Graph of Percentages of Doctoral Degrees in Philosophy Awarded to Members of Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups, 1995–2014

Recent Trends in Philosophy Degrees (1987–2014)

by Robert B. Townsend

The number of new philosophy degrees at the baccalaureate and doctoral levels fell sharply from 2013 to 2014, according to a new report from the Humanities Indicators.

At the bachelor’s-degree level, the number awarded fell 6.6% (to 7,398 degrees) in the most recent available year, marking the largest one-year decline in the 27 years for which data are available. And the number of doctoral degrees fell by more than 12.4% in 2014 (to 454).

Graph of trends in philosophy degrees

Bachelor’s Degree Completions in Philosophy (Absolute Number and as a Percentage of All Bachelor’s Degrees) 1987–2014*

Despite the recent declines, the numbers for philosophy remain historically quite high at both levels. At the bachelor’s degree level, for instance, the number of philosophy degrees remains more than a third higher than the counts prior to 2000 (when the field conferred less than 5,000 degrees). Likewise at the doctoral level, where the number of Ph.D.s in philosophy had never been above 400 before 2003. And the growth since 1987 helped the philosophy discipline keep pace with more general growth in the number of college students earning degrees, unlike the humanities disciplines more generally (where the share has been trending downward among bachelor’s and advanced degrees).

Graph of Doctoral Degree Completions in Philosophy (Absolute Number and as a Percentage of All Doctorates), 1987–2014

Doctoral Degree Completions in Philosophy (Absolute Number and as a Percentage of All Bachelor’s Degrees) 1987–2014*

While the numbers were falling at the other two degree levels, the number of master’s degrees awarded in philosophy reached the highest level on record in 2014 (1,071), which represented a substantial rebound after an 11% drop in degrees from 2009 to 2011. There is no data to account for the disparity between the degree levels over the most recent three years for which we have data, but it is notable that philosophy’s share of all master’s and first professional degrees is a small fraction of the shares at the bachelor’s and doctoral levels.

The diversity of the student population in philosophy appears to be a subject of rising interest (in the Chronicle of Higher Education and among researchers). The new numbers highlight the challenges for the discipline in this area, as philosophy awards substantially lower shares of degrees to women and underrepresented minorities than the rest of the academy. At the bachelor’s-degree level, for instance, 31% of the philosophy degree recipients in 2014 were women (as compared to 57% among all degree recipients at this level), and 17% came from underrepresented minorities (compared to 21%).

The differences between philosophy and the rest of academia were narrowest among doctorate recipients, where the share of women earning philosophy Ph.D.s was 18 percentage points below the share among all degree recipients (31% as compared to 49%). The share of underrepresented minorities earning philosophy Ph.D.s (8%) was also closer to the norm in academia (11%), and represented both the highest level ever recorded and a percentage three times the level recorded in 1995. At every level, the growth in the share of underrepresented minorities earning philosophy degrees can largely be attributed to rising numbers of Hispanic students graduating from philosophy programs.

Graph of Percentages of Doctoral Degrees in Philosophy Awarded to Members of Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups, 1995–2014

Percentages of Doctoral Degrees in Philosophy Awarded to Members of Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups, 1995–2014

As the discipline looks ahead, the recent drop in degrees is certainly a cause for concern—particularly in the midst of larger anxieties about waning student interest in the humanities—but it remains to be seen whether the recent declines at the bachelor’s and doctoral levels represent the start of a trend or just a brief blip similar to the drop in master’s degrees. Regrettably, the number of students receiving degrees is a lagging indicator, and we will not see tabulations of the students who entered college in the fall until years from now. But departments should be aware of the national trends for the discipline and compare them to the evidence on their own campus.

* Degree counts and shares do not include second majors.

Robert B. Townsend is the director of the Washington office of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and co-director of the Humanities Indicators.

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