What happened to all the philosophy PhDs? (SED edition)

NSF's Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) has just released its 2021 data (h/t to Daily Nous). As noted at Daily Nous, the total number of philosophy PhD graduates reported for 2021 is 399, which is far fewer than previous years. The chart below has SED data from 2010 to 2020, with an average 482 philosophy PhD graduates per year in this ten year period.

So what gives? Are there suddenly far fewer philosophy PhD graduates? In sum, yes. The COVID pandemic saw a reduced number of PhDs in all fields according to SED: "The total number of doctorate recipients in the 2020–21 academic year (table 5) declined by 5.4% from previous years." But philosophy saw an at least 10% decline.

To explore this more we should first note that comparing 2021 to earlier years is tricky, since SED changed the way it organizes the data. To check out the 2021 SED data about philosophy you need the tables that reference "detailed field of doctorate"; there are three. "Philosophy" comes up in three places there:

  • History/philosophy of science, technology, and society (under Multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary sciences),
  • Philosophy, and
  • Philosophy and religious studies (both under Philosophy and religious studies).

The 2020 tables, on the other hand, used "fine field of study," including:

  • History, science and technology and society, (part of Other social sciences),
  • Philosophy, and
  • Ethics (both under Other humanities and arts).

We can use past data to try to understand how these divisions are related.

First, it looks like HPS simply got a new name. History, science and technology and society had an average of 63 PhD graduates per year between 2018 and 2020 (the only years it shows up in SED), and History/philosophy of science, technology, and society had 68 PhD graduates in 2021. So it is unlikely that the gap between 2020 and 2021 for Philosophy PhDs is coming from a change in this category, despite the name change.

Second, Religious studies was decomposed. Religion/religious studies had an average of 277 PhD graduates per year between 2010 and 2020, whereas the same category had only 126 graduates in 2021, while the new category of Philosophy and religious studies nec (not elsewhere counted) had 67. Thus, it seems likely that these PhD students were not removed from the overall Philosophy pool.

A wrinkle in this interpretation is the sudden increase in a related area: Theology, religious education had an average 180 PhD graduates 2010-2020, while Theological and ministerial studies had 241 PhD graduates in 2021. Then again, the last few years saw an increase in the number of these PhDs, with 194 in 2018, 202 in 2019, and 214 in 2021.

Third, Ethics was dropped. This category was added in 2012 and had an average of 30 PhD students between 2012 and 2020). APDA and other projects have lumped it together with Philosophy when counting philosophy PhDs, but it is unclear why it was treated as a separate category in the first place and what has since happened to these PhDs (there is no clearly corresponding category in 2021).

If this is the right way of looking at the connection between old and new, the number of PhD graduates in philosophy does seem to have decreased. And the trend started prior to 2020. This can be seen in the chart above, but even more clearly in an updated version of that chart that includes the new 2021 data:

The question is: why is this happening? One thing is for certain: it fits broader trends in the humanities and arts:

There is a 16% decline in Humanities and Arts PhDs in 2021 compared to 2020, and a 23% decline if you compare 2021 to the average number of PhDs between 2011 and 2020. We can compare this to an earlier rise in Humanities and Arts PhDs between 1990 and 2015:

This tracked the rise in all PhDs in this period, with an increase of 52% in 2015 PhDs overall in comparison to 1990, and an increase of 45% in the Humanities and Arts. So even in this period Humanities and Arts lagged behind, with a shift sometime after 2015 in which PhDs overall continued to increase, but at a slowed rate (a 1% increase from 2015 to 2020), whereas PhDs in Humanities and Arts dropped (12% from 2015 to 2020).

As with the data on Bachelor's degrees, philosophy looks to be a little better off, with a smaller recent decline. Yet, these data are concerning, and worth further exploration.

Link to post here: apda.ghost.io/survey-of-earned-doctorates-comparing-the-data/