Kristen D’Elia estimates she was a year away from finishing her Ph.D. when COVID-19 lockdowns took hold on her campus at New York University, leaving her unable to complete any lab work for months. In June 2020 her developmental neurobiology lab reopened, but—as was the case for many academic laboratories—it operated at a reduced capacity for the rest of the year. “Everything was more difficult going back; … everything [was] slower,” she says. Because of that, she couldn’t graduate during the spring of 2021 as she’d initially planned.

D'Elia appears to be one of many students whose Ph.D.s were prolonged by the pandemic. The 2020–21 academic year saw 1721 fewer STEM Ph.D.s awarded by U.S. universities compared with the preceding year—a change that amounts to the largest annual drop in science, technology, engineering, and math Ph.D.s in at least 40 years, according to data released yesterday from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Survey of Earned Doctorates.

Drop in Ph.D.s
Amid a general increase in annual U.S. STEM Ph.D.s awarded since the early 2000s, the 2020–21 academic year saw a substantial drop from the years immediately preceding the pandemic.

The data can’t directly attribute the drop to the effects of COVID-19. But it’s fair to assume that many students—like D’Elia—delayed their graduation timelines because of laboratory shutdowns, travel restrictions, and other pandemic-related challenges. In a 2020 survey of more than 7000 U.S.-based Ph.D. students, 34% said they anticipated pandemic-induced graduation delays, as compared with 30% who didn’t. (The remainder were unsure.) “Inability to conduct research” was the most common reason cited for those delays—a problem reported by 60% of respondents, notes study author Krista Soria, an assistant professor of organizational learning at the University of Idaho.

Another suggestion that the pandemic contributed to the overall drop in graduates comes from the differences among disciplines. The physical and life sciences—fields that largely require in-person work—saw the largest drops in Ph.D. graduates compared with prepandemic levels—12% and 7%, respectively. Math and the computer sciences, on the other hand, saw increases. Those results line up with a study focused on the activity of principal investigators during the first few months of the pandemic, which found scientists in fields that rely on physical laboratories lost more research time compared with researchers in computationally intensive fields.

Disciplinary differences
The physical sciences saw the largest drop, with 12% fewer Ph.D. graduates than during the 2018–19 academic year (the most recent year completely unaffected by the pandemic).

The dip in graduation numbers doesn’t appear to have disproportionately affected historically underrepresented groups—a finding that may come as a surprise given the pandemic’s impact on people of color and women in academia. Underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities made up 15% of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who graduated with STEM Ph.D.s during the 2020–21 academic year—a statistic that has steadily creeped upward over the past decade, from 12% in 2012. And women made up 43% of graduates in the 2020–21 class, which aligns with the average over the past decade of 42%. (NSF does not give respondents the option of selecting a nonbinary gender identity.)

NSF’s preliminary data for the 2021–22 academic year indicate the drop in graduation numbers may be short-lived. “We are seeing a big increase,” possibly because the 2021–22 numbers include students who had originally planned to graduate during the 2020–21 academic year, says Kelly Kang, a survey manager at NSF. But it remains to be seen whether those numbers will bear out; NSF is now compiling the data and will release the official tally in October 2023.

NSF is also slated to release more information later this year that will shed light on pandemic-related graduation delays. In 2020, the agency added new questions to its Survey of Earned Doctorates, including whether COVID-19 disruptions impacted their research, graduation timeline, and postgraduation plans. Those results will be released in December in a report focused on the Ph.D. graduation data, Kang says.

As for D’Elia, she was able to graduate in October 2021, thanks in part to the help of an undergraduate technician. “I didn’t have time to finish all that I wanted, but she was able to do experiments while I wrote my thesis,” D’Elia says. Now she’s working as postdoc in the same lab where she completed her Ph.D., still trying to wrap up her projects. “In the grand scheme of things, I think the time delayed to graduation affected me the least. The delays in getting my paper out and moving on to next steps were more substantial.”

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