Science Directions

Every two years, the National Science Foundation publishes Science and Engineering Indicators — data that provide a good assessment of the scope, vitality and quality of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise. The last edition of the Indicators was released in January 2010. Earlier this year, NSF rolled out a new Web-based portal that provides an easy and engaging way to explore those data.

Indicators 2010 offers considerable insight into psychological science, especially within the context of other STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines. It tells us about education, federal funding, the labor force and public attitudes. It shows us where psychology is doing well, and where we may have cause for concern. It provides trends over time, so we can see where we have been and where we may be heading.

The Indicators project tends to group scientific disciplines into broad categories, such as life sciences, physical sciences and mathematical sciences. Ordinarily, this would mean that psychology would get placed into the broad social sciences category. Yet, as noted in the report, psychology is broken out separately from the social sciences because trends over time and characteristics of psychology doctorate holders differ in substantial ways from the other social sciences. Those differences are important to recognize and understand.

Although many who earn their doctorates in science and engineering may aspire to faculty positions, the reality is that only about 20 percent become employed in that sector. Most go to work in business, industry or the government. In most respects, this reflects the positive contributions that highly trained scientists and engineers have to offer society. Some of us may become professors, but most of us seek and find employment in work settings outside the academy where our skills are valued and contribute in diverse, productive ways.

The Indicators data confirm that psychology follows the general trend for science and engineering — only about 20 percent of recent doctorates in psychology are employed in tenured or tenure-track positions. In contrast, one-half or more of recent doctorates in political science, sociology and anthropology are employed at academic institutions in tenured or tenure-track positions. For them, the academy seems to be the major employer and career path. Here, we see one major point of departure between psychology and the other social sciences.

The Indicators analysis also confirms what many of us know. Of all the earned bachelor’s degrees in 2007, about one-third (31.5 percent) were in science and engineering fields. Within those fields, half were in the social and behavioral sciences. And within the social and behavioral sciences, 37.5 percent were in psychology. No other separately identified field of science or engineering was higher than psychology. Clearly, psychology is the single most frequent area of concentration in undergraduate science and engineering education.

The data on graduate enrollment show a similar trend. About one-fourth of graduate science and engineering enrollments in 2006 were in the social and behavioral sciences. And of those, 36 percent were in psychology alone.

Another area in which psychology stands out merits some additional scrutiny. The Indicators analysis has been closely monitoring the number of degrees awarded by for-profit educational institutions, which is substantial in some fields. In 2007, only 2 percent to 4 percent of science and engineering degrees were awarded by for-profit academic institutions, and the point is emphasized that very few science and engineering master’s and doctoral degrees are awarded by such institutions. Yet, one special exception was noted explicitly in the Indicators 2010 report: “For-profit institutions are among the top institutions awarding master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology.”

We can learn a lot about our discipline by studying the Indicators data. Much of it is flattering and encouraging. Some is quite sobering. For me, it is the comparison with other STEM fields that provides the greatest insight.