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The lure of the lab

Recession boosts applications to US graduate programmes.

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The recession might have eroded endowments and budgets at universities around the world, but it has also brought some welcome news for higher-education institutions. Science and engineering doctoral programmes in the United States are seeing a surge in applications for the coming academic year, according to data Nature has obtained from several top institutions.

The boom will give universities a larger pool of potential doctoral students to choose from. And some academic leaders are encouraged by a particularly large rise in applications from domestic students, after concerns that the United States has not been producing enough home-grown scientists and engineers.

The trend fulfils expectations based on past recessions: in hard times, graduates elect to continue their education rather than take their chances on the job market. But academic leaders had wondered whether the current recession might be different if a general lack of credit prevented potential doctoral students from obtaining financial support.

The rate at which applications has risen has surprised some analysts. Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington DC, says that there is typically a year-long lag between the start of a recession and the application peak. She thinks that applications could continue to rise over the next year as students apply for graduate study in 2010.

Doctoral applications are rising rapidly at the University of Michigan. Credit: T. DING/AP

The University of California, Berkeley, told Nature that its applications for doctoral programmes in those fields climbed by almost 7% from last year, with 11,242 people applying for programmes starting this year. Berkeley awards the greatest number of science and engineering doctorates in the United States, according to the latest comprehensive data from the National Science Foundation.

The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the second-largest awarder of US science and engineering doctorates, saw overall application numbers climb by 16%. Engineering applications leapt by 21%, whereas those for physics actually declined slightly. Janet Weiss, dean of Michigan's graduate school, says that applications from domestic students increased more than those from students abroad.

In recent years, some business and political leaders have expressed concern over the relative dearth of domestic students getting science and engineering doctorates. The number of such degrees granted to US citizens and permanent residents peaked in the mid-1990s, fell back again until 2002, and has climbed slowly since.

Over that same period, the number of doctorates granted to foreign students has grown by more than 70%. Although the number of foreign students dropped in the years after the 2001 terrorist attacks, it has risen in recent years.

The trend in domestic students this year was also apparent at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, another top-five school for science and engineering doctorates. Domestic applications rose by 25%, whereas foreign ones rose by 13%.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the third-largest awarder of science and engineering doctorates, received 9,475 doctoral applications this year, a 6% increase. During the previous four years, the growth in applications had held steady at about 4% a year.

Other universities, such as the University of Toronto in Canada, the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, have also reported large rises in graduate applications, says Stewart.

Although graduate deans view the numbers as a positive sign, most universities are unlikely to expand the number they enrol because they lack the resources to support more graduate students. The application surge "is happening right at the same time that most universities are undergoing the most serious financial constraints they have faced in decades and decades", says Stewart.

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Monastersky, R. The lure of the lab. Nature 457, 642–643 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/457642a

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