Academic journal article American Economist

Counting Economics PhDs: How Many New Graduates Do U.S. Universities Produce?

Academic journal article American Economist

Counting Economics PhDs: How Many New Graduates Do U.S. Universities Produce?

Article excerpt

Despite the many studies of the production of new economists, it is surprising that so little is known about the persistent differences in how many are graduated, as reported by different sources. For the decade from 1996-97 to 2005-06 (our "study decade"), the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) reported 11,524 new economics graduates (including those with specialty degrees), compared to 10,812 reported by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and 8,862 doctoral dissertations listed in the Journal of Economic Literature (JEL). After specialty degrees are dropped, the comparable numbers in general economics are 9,504, 8,534, and an estimate (ours) of 7,856 degrees. So far as we are aware, this is the first paper to explore the reasons for these differences and attempt to reconcile them. (2)

There are several reasons why such differences matter. Given the resources devoted to training new PhDs, the size of entering cohorts, and the quality of graduate education, a larger output implies more efficient production. Second, a better estimate of annual output will permit a better assessment of the balance (or imbalance) between supply and demand in the market for new graduates. Third, for economists who track the output of new PhDs, there is some value in knowing which of the two main data sources (SED and IPEDS) turns out numbers that are too large, which are too small, and where in between an accurate count likely falls. Fourth, this study finds that about 14 percent of the dissertations written each year in general economics are never listed in the JEL, reducing the value of these listings to scholars. Finally, we also find that large programs tend to underreport degrees to IPEDS. Since output is often used as a predictor of program rank, if such programs also underreport output to the organizations and researchers that create program rankings, then the latter may be biased downward for some departments.

In the course of seeking a more accurate count of the doctoral graduates of economics departments, this paper identifies some general economics PhD programs that have been misclassified by IPEDS as business/managerial economics programs, explains why some graduates of interdisciplinary programs and business schools mark "economics" on the SED survey as their primary field of graduate study, and identifies the economics departments with the largest deficits in dissertation listings submitted to the JEL.

In Part I we offer essential information on the data collection procedures of our three data sources. Part II presents a preliminary analysis of the degreecount gaps from these sources, appraises the elusive contribution of interdisciplinary and business doctoral degrees to the SED-IPEDS gap, investigates the undercount of general economics (GE) degrees by IPEDS, and looks for the sources of the huge IPEDS-JEL gap in total economics PhD degrees as well as the smaller but more worrisome JEL deficit in GE degrees. It concludes with an adjusted estimate of the output of GE degrees during our study decade.

Part III summarizes the findings. It also offers recommendations to the NSF that would make the data from the three sources more comparable and improve the accuracy of NSF data on first-year enrollments of PhD students.

The paper concludes with an Epilog that offers preliminary evidence on the extent of underreporting and inaccessibility of dissertations awarded in five other social sciences.

I. Data Sources and Collection Procedures

A. The Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED)

The SED sends its annual survey to institutional coordinators at some 420 research-doctorate-granting institutions. These coordinators are responsible for distributing a form to every student who received a first doctoral degree in any of 279 fields of study during the academic year. The coordinators send the completed surveys to the NSF's survey contractor, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), for editing and processing. …

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