Size of Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy Programs
This report presents data on the relative size of undergraduate physics and astronomy programs. Size is measured in both the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded and the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) faculty members that are at the department. This Focus On is intended to assist departments by presenting data that will permit them to see where they fit on the national landscape of physics and astronomy bachelor’s degree production.
The size of physics and astronomy departments varies greatly depending on the characteristics of each institution. The data presented in this report provide an overall view of the relationship of full-time equivalent (FTE) faculty to the number of physics and astronomy bachelor’s degrees conferred. Department’s missions are not homogenous, so this relationship is not a measure of productivity. Rather, interested parties can compare their departments with others.
The majority (67%) of degree-granting physics departments in the United States grant a bachelor’s degree as their highest degree (Table 1). Among departments that grant bachelor’s degrees in physics, less than 10% also offer master’s degrees, and about one-fourth offer PhDs as their highest physics degree. According to the AIP 2018 Survey of Enrollments and Degrees, PhD-granting physics departments confer over half of all physics bachelor’s degrees (Nicholson and Mulvey, 2019). The breakdown of departments by the highest degree conferred shows their considerable variation in the average and median number of degrees conferred. Within each department type, the average number of degrees conferred is considerably larger than the median. This is the result of a few departments conferring considerably more bachelor’s degrees than the typical department, causing the distribution to be positively skewed. Both the physics and astronomy bachelor’s degree data for combined physics and astronomy departments are included with the physics department data.
Physics Bachelor’s Degree–Granting Departments
Historically, departments that offer only a physics bachelor’s degree average fewer FTE faculty and bachelor’s degrees conferred per year than master’s and PhD–granting departments. Figure 1 shows the distribution of departments by the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred for those departments that offer only a bachelor’s degree.
Figure 2 shows the average number of bachelor’s degrees conferred by the number of FTE faculty at each department where the bachelor’s degree was the highest physics degree offered. Departments are separated by whether they are at institutions that are classified as primarily undergraduate institutions or not. Generally, bachelor’s-only physics departments at primarily undergraduate institutions confer more bachelor’s degrees with fewer FTE faculty members than their counterparts at comprehensive and research institutions. This is evidenced by the two distinct patterns of displayed departments in the figure below.
Physics Master’s Degree–Granting Departments
There are 57 departments that grant a master’s as their highest degree, making up 7% of physics departments. Figure 3 shows the distribution of departments by the average number of bachelor’s degrees conferred for master’s-granting physics departments. Figure 4 shows the average bachelor’s degrees conferred by the number of FTE faculty at master’s-granting departments.
Physics PhD–Granting Departments
Physics departments that offer a PhD typically have a greater number of FTE faculty and confer considerably more bachelor’s degrees than the bachelor’s and master’s–granting departments. Figure 5 shows the distribution of departments by the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred for PhD-granting physics departments.
Figure 6 shows the average number of bachelor’s conferred by the number of FTE faculty at PhD-granting departments by whether the institution was classified as an institution with very high research activities (R1) or not. As seen in the following figure, departments at institutions classified as R1s generally have more FTE and confer more bachelor’s degrees than their non-R1 counterparts. As can be seen in the graphic, there are eight departments that conferred an average of more than 70 bachelor’s a year. Four of these departments conferred an average of more than 100 bachelor’s a year.
There are 84 departments that grant astronomy bachelor’s degrees. Of these departments, 39 are separate, stand-alone astronomy departments, and 45 are in departments that award both astronomy and physics degrees. Thirty-four of the stand-alone astronomy departments conferred bachelor’s degrees in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Both the physics and astronomy bachelor’s degree data and all faculty for the combined physics and astronomy departments are included with the physics department data above. The majority of the separate astronomy departments are PhD-granting departments; they conferred over 90% of the astronomy bachelor’s at the separate departments. Table 2 displays the number of separate astronomy departments and the average number of bachelor’s degrees conferred by the highest astronomy degree offered by the department. Figure 7 shows the average bachelor’s by the number of FTE faculty at each separate astronomy degree–granting department.
Nicholson, S. & Mulvey, P (2019). Roster of Physics Departments with Enrollment and Degree Data, 2018. Retrieved from www.aip.org/statistics/reports/roster-physics-2018 .
The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (n.d.). About Carnegie Classification. Retrieved (2/7/2020) from http://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/
This Focus On uses data from two AIP departmental surveys, the 2018 Academic Workforce Survey and the Survey of Enrollments and Degrees. The Academic Workforce Survey has been conducted every two years since 1986. Departments are asked to provide the number of full-time equivalent faculty members in their department. The data in this Focus On is for the number of faculty in the 2017–18 academic year. The Survey of Enrollments and Degrees is conducted annually in the fall and collects the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred at each department. The data in this Focus On comes from the classes of 2016, 2017, and 2018. Data were estimated for nonresponding departments.
In 2018, the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research released an update to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which is a framework for describing institutions based on institutional characteristics.
The full definitions for the 2018 Basic Carnegie Classification are located here: https://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/classification_descriptions/basic.php .
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Size of Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy Programs
By John Tyler, Patrick Mulvey, and Starr Nicholson
Published: July 2020
A product of the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics
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