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Doctoral Programs—On The Rise


Nadine Brock

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Doctoral Student Demand Continues

Student demand for doctoral degrees continues to grow. The most recent data posts a year-on-year growth rate of 5.2% across all disciplines, professional and research/scholarship degrees combined. Public, private, and online universities continue to adjust their doctoral offerings to meet student demand. In specific careers, students want to increase their skills for career promotions and salary increases by adding a doctoral degree.

2021 Volume 2022 Volume 21-22%
Doctoral Awards in U.S. 195,220 205,341 5.2%

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Award completions data. Doctoral awards combining research, professional, and other award types. All delivery modalities included.

Largest Volume Doctoral Programs

Not surprisingly, the largest volume doctoral programs are in law, health science occupations, and education. STEM and business programs are also among the top 25 highest-volume programs in the U.S.

Source: IPEDS Degree completions, top 25 doctoral programs in 2022 by volume. All disciplines, all doctoral award types, and all delivery modalities included.

Doctoral Disciplines—Fastest Growing

Professional health sciences like Occupational Therapy, Nursing, and Physician Assistants are among the fastest-growing doctoral disciplines in the U.S. Education disciplines of Higher Education Administration and Curriculum and Instruction serving the education and teaching sector are on the rise too.

Source: IPEDS Degree completions, year-on-year growth at 7% or greater among all doctoral disciplines with at least 500 awards in 2022. All disciplines, all doctoral award types, and all delivery modalities included.

Others may be surprised to see sharp growth among these programs:

  • Organizational Leadership – 3rd fastest growing program at the doctoral level in the U.S.; providers growing most rapidly offered the program in the distance format.
  • Theology – 2nd fastest in terms of year-on-year growth. Liberty University excels—doubling degrees conferred in one year in the distance format. Some of these degrees may be Liberty’s Doctor of Ministry, offered online with 14 concentrations. Several other faith-based providers have recently entered this market and are vying for market share.
  • Econometrics and Quantitative Economics – 7th fastest discipline at the doctoral level in the U.S.; this is often an interdisciplinary cross-section of economics, statistics, machine learning, and finance. This highly rigorous degree meets employers’ needs in academia and government as well as the private business sector.    
  • Biomedical Sciences – Doctoral program demand grew nearly 15% in one year. Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai is the top-performing institution in the country with 58 awards in 2022 at the doctoral level in Biomedical Sciences. The Icahn website suggests three tracks of study; Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences, Ph.D. Neuroscience, and Ph.D. Clinical Research. Neuroscience was also among the fastest-growing disciplines in the graphic above.

Doctoral Disciplines—Distance Format

J.D. degrees in the distance format? Yes, it’s happening! Syracuse University’s J.D. Interactive program claims to be the first American Bar Association-accredited program in the U.S. The Syracuse program web page indicates synchronous and asynchronous online courses as well as six in-person residencies. Professionals need to keep jobs and tend to families so distance modalities (online, hybrid, low residence) are important to meet student demand.

Source: IPEDS Degree completions, year-on-year growth at 20% or greater among all doctoral disciplines with at least 400 awards in 2022 in the distance format.

Academic Program Development

Student demand trends are an important piece to consider but also relevant for academic program development are:

  • Labor and occupational trends
  • Local employer needs and input
  • Competitor offerings and competitor performance in similar programs
  • Associations and credentialing bodies detailing skills in need within the profession

Altogether, student demand, labor market data, and competitive intelligence can shed light on the feasibility for a new academic program or a program change at any award level. Four in 10 new academic programs fail after launch, so you’ll want to be armed with a robust, data-supported proposal before investing. We’re ready to help you move fast!

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Related reading: What Certificates Should We Offer