Most Popular Graduate Degrees and Majors

fields of graduate study lists more than 70,000 programs in its directory. That's a huge variety in subject area and degree. But which are the most popular fields of study, for whom and why?

Fields of graduate study vary in popularity by many different socioeconomic and cultural factors, including geography. That popularity also varies by time, with new trends continually emerging. For instance, women now make up 58 percent of graduate students, but by the middle of the last century, they represented only about 20 percent. What women and minorities--another growing group of graduate students--have chosen to study has a huge effect on enrollment percentages. Changes in our economy and society also impact interest in various subjects. For instance, it is not surprising to learn that, in this computer-savvy age, computer science is one of the fastest-growing fields.

According to research by the Council of Graduate Schools, the three most popular graduate degrees are earned in education, business, and the social sciences. These were followed closely by health sciences, engineering and the physical sciences. For doctoral degrees more specifically, the life sciences have been the most popular field since the early '90s. Engineering, physical sciences and other areas of study that don't fit a neat category are also becoming more popular for doctoral work.

Master's degrees are the most frequently awarded graduate degrees with close to half a million recipients annually. U.S. institutions awarded more than 44,000 doctorates in 1995. That number, though, has risen considerably, growing by nearly 4 percent annually since the federal government began tracking doctoral education in the late 1950s.

Girls against boys

Gender is a huge concern for educators, who consistently worry that girls are being shortchanged in mathematics and science, while boys are being turned off of reading and creative writing. As students approach graduate school, it appears many of those gender generalizations remain valid. For instance, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, enrollment in business programs are 57 percent male, while women account for 74 percent of education students. The fields of engineering, physical sciences and business enroll the highest percentages of men, while the health sciences, public administration and education attract the highest percentages of women.

Women have made great strides in the pursuit of doctoral degrees. Thirty years ago, they constituted less than a quarter of all doctoral recipients, and were barely represented at all in the physical sciences or engineering. Today, women earn 67 percent of education doctorates, 26 percent of physical science degrees and 18 percent of engineering degrees, according to a federal survey. Women are also the majority of doctoral candidates in the social sciences, humanities, and, for the first time ever, in life sciences.

The color line

For many years, minority students were not welcome at most U.S. academic institutions, and therefore made up a minuscule percentage of graduate students. Today, minorities comprise more than a quarter of all graduate students. In fact, since the mid-1980s, minority enrollment in graduate programs has grown about 5 percent annually while white enrollment has remained virtually unchanged. African Americans account for the largest sub-group followed by Latinos, Asians and American Indians. Women represent more than half of the enrollment of every minority group, and twice as many black women are enrolled as black men.

Grad study fields for minorities

According to the Council of Graduate Schools, education is the most popular graduate field of study for African Americans, with 31 percent of all black grad students studying in that field. Of those, more than 70 percent are women. Business and social sciences were the second and third most popular choices among blacks. Education is also the most popular choice for Latinos and American Indians. On the other hand, Asian-American students are very unlikely to enroll in education programs, but are found in much higher percentages in business,engineering, and the physical sciences. White students favor education and business, followed by health sciences.

Doctoral degree enrollment reflects a similar interest in education among minorities. Engineering is another popular field for minority doctoral work, while they have their lowest representations in physical sciences and humanities, according to a survey by the federal government. More than 5,000 Ph.D's were awarded to minorities in 2005, about 20 percent of the total.

International Students

While international students comprise only 2.5 percent of all bachelor's degree students in the United States, about 10 percent of graduate students and 33 percent of all doctoral students are foreign. While education and business degrees are favored by 36 percent of U.S. students, international students earn approximately one-half of all doctoral degrees in engineering, mathematics and the physical and biological sciences. Just 10 percent of U.S. graduate students are enrolled in engineering and the physical sciences. International students also show a strong interest in business and social sciences, while only 4 and 5 percent of those studying education and public administration respectively are foreign students.

Societal trends

Trends in graduate study often relate directly to changes happening beyond academia. The challenges to racism and sexism in America have altered the graduate map while emerging technologies create new streams of education. Even the values promoted by the institutions themselves dictate how fast a given field will grow.

As women and minorities swell the graduate student ranks, the fields they've chosen have grown rapidly. The health sciences, where more than three-quarters of the students are female, form one of the fastest-growing fields of graduate study, rising at an average annual rate of 4 percent. Meanwhile, engineering and physical science enrollments are on the decline, mainly because the number of international students has decreased. These are the fields with the highest concentration of international students, accounting for more than two-fifths of international graduate enrollment.

It's important to realize that these trends don't necessarily reflect consistency across the world of higher education. For instance, a relatively small number of institutions award a disproportionately large number of doctoral degrees. Of the 416 universities that offer a Ph.D., the top 10 percent of institutions granted nearly half of all doctorates in 2005. The University of California-Berkeley granted the most degrees, followed by the University of Texas-Austin.

Changing priorities also influence enrollment. The fastest-growing field for doctoral study is computer science, hardly hard to fathom with the surge in computer usage and the dominance of the Internet over the past several decades. That change is likely due both to a shift in university offerings as well as student demand. Other changes are more directly attributable to academic policy. Though education is the most popular field of study, social science programs receive the highest number of applications. So what accounts for the seeming disproportion? Since education programs are often part of the service mission of universities, they tend to have higher acceptance rates. At the same time, some relatively large programs have gone from granting research doctorates in education to granting professional doctorates. Public administration follows some similar trends.

And so the cycle of grad school popularity continues. Interests change, trends shift, and what is popular now might not be popular in even a few months. What is good to see, however, is that more and more underrepresented groups are attending graduate school, and that's good for everyone.

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