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The Survey of Earned Doctorates

Software engineer in the data center
The most comprehensive annual census of new research doctorate recipients from U.S. institutions
  • Client
    National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics
  • Dates
    1997 - 2016


In a world full of challenges, the United States needs skilled research scientists.

Ever-growing knowledge creation and innovation are needed to promote the nation’s health, prosperity, and welfare. To drive that knowledge, the U.S. needs highly educated researchers in a variety of fields.


NORC conducted the influential Survey of Earned Doctorates for almost two decades.

To understand this vital part of the skilled labor force, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) within the National Science Foundation (NSF) and three other federal agencies have sponsored the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED). The SED is an annual census of all individuals receiving a research doctorate from an accredited U.S. institution in a given academic year. SED data inform the planning, funding, and policy decisions of academia, industry, and government.

NORC at the University of Chicago was the NCSES’s survey partner on the SED from 1997-2016. We coordinated with U.S. institutions awarding research doctorates to obtain annual graduation lists and contact information for their doctorate recipients. Then, we used our locating and prompting skills to recruit doctorate holders to the survey. We delivered the survey in paper, web, or CATI (Computer Aided Telephone Interview) formats.

The SED collects information on each respondent’s:

  • Education history
  • Graduate education funding level and sources
  • Dissertation field(s) of study
  • Future employment plans and location
  • Demographic characteristics

To maintain an accurate and current list of dissertation fields, NORC reviewed emerging fields of study biannually. To support granting institutions’ decision-making and to encourage their cooperation, NORC provided each with an annual profile that compared their graduates to graduates of peer institutions (based on institution size and Carnegie Classification) and to graduates of all U.S. institutions included in the SED.

By implementing flow processing, NORC substantially reduced the time lag between the SED survey close and subsequent data delivery and data table and figure dissemination. This implementation meant that NORC performed tasks such as coding, detailed quality checks, and data harmonization and integration on a flow basis during the SED field period instead of starting only after all data had been gathered.


NORC played a vital role in an impressive dataset spanning a century.

During NORC’s tenure, the SED provided a wealth of information on recent research doctorates, including their disciplines of study, education history and funding sources, employment plans and location, and demographics. The data helped describe the dramatic increase in doctorates awarded to women in many fields, changes in the national origins of doctorate recipients, and shifts in institutions that grant the most doctorates in various fields.

NORC also strengthened the SED by:

  • Maintaining a response rate of 90 percent or better
  • Improving data collection efficiency by smoothly transitioning to a web survey, with web survey completions increasing from 16 percent in 2009 to 94 percent in 2016
  • Applying cell suppression methodology to all data products to protect student confidentiality
  • Identifying emerging doctoral fields by analyzing data on doctorates that did not fit into existing fields of study

The complete SED dataset, which includes data collected from institutions (1920-1956) and later from doctorate recipients (1957-present), encompasses more than a century of information on U.S.-trained research doctorates, their degree-granting institutions, and fields of doctoral study.

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