Why Train Foreign PhDs in Science They Can't Use at Home?

By David North on March 29, 2010

I was talking to a nonimmigrant PhD student from Nepal the other day, and asked him what his dissertation would be about. He is studying engineering at the University of Maryland-College Park and he replied that it would deal with nano materials.

Then I asked, "what can you do with that specialty in Nepal?"

The answer was, essentially, "not much." He said that it would be hard for him to continue to do research on this subject in a country with limited laboratory facilities and even more limited funding for such research. He agreed that he could teach engineering to undergraduates and there was at least one institution in Nepal that had such courses.

I did not press him on the matter, but my suspicion is that he, like so many overseas PhD candidates, will try to stay in the U.S. (I ran into him during my occasional volunteer work helping graduate students at Maryland with their income tax returns.)

I remember a similar conversation with a Haitian whose degree was going to be in cellular biology. (Like the Nepalese he was on an F-1 student visa.) Again, the only use he could make of that study would be to teach biology in one of Haiti's desperately poor universities, certainly a comedown from College Park.

In both cases the graduate students appeared to be very bright and hard-working; in both cases they were 100 percent funded by the university, i.e., by U.S. funds, which is often the pattern.

In the case of the man from Nepal, his English was excellent, probably a by-product of his being one of a handful of people from that nation at the university, a situation which leads to much better mastery of the language than is typical among Chinese grad students, for instance, who are present in large enough numbers so that in many social situations they can, and do, use nothing but Mandarin.

It is highly beneficial to the U.S. to train scientists, business people, and future politicians from overseas in skills that they can use in their home country. It is also probably a good use of public funds to train such people. Further, it is not harmful to our labor force, as no American worker is going to lose a job because an Angolan businessman, for example, is running a business in Angola, or a Nigerian politician is winning an election in his homeland.

But the gentlemen from Nepal and Haiti are unlikely to follow those paths and they will likely to work in the U.S. in jobs that U.S. residents could do.

This tendency to stay in the U.S. after getting a PhD, or the "stay rate," has been studied over the years by Michael G. Finn of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. He obtains the Social Security numbers of new PhDs from overseas, and then looks at Social Security Administration wage records in the following years, a wonderful research arrangement. (Such research can be done on groups of people without violating anyone's privacy.)

He reported, in his most recent study "Stay Rates of Foreign Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2005," that the five-year stay rate "increased to its highest level yet: 68 per cent of the doctorate recipients in 2000 were in the United States in 2005."

The irony is that U.S. immigration policy, and I suspect grad schools' admissions policies, never check out this subject. Bright people from overseas are admitted for PhD training without ever asking where they are going to use their degree – probably largely funded by taxpayers – after they secure the doctorate.

I wrote a report about this, and related matters several years ago for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and never encountered any admissions decision-making based on this variable.