U.S. colleges and universities have long been a magnet for international students seeking advanced doctorate degrees. But, is the U.S. able to retain this talent after they earn their Ph.D.’s?
Recent data shows that the answer is Yes –– although there’s a caveat: this data only tracks activity through 2007, just before the recession started.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the prevailing thought was that many foreigners who earned Ph.D.s in science and engineering in the U.S. would return to their native countries due to restrictions on immigrants and increased opportunities at home, especially in India and China. New data shows that the “stay rates” after 9/11 remain surprisingly strong: 62% of foreigners who earned their Ph.D.s in science and engineering in 2002 were still living in the United States in 2007. Of those who graduated in 1997, 60% continued to live and work in the U.S. in 2007. The data was compiled by the U.S. Energy Department’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education for the National Science Foundation.
The ability to attract and retain international students is important for two reasons. First, the students are increasingly important to the research conducted at U.S. universities and research facilities. The percentage of Ph.D.s awarded to foreigners in science and engineering has increased from 30% in 1997 to 46% in 2007. Second, they are even more important in the years following graduation. Foreigners comprise about 40% of all science and engineering Ph.D.s working in the U.S. –– providing much needed intellectual capital to spur innovation. “Our ability to continue to attract and keep foreign scientists and engineers is critical to…increase investment in science and technology,” said Oak Ridge analyst Michael Finn.
Graduates in the physical sciences and computer sciences are more likely to remain in the U.S. than other fields. Stay rates, however, vary by nationality. Oak Ridge’s data finds that Chinese and Indian students are more likely to live and work in the U.S. than students from Taiwan, South Korea or Europe. Among the 2002 graduates, 92% of the Chinese and 81% of the Indians remained in the U.S. in 2007 while only 41% of South Koreans and 52% of Germans stayed.
Will the stay rates remain at the same high level following the recession? It’s too early to tell, but Vivek Wadwha, executive in residence at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, believes that the stay rates will decline. Using social media like Facebook, Wadwha and several others questioned foreign students about their plans after earning degrees at U.S. institutions. Their results show that more than 50% of Indian students and 40% of Chinese students hope to return home within five years given the growing opportunities in their countries.
For some foreigners, the time spent here is an investment they do not want to waste. Joy Ying Zhang, now a research assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Silicon Valley campus, does not plan to return to China. “I have spent ten years here already, it took me some time to get used to American life,” he said. Zhang added that returning to China would be “reverse culture shock.”
Zhang noted, however, that younger Chinese students have more options to study at home. “Life in China is getting better. There are research alternatives in China –– like Microsoft China. They can get good mentoring and advice there, instead of coming to the U.S.”
For now, the U.S. still appears to be drawing its fair share of the world’s students. The National Science Foundation reports that the number of foreign science and engineering students enrolled in graduate programs in the U.S. increased 8% in April 2009 from the previous year. Over 158,000 foreign students are studying in the U.S.
“U.S. Keeps Foreign Ph.D.s,” by David Wessel. The Wall Street Journal. January 27, 2010.