A short history of ecology doctorates in the UK

UK ecology doctorates

Doctorate-level research qualifications (DSc, PhD, DPhil, etc.) do not have an especially long history, although as academics we take them for granted as the usual gateway drug qualification to professional research.  In the UK the first research doctorates were awarded only towards the end of the 19th century and took some time to become fully established in the university landscape.  The British Library’s EThOS site provides a searchable database of doctorates awarded by UK institutions.  Although it’s not complete, the 500,000 records it holds provides a fascinating resource for anyone curious about the history of doctoral education and in research trends in their own discipline.

I thought it would be interesting to look at the history of UK ecology doctorates and, using “ecology” as a search term discovered the following:

  • The earliest record for an ecology doctorate (actually a DSc) was for “An ecological survey of Natal: the Pietermaritzburg district” by J.W. Bews, awarded by the University of Edinburgh in 1912.
  • As far as I can tell from the names (which often give only the initials) the first woman to be awarded an ecology PhD was Mary Seaton for “A floristical and ecological survey of West Lothian” in 1927, again at the University of Edinburgh.
  • As you can see from the graph above, for the first half of the 20th century the number of ecology doctorates averaged only one or two a year, and in many years none were awarded.
  • From about 1950 onward there begins a steep rise in the number of awards.  I was expecting that this rise would be broadly exponential, in line with the widening of access to higher education and the increasing rate of scientific discovery.  However there are some interesting peaks and troughs in the observed pattern.
  •  The first bulge occurs in the early- to mid-1980s, with a second bulge from the mid-1990s until the early 2000s.  It would be interesting to speculate on what had caused those.
  • However it’s from 2010 onward that the really steep rise in ecology doctorates occurs: in the decade from 2010 to 2019 (which I have not graphed as the year has not yet ended) 3833 doctorates were awarded.  That compares to 4820 for the previous c. 100 years.
  • However, one must be careful about assigning any given thesis to the field of ecology as the word is increasingly used outside of the subject, e.g. in a thesis entitled “Understanding extra-judicial responses to young people’s offending : out of court disposals and ‘diversion’ in social context” (University of Bedfordshire 2019).
  • Possibly balancing that latter bias is the trend of using the word “biodiversity” rather than ecology; there are at least 700 such theses.  Some of these will be taxonomic rather than ecological, but by no means all.
  • I wonder whether we reached a peak in ecology doctorates in 2016 (when 506 were awarded).  As of June 2019 only 92 have been awarded so the downward trend seen in the last couple of years may be continuing.

There is no doubt much more that could be discovered by someone with an interest in the history of science and the time to dig further into the topic.  If anyone wants a copy of the raw data, drop me an email and I will happily send it.

9 thoughts on “A short history of ecology doctorates in the UK

  1. Markus Eichhorn

    Can you plot the proportion of degrees which are linked to ecology so as to separate its relative importance from wider sectoral trends in the total numbers of PhDs awarded?

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      I could but it would take some time to do as you have to search for the number of records in each year separately. It’s not possible to download all the records by year as a CSV file, for instance. A competent programmer might be able to write some code to automate it I suppose, but that’s not me….

  2. Peter Bernhardt

    Very interesting. When was the first British PhD given for a pollination ecology thesis and what was the title? It has been my experience that some British ecologists do not regard pollination ecology as a subdivision of plant ecology. Sent a ms. on bee-pollination of Cypripedium montanum to a rather famous British journal in Plant Ecology years ago. The editor sent it back promptly explaining I’d written natural history (his words). Note that American textbooks in plant ecology have no problems with pollination ecology and Gurrevitch et al. (2006) gives it most of chapter 7.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Good question! I was thinking of doing a separate post on that. The first was “The pollination of some important agricultural grasses with a view to improved methods of breeding” by James Gregor in 1926. Next was “Experimental taxonomy on the genus Euphrasia” by Peter Yeo in 1959. Plant ecology seems synonymous with plant population ecology these days.

  3. Coimbatore. India

    Can you please share the raw data?. Please send it my email id given below.
    Warm regards

  4. Pingback: Friday links: the Democratic primary field as history department, changes coming to the ESA meeting, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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