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Foreign born Ph.D's in the US universities

  1. Dec 31, 2011 #1
    So I looked up some numbers on wikipedia, and it turns out that over half of the people going for PhD's in science and engineering in the USA are foreign born, and I was surprised to see that over 80% of the postdoctoral chemical/materials engineering students were foreign born. Why are these numbers skewed like this, is it something wrong with education in the USA, or are foreigners just smarter?

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  3. Dec 31, 2011 #2
    There are more non-Americans than Americans in the world. Many of these non-Americans come to American...thus, many students at American schools are foreign.
  4. Dec 31, 2011 #3
    I think in academia there is more of a level playing field as to who can be a prof. and who can't. There is clearly a greater number of non-American Ph.D.'s in the U.S., so more non-American Ph.D.'s are likely to be picked.

    Al so in sciences, especially physical science there are many jobs in the U.S. that require security clearance which requires U.S. citizenship, so I think the pool of American Ph.D.'s is small.
  5. Dec 31, 2011 #4


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    That's really not good reasoning. A large % of non-Americans live in countries that do not have the educational foundation that can create competitive applicants. It also is a much more complex procedure to attempt to go to an American PhD program. So it's not just a matter of there being more non-Americans in the world.
  6. Dec 31, 2011 #5
    Incentives are different. If you are a US-born person, you are going to get more money, power, status by doing something other than science and engineering. If you are foreign born, getting a post-doc is one of the few ways you can legally get US permanent residency/citizenship and in exchange for getting PR/citizenship, you are willing to work cheap.

    Also being an scientist and/or engineer in some cultures is considered "sexy" in a way that it isn't in the US.
  7. Dec 31, 2011 #6


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    Er.. there is a misinformation here. Getting a Postdoc is NOT "...one of the few ways..." one can get a Permanent Resident status. One can receive a Postdoc position with an H1 visa status. In fact, there is zero incentive for an employer to apply, on behalf of the postdoc, a permanent resident status because the postdoc position, by definition, is temporary!

    There are several ways one can apply for, and may be considered for, the PR status. In this context, one has to either be offered a permanent/staff position (this is not a postdoc position), or one can try to declare oneself as "an outstanding scientist" or an "outstanding researcher". The exact names of these status may have changed (check at the USCIS webpage), but the idea is the same. It is a long and tedious process, and may take up to 2 years from the moment of application to the moment of approval/decline.

  8. Dec 31, 2011 #7


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    It seemed to me during my career in university education that most of our foreign born PhD applicants came from countries where the universities may not be as good as in the US. I don't recall many applicants to our program from England or France or Germany for example. Maybe a comparable stat would be the fact that most undergrad applicants to UGA are from Georgia, but most applicants to Harvard may be from outside Massachusetts.

    Hard to say exactly, but presumably the phenomenon noted by the OP includes the high ranking of PhD programs in the US compared to the rest of the world. Not too long ago e.g. there were apparently few math PhD programs in Italy, and many of the Italian mathematicians among my acquaintance either took PhD's here or even do not have them. Some without PhD took advanced training here as well.

    This phenomenon is cyclical as well, since some of the most famous US mathematicians of previous generations (Zariski is one) were trained in the early 20th century by the great Italian geometers. After coming to the US, these mathematicians and their American students have in turn recently trained younger generations of Italian students. Now the PhD program in Italy is more developed again, and some of their graduates are coming here as instructors.
    Last edited: Dec 31, 2011
  9. Dec 31, 2011 #8
    I will have to look into this.
  10. Dec 31, 2011 #9
    It's not comprehensive reasoning, but what we essentially have are large numbers of foreign applicants who lack opportunities for graduate education of the quality they can obtain in America. There are a lot of things wrong with American education, but many of its Universities are very good, and they attract people who don't have similar opportunities in their home countries. The number of these people is not insignificant. The flippant nature of my first post was more a response to the OP concluding immediately that there is either something wrong with American Universities, or that Americans are just dumber.
  11. Dec 31, 2011 #10
    USA is the superpower and uses the non-american superbrains to protect the superpower position.
  12. Dec 31, 2011 #11
    where are the american superbrains
  13. Dec 31, 2011 #12
    It's probably cultural, not to get into the controversial genetics(asians have higher iq).
    Many foreigners, especially asians, and people from india(also asians, but sometimes not considered as such) want to be scientists. While americans want to be lawyers or football players.
    As two-fish said, many find it sexy to be scientists. In the western world and where I live too, scientists are considered weird nerds.
  14. Dec 31, 2011 #13

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    You don't need to invoke culture. North America has 5% of the population, and something like 60% of the Top 100 universities in then world. It shouldn't be surprising that there are a lot of students from outside the region. The more interesting question is, "why only half"?
  15. Dec 31, 2011 #14
    For a US citizen, getting a phd in science or engineering is forgoing lucrative wages in return for a fairly small chance at a research job. The opportunity cost of a phd is tremendous.

    For a citizen of India or China, a phd in the US is a chance a US visa, and significantly increased life-time earnings.

    For some reason, scientists like to think that normal labor market considerations somehow don't apply to science, which is probably sloppy thinking. Americans tend not go into science not because its "hard" or we aren't smart enough, but because its fairly low paying for the huge educational commitment, and the itinerant postdoc lifestyle is highly unappealing. Should we really be surprised that people behave in economically rational ways?
  16. Jan 1, 2012 #15
    Not directly, but if you get into the US, then you can go through the process of getting PR, whereas if you are outside the US, you don't have any hope at all short of marrying someone.
  17. Jan 1, 2012 #16
    If you measure Asians with higher iq, you end up measuring Asians with higher iq. One problem with talking about iq is that if it was an IQ issue, then how came Chinese have to go to the US to get higher education rather than doing it in China.
  18. Jan 1, 2012 #17
    One thing that worries me is that this is no longer true. Most everyone that I know that is Chinese with a Ph.d. is planning to go back to China because China has jobs for Ph.D.'s whereas the US doesn't.
  19. Jan 1, 2012 #18
    They used to be non-American. One big advantage that the US has over other countries is that once you get the naturalization papers, you are considered 100% American and can to pretty much anything except run for President. In most countries, if you are fresh off the boat, the people that have lived their for hundreds if not thousands of years will let you know that, whereas in the US, it's "my parents got here in 1980 whereas your parents got here in 1920, so you aren't much better than me"
  20. Jan 1, 2012 #19
    One other factor in China is that getting a Ph.D. makes it much easier to get official residence (hukou) in the major cities. China has a system of internal migration controls where it is not easy to change your official residence and getting a Ph.D. lets you become an official resident of where ever you want to be (including Hong Kong).

    One other reason that the US is a good target for foreign students is that the best schools are excellent but the average schools are very good, and the worst schools are decent. The best Chinese universities are as good as the best US ones, but once you got out of the top 5, the US still has a "deep bench" of very good universities, whereas the mid- and low- ranking Chinese universities aren't that good.

    One thing that worries me a lot is that things are changing, and the US is about to undergo a massive brain drain. This wasn't true ten years ago, but right now a Chinese national with a US Ph.d. find a job in China that pays as much as what they can get in the US, so people generally aren't staying.
  21. Jan 2, 2012 #20


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    It still doesn't change the fact that you've provided a wrong information. A postdoc does not get you a PR.

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