:

As you probably noticed, the most interesting feature in both plots isn't the trend, rather it's something consistent from year to year.  For both physics and astronomy programs, the total number of degrees awarded is only about three-quarters of the number of incoming students.  More precisely, if we assume that the grad student population is divergence-free and account for the overall trend in enrollment, the outcomes for physics and astronomy grad students are shown below.

For both types of programs, a little less than 30% of incoming graduate students will not earn a graduate degree.  Since the AIP only tracks American programs, there may be people who transfer to a foreign program, but for the most part there is a clear and sizable attrition in our graduate programs.  Interestingly while distribution between PhD's and Master's degrees varies considerably between physics and astronomy programs, the number leaving without a degree is nearly constant.

So what happens to the bright-eyed 1st year students?  At least for some of them nothing in the way of academic degrees.


Update:  The AIP data gives a break-down by school of the incoming grad students and graduate degrees awarded, but only for 2009.  Here is a list of the program that had at least twice as many plus 1 (to account for noise) incoming students at degrees awarded in 2009.  Of course with only 1 year of data there is a lot of noise here, but it might give an idea of the types of programs that contribute to the nearly 30% attrition rate.  Program with more than 15 incoming grad students are in bold.

In order by state (alphabetically) and then alphabetical order, the physics programs are:  U. of Alabama-Birmingham, UC-Davis, San Jose State, Yale, U. of Central Florida, Florida A&M, Idaho State, IUPUI, U. of Louisville, Louisiana State-Baton Rouge, U. of New Orleans, U. of Maine, Clark, UMass-Amherst, UMass-Dartmouth, Michigan Tech, Mississippi State, U. of Nebraska-Lincoln, UNLV, Syracuse, North Carolina Central, Wake Forest, Ohio U., Portland State, Carnegie Mellon, U. of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, U. of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, South Dakota School of Mines, U. of North Texas, Southern Methodist, Texas Tech, U. of Texas-Arlington, U. of Texas-San Antonio, Brigham Young, George Mason, Hampton, Old Dominion, U. of Virginia, U. of Wisconsin-Madison, U, of Wyoming

In the same order but with bold for program admitting more than 7, the astronomy programs are:  Yale, Florida Institute of Technology, U. of Virginia, U. of Washington

No immediate trends pop out of that list at me.  Anybody else see anything?


  1. Nick, very interesting. I'm very interested that so many don't get degrees at all. I know at Irvine it is pretty standard that somewhere between ~10-20% won't be able to get past the comprehensive exam depending on the class. However, the majority of those, as far as I can tell, get a masters before leaving. So I wonder, assuming Irvine is normal, where we would be losing ~30% receiving no degree at all.

    I also find it interesting how constant the data is. On one hand you would think this is good so that it stays constant with population growth, but if you think there are too many or too few physicists in the word, I guess the world won't be changing any time soon.

  2. Joe,

    I too was surprised by the large percentage that don't receive degrees. In my department at CU we lose roughly 10% to our first comprehensive exam (you must pass one of the two comps exams to get a Masters) and about 5% in the first year, but that simply means that there must be other programs that lose far more than CU or UC-Irvine. I have heard that some programs intentionally admit more students than they can support to get more TA's - maybe those places (if they exist) make up the difference. Alternately, maybe some less-prestigious departments have much higher attrition.

  3. My first-year class was about 30 or so--pretty large. Of those 30, perhaps around 10 have graduated, 15 have left (with or without a master's degree), and 5 are still working on it. The uncertainty of each of those numbers is about +/- 5.

    I myself walked away from the PhD program with a master's degree. Now I'm teaching pre-algebra to bright 6th- and 7th-graders at an amazing charter school. I'm having way too much fun.

  4. I can at least comment on Yale's astro program. We've gone from matriculating 1-3 people per year, to about 5-7 per year. So, that at least explains why only 1 or 2 graduate, but so many more come in. In my 5 years here, only 1 (out of about 25) failed the qual, and only 2 didn't graduate with the Ph.D. No one has left without at least a Masters. So at least here, it's small number statistics, which, of course, astronomers do best at!

    Of course, the physics department is a totally different story. I think they do admit more than they plan on graduating.

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  44. Yeah, one trend -- Yale is in both! Not at all a good sign for the school, methinks.


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