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Gains Continue For Chemistry Grads

Strong growth in bachelor’s degrees spills into doctorates

by David J. Hanson
August 23, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 34

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

The growth in numbers of chemistry graduates continued last year as the chemistry programs at U.S. universities and colleges approved by the American Chemical Society Committee on Professional Training (CPT) conferred a record 14,577 bachelor’s degrees in chemistry for the 2008–09 academic year. This is a 4.7% rise from the previous year.

The number of doctorates awarded from U.S. schools also hit new heights. A record 2,543 new Ph.D.s were awarded, a rise of 7.7% from 2007–08. The number of master’s degrees, however, defied the trend. That figure dropped by 3.2% to 1,986, which is essentially the same number of master’s graduates reported more than a decade ago.

Chemical engineering degrees awarded have also shown a steady increase over the past several years. Bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering numbered 4,947 last year, up 5.1% from the previous year. Master’s degrees in chemical engineering rose 10.5% to 1,034 last year, and the number of Ph.D.s awarded grew slightly to 893, up from 885 in 2007–08.

These data represent the basic findings in the newest CPT report on degrees granted in chemistry and chemical engineering. The chemistry data in the report are based on information submitted by the 653 schools with ACS-approved chemistry bachelor’s degree programs in 2008–09. Overall, the submitted data show that the number of bachelor’s degrees has risen every year since taking a dip in 2002, growing by nearly 50% over this period. Ph.D. growth has not been as dramatic, climbing by 30.1% from its low point in 2002.

The number of master’s degrees awarded in chemistry, however, has been more volatile, rising and falling over the past decade and showing little overall growth. For instance, the number of degrees earned in 2008–09 is almost the same as the number earned in the 1997–98 academic year—1,986 and 1,980 degrees, respectively. Such numbers indicate that there is a definite demand for this level of training for chemists but that many more students were deciding to either stay at the bachelor’s level or skip the master’s and work directly toward a Ph.D.

CPT reports a similar pattern for chemical engineering graduates over the past five years. The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in chemical engineering is rising—there were 4,418 in 2004–05 compared with 4,947 last year—and so is the number of Ph.D.s. These were up 11.9% to 893 from 798 Ph.D.s in 2004–05. The number of master’s degrees, however, started to fall over this period, with 1,034 graduates last year compared with 1,242 in 2004–05.

The ACS Office of Professional Training, under the direction of Cathy A. Nelson since 1992, collects these data from ACS-approved colleges and universities across the U.S. The office’s technology specialist, Gary Woods, has compiled the data for the past several years.

Established by the society in 1936, CPT assesses, approves, and monitors undergraduate chemistry programs. College and university chemistry departments apply to ACS for approval of their undergraduate programs; ACS does not approve master’s or doctoral programs. To be approved, the programs are evaluated against specific criteria established by the committee. Departments with approved chemistry programs must submit to CPT an annual report of all the degrees they award at all degree levels.

Although some schools with chemistry programs have not applied to ACS to have their programs approved, more than 90% of the bachelor’s degrees conferred in chemistry in the U.S. come from colleges and universities that offer ACS-approved programs, according to CPT estimates.

To capture information on chemical engineering programs, CPT collects data from departments that are accredited by ABET Inc., formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering & Technology. These departments are not required to respond to CPT, but most of them do. For the 2008–09 academic year, 144 chemical engineering schools responded, which is slightly less than the 149 that reported during the previous year.

School-by-school data for 2008–09 chemistry and chemical engineering graduates are listed in the table beginning on page 48. They are also available at the office’s website at

The CPT report breaks down bachelor’s degrees into two classes: ACS certified and noncertified. The head of a school’s chemistry department, not ACS, determines which category its degrees fall into.

The annual reports to CPT show that chemistry department policies on ACS certification vary considerably among colleges and universities. For example, the University of Washington granted the greatest number of bachelor’s degrees in chemistry last year, awarding 260 degrees, but just 22 of those were ACS certified. On the other hand, another top chemistry degree producer, the University of Texas, Austin, conferred 192 chemistry bachelor’s degrees in 2008–09, and all of them were ACS certified.

In the past, graduating with an ACS-certified degree had a key advantage: Only graduates with an ACS-certified bachelor’s degree were qualified for immediate full membership in ACS. Those without a certified bachelor’s degree had to have three years of professional experience in chemistry or a higher degree in a chemical science to be full members. But as of January 2009, the society opened full membership to anyone with an associate’s or a bachelor’s chemistry degree, certified or not (C&EN, May 5, 2008, page 50).

According to Nelson, the committee does not anticipate any change in the proportion of students pursuing certified degrees because of the revised requirements for ACS membership. Students will continue to pursue a certified degree because it is the more demanding course of study, she contends. That is certainly holding true for this first year since the change in requirements. According to the CPT data, 34.5% of bachelor’s degrees were certified by ACS for the 2008–09 academic year. The figure for the previous year was 34.9%, which is consistent with the very slow decline in certified bachelor’s degrees over the past few years. The greatest percentage of certified degrees was recorded in the 1991–92 academic year, when it topped out at 43% of bachelor’s degrees.

The consistent upswing of new bachelor’s degrees is beginning to have an effect on the numbers of chemistry graduate students at all levels. The number of first-year, full-time doctoral students has been increasing; there were 3,940 of them last year, just about the same as the 3,936 students in 2007–08. The total number of full-time doctoral students, however, declined slightly, falling 0.4% from 18,656 in 2007–08 to 18,574 last year. The committee’s numbers also indicate that the total number of full-time students who were working toward master’s degrees is 1,666, a 14.0% rise from the year before.

The number of chemistry degrees granted to women continued to rise last year, but the proportion of men to women getting degrees has leveled off. For the 2008–09 academic year, the percentage of women receiving bachelor’s degrees in chemistry was exactly the same as last year at 49.9%, or half of the total graduates. The number of men receiving a bachelor’s rose from 6,979 to 7,304, a 4.7% rise, and the number of women increased from 6,942 to 7,273, a 4.8% rise.

The percentage of women receiving Ph.D.s, on the other hand, is growing. Schools conferred 988 doctorates on women in 2008–09, up from 853 the year before, for a 15.8% rise. For men, 1,555 Ph.D.s were awarded, up from 1,509, which is a 3.0% jump. The percentage of women awarded Ph.D.s last year was 38.9% of the total, up from 36.1% in 2007–08.

Another component of the CPT report tracks chemistry graduates on the basis of their ethnic background. These data show a steady but slow increase in the number of graduates in most minority group categories, although the numbers are still somewhat low. For African American students, 871 were awarded bachelor’s degrees last year, up from 835 the year before, for a 4.3% rise. That number equals 6.0% of the total bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2008–09. Asian American students, the largest minority group in the report, received 15.1% of the total bachelor’s degrees awarded, or 2,207 degrees. This represents a 7.9% rise from the 2,046 degrees awarded in 2007–08.

There were also small but measurable increases in bachelor’s degrees conferred on Hispanic students. Students from this ethnic group received 726 bachelor’s degrees, up from 720 the year before. In contrast, the number of Native Americans earning bachelor’s degrees dropped, going from 79 in 2007–08 to 69 in 2008–09.

The CPT report also includes information about international students studying at U.S. schools. The data show growth in bachelor’s degrees awarded to students enrolled from outside the U.S. going from 683 two years ago to 752 last year.

The data for Ph.D. degrees by ethnicity are much more variable from year to year because the numbers for minority groups are much smaller than the number of graduates as a whole. For example, according to the CPT data, doctorates in chemistry for African Americans have risen over the past two years. For 2008–09, CPT reports that 74 African Americans received Ph.D.s, up from 52 the year before. For comparison, in 2006, only 45 Ph.D.s were reported to be awarded to African American students. And Hispanic Americans were awarded 77 doctorates last year, a rise from 68 the previous year. The number of Ph.D.s awarded to international students at U.S. schools, however, dropped. Students in this group received 964 doctorates, a slight decrease from the 972 awarded in 2007–08.

The colleges and universities that graduate the largest numbers of chemistry students according to the CPT report have shifted around over the years, but many schools are perennially near the top. For the third year in a row, the University of Washington heads the list of bachelor’s degrees awarded, with 260. The rest of the top five schools in this category are also repeats, with the University of California, Los Angeles, in second place with 227 bachelor’s degrees. The University of California, San Diego, moved from fourth to third by conferring 202 bachelor’s degrees, and the University of Texas, Austin, took the fourth position with 192 bachelor’s degree chemists. Fifth on the list is the University of California, Berkeley, which awarded 147 bachelor’s degrees. New schools in the top 25 this year include California Polytechnic State University, with 88 bachelor’s degrees conferred; San Francisco State University, with 85; and New York University, with 80.

Top schools for conferring master’s degrees in chemistry were UC San Diego, with 58 degrees awarded; the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, with 45 degrees awarded; and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with 34. Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, made the biggest jump in master’s degrees conferred, going from only three in 2007–08 to 32 master’s degrees last year.

The perennial leader in awarding chemistry Ph.D.s is UC Berkeley, which led the list again in 2008–09 with 60 doctorates. Its sister institution at UCLA moved into the second spot on the list, with 59 Ph.D.s awarded, a significant jump from 28 awarded the year before. Purdue University was third, with 54 Ph.D.s conferred, followed by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, with 49 and the University of Florida, with 48.

For chemical engineering, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, awarded the most bachelor’s degrees last year, with 113, followed by Purdue University, with 106, and last year’s top school, the University of Texas, Austin, with 99. The most master’s degrees in chemical engineering were awarded by Lamar University, with 56, followed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with 49, and Illinois Institute of Technology, with 31.

MIT was the school conferring the most Ph.D.s in chemical engineering in 2008–09, with 43 degrees. Second was last year’s leader, Georgia Institute of Technology, with 37. UT Austin was again third, with 29 doctorates awarded. Northeastern University made the biggest jump in awarding chemical engineering doctorates, going from three Ph.D.s in 2007–08 to 24 last year.


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