A Symbiosis of Access: Proliferating STEM PhD Training in the U.S. from 1920–2010

Frank Fernandez, David P. Baker, Yuan Chih Fu, Ismael G. Muñoz, Karly Sarita Ford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Over the course of the 20th century, unprecedented growth in scientific discovery was fueled by broad growth in the number of university-based scientists. During this period the American undergraduate enrollment rate and number of universities with STEM graduate programs each doubled three times and the annual volume of new PhDs doubled six times. This generated the research capacity that allowed the United States to surpass early European-dominated science production and lead for the rest of the century. Here, we focus on origins in the organizational environment and institutional dynamics instead of conventional economic factors. We argue that three trends of such dynamics in the development of American higher education not often considered together—mass undergraduate education, decentralized founding of universities, and flexible mission charters for PhD training—form a process characterized by a term coined here: access symbiosis. Then using a 90-year data series on STEM PhD production and institutional development, we demonstrate the historical progression of these mutually beneficial trends. This access symbiosis in the U.S., and perhaps versions of it in other nations, is likely one critical component of the integration of higher education development with the growing global capacity for scientific discovery. These results are discussed in terms of the contributions of American universities to the Century of Science, recent international trends, and its future viability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)79-98
Number of pages20
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences(all)


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