Where do those U.S. Doctorates go?

Training of future faculty, researchers, and private and non-profit leaders often happens at foreign universities. “Bright young things,” my tongue-and-cheek term for highly intelligent and talented youth, leave their home countries for the best education they can receive and world-class universities, many in the United States, welcome these students. According to new research by the U.S. National Science Foundation, many of these bright young things do not return home after they finish their U.S. degree.

The N.S.F.’s recent report provides data that contributes to two theories related to higher education and international development. First, bright young things make plans to stay in America after receiving their U.S. doctorate. “Among recent doctoral graduates (academic years 2001-2007) holding a temporary U.S. resident visa, 73.3% reported…that their immediate postgraduation plan was to live in the United States after receiving their degree.” We cannot, unfortunately, match this data with what others (home governments or private sponsors, for example) are expecting for these students. But it is clear that a majority of the foreign scholars are not planning to return to their home countries and contribute to a national development agenda immediately.

Moreover, it looks like foreign-born earners of U.S. Doctorates not only plan to stay. A significant number–67.5% of those holding a temporary U.S. visa–succeed. “Among foreign graduates who did not return to their country of origin, the United States was the most popular destination, with 88.9% reporting living in the United States. For this group, the European Union was the second most popular destination (3.7%), and Asia and Canada tied for third (2.7% and 2.6%, respectively). […] Foreign students from China, countries that were part of the former Soviet Union, and India reported distinctly low rates of returning to their home countries (3.7%, 4.1%, and 5.2%, respectively) compared with those from other foreign countries.” P. Pushkar just wrote an editorial on this topic, using the title, India’s Brain Drain Persists. (Hope you can access this without membership to The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

The second relevant-to-this-blog theory has to do with academic field of these doctorate earners. Check out the graph below (credit: N.S.F.; graph found here).  The lightest colored bar in each category represents foreign-born Ph.D.s who live in the United States.  In all categories except for social science, the foreign-born citizens living in the United States outnumber the foreign citizens living abroad.

Distribution of field of degree, by citizenship at the time of graduation and current residencySo, we can see that a majority of the U.S.-trained scientists, statisticians, engineers, and health experts–all very important fields for the work of international development–do not leave the United States for positions in their home countries where their expertise more readily contribute to national development. Hmph.

Are these findings surprising? Deflating? (To the international development optimists like me, yes.) Is this “brain drain” expressed in graphs?

Or is it the simple result of the global economy? Perhaps the U.S. universities and private enterprises hiring these folks are paying well, probably much better than home institutions. If you continue to dig into the report, you’ll see that most foreign citizens employed in the United States are employed either by 4-year institutions or private, for-profit enterprises (each employ about 43% of all foreign citizens employed in the U.S.).

This is all very interesting, indeed. As these results reflect doctoral graduates since (roughly) 2001, I’d be very interested to see where the foreign citizens end up 10-25 years after finishing their Ph.Ds. Do more bright young things return home once they are no longer as young?

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3 Responses to Where do those U.S. Doctorates go?

  1. Damian says:

    This is completely and utterly anecdotal, but when I started out in science 10 or 15 years ago, it was unheard of for an Indian or Chinese grad student to want to go home after finishing a PhD in the US. In the last two or three years, however, I’ve noticed that many of my Asian and and Indian friends have started interviewing in their home country (particularly those from Taiwan, Korea and Mainland China, but to a lesser extent the Indians), and it’s now considered more and more a plausible option. Keep an eye on this in the next 10 years or so, particularly if China keeps pouring money into research.

  2. selfscholar says:

    There are competing interests, not just between the sponsors and the students (or hosts), but even within US stakeholder policy. Dept. of State, for instance, mandates that potential students demonstrate “intent to return” for the issuance of an F-1 visa (which basically entails them fibbing about wanting to return home, what PhD student even has a firm idea, at the start of their program)? Whereas, the contribution of international students to the US economy (and visa status changes from F-1 to H-1) have been a major policy push by the National Academy of Sciences. Dept. of State would more like these students to return home, in order to serve as catalysts for institutional change, and mentors for the next generation. Whereas others recognize the economic and innovation potentials for keeping them here. Which is more important? Both have potential benefits and pitfalls, in varying areas.

    If you look at the NSF stay rates, the lowest by far are the Saudis (only 10%), who have a robust funding mechanism for intl. students (blended with a culture of fealty for the ruler/homeland). Iranians, on the other hand, have the highest average desire to stay (89%). China is on the upper level of this as well. However, if you look at the changes in statistics since the 1990s, it seems that vast fluctuations can occur, even on a year-by-year basis, which is not readily explainable.

    Anyway, just published something about Iranian students, feel free to check it out:


  3. Have you read “The Brain Gain” by Ben Wildavasky? I think you would like it…discusses similar topics!

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