• August 30, 2015

American Universities See Decline in Foreigners Earning Science Doctorates

The number of doctorates in science and engineering earned by foreign students at American universities shrank last year by 3.5 percent, the first drop in more than five years, the National Science Foundation reported.

The decline came despite an overall increase in the total number of doctorates issued by American universities, up 1.6 percent over 2008 levels, as well as a net increase in the science and engineering fields, up 1.9 percent over 2008, the NSF said in an annual review.

Doctorates earned by science and engineering students holding temporary visas fell to 12,217 in 2009, from 12,686 the year before, a likely reflection of factors that include tougher economic conditions worldwide, an NSF analyst said.

"I would look to the usual suspects" in explaining the reduction, including job-market conditions both overseas and in the United States that might lead students to delay graduation, said the study's author, Mark K. Fiegener, a project officer at the NSF.

The reduction also may have been foreshadowed by data earlier in the decade showing that the enrollment of international students at American graduate schools had slowed or even declined, Mr. Fiegener said. That slowdown was attributed by experts to factors that included the sagging economy, increasing competition from higher-quality universities abroad, and restrictions on the issuance of U.S. visas.

Controversy and Competitiveness

Those factors reflect the controversial nature of foreign-student enrollment, especially in the sciences. The Obama administration and the Bush administration before it both sought to encourage such enrollment, calling foreign students critical to the future of the United States' technological and economic competitiveness. Many in Congress have pushed back, however, reflecting voter fears that foreigners would compete for scarce jobs.

The National Academies produced a report in 2005, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," from a study committee that made a series of recommendations to Congress for improving American economic competitiveness, including granting more visas to foreign students in science and engineering. The committee issued a follow-up report this past September complaining that many of its key recommendations remained unaddressed.

The decline in doctorates in 2009 could largely reflect visa-processing problems that slowed graduate-school enrollment several years ago, said Albert H. Teich, director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. If that's the case, Mr. Teich said, doctorate rates among foreigners "probably will" increase again in future years.

But the lack of a guaranteed ability to stay in the country after graduation may continue to deter foreign students, said Susan Traiman, director of education and work-force policy at the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of large American companies. The group has long called for a policy of granting a green card to every recipient of an advanced degree. "That's clearly not happening," Ms. Traiman said.

The NSF data also showed drops in doctorates in several engineering fields, including electrical engineering, down 10 percent to 1,694, and chemical engineering, down 7 percent to 808. Universities issued a total of 7,634 engineering doctorates in 2009, down 3 percent from the previous year.

The overall increase in all categories of science and engineering doctorates issued in 2009 by American institutions was largely due to growth among women, up 5 percent to 13,593, the NSF reported. Men earned 19,849, a decline of five doctorates from their 2008 total.

The NSF figures also showed that Americans from racial and ethnic minority groups are earning doctorates at a faster pace than white students are, and that the proportion of 2009 doctorate recipients with employment prospects in the coming year was slightly below the level reported in 2008.

Fewer Advanced Degrees for Foreign Nonresidents in 2009
Number of degrees awarded.
  2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 1-year change, 2008-9
Temporary visa holders 11,633 12,848 14,205 15,176 15,257 14,724 -3.5%
Total 42,118 43,381 45,617 48,130 48,763 49,562 +1.6%
Source: National Science Foundation


1. skrashen - November 29, 2010 at 06:17 pm

"The Obama administration and the Bush administration before it both sought to encourage such enrollment, calling foreign students critical to the future of the United States' technological and economic competitiveness. Many in Congress have pushed back, however, reflecting voter fears that foreigners would compete for scarce jobs."

Wait a minute. "Scare jobs"? I thought there was supposed to be a huge shortage in science and technology trained experts, with far more open positions than qualifed applicants.

2. archman - November 29, 2010 at 06:41 pm

"increasing competition from higher-quality universities abroad"

I believe it. Graduate degrees in the U.S. are increasingly getting more stupid. I hope that not all foreign universities are following similar patterns.

3. raymond_j_ritchie - November 30, 2010 at 05:57 am

I would not worry too much about such statistics. The definition of "foreign student" is too narrow to be meaningful.
In the longer term there will be a fall-off in "foreign students" from Asia as their universities improve in training of graduate students.
There is also the less politically correct reason that graduate education as a means of immigration is falling of in the US and Australia.
1# skrasken - I never cease to be amused at this propoganda about huge shortages of Science & Technology experts. It has not been my career experience. I have applied for over 300 academic positions over the past 30 years. The lowest number of applicants I have heard of was 36, the highest 256. I have been interviewed 6 times (twice by telephone, which is a scam). Only two were for what americans call "tenure-track". Some shortage. If a shortage exists it is in technical labour not university graduates.

4. gharbisonne - November 30, 2010 at 08:21 am

The reason is pretty darn obvious. People graduating with Ph. D.s in 2009 would likely have been admitted in 2003-2004, at the height of the post-9/11 visa woes.

Of course, NSF missing the obvious is no more news than the contents of the latest Wikileaks release.

5. softshellcrab - November 30, 2010 at 06:55 pm

Not in my discipline! I would say about 40% of the recent doctorates are Asian-born, usually F-1 students, and with overall foreign-born being well over half the new doctorates. I can't see why anyone hires TEACHERS who cannot speak English well. What a stupid idea. But I see it in my area all the time. We should not permit foreign students to take up the places in our doctoral programs. In my discipline, the professor jobs we hire for are really plum, great jobs. Lots of money and low hours, great benefits and work atmosphere, etc. Why should great jobs go to foreigners instead of to Americans?

6. sadza - December 01, 2010 at 12:19 pm

softshellcrab: "Why should great jobs go to foreigners instead of to Americans?"

Because they are better qualified?

raymond_j_ritchie: "I would not worry too much about such statistics. The definition of "foreign student" is too narrow to be meaningful."

What do you mean?

7. raymond_j_ritchie - December 02, 2010 at 03:56 am

Dear Sadza #6,
In Australia most foreign students get residency after a bachelors degree or even a technical education. In fact the government virtually hands them out at graduation ceremonies. There is always an immigration dept desk set up at graduations, right next to the photographers and the desk selling stuffed toys-in-graduation-garb. That means when they do a graduate degree, including medicine they are no longer "foreign students" but permanent residents and so pay the same fees as Australian citizens and qualify for graduate scholarships. They no longer count as foreign students. There is a very heavy financial incentive to get off a foreign student visa as quickly as possible; namely fees, health insurance and the work limitations on student visas.
Politicians in Australia would panic over what is going on if one day some bureaucrat in Canberra decided to split up the Citizens/Permanent Residents statistic for graduate students in Australia. There are very few Australian-born graduate students in the labs, regardless of racial/ethnic origin. For obvious reasons - perceived poor career prospects and lack of interest in science.
I doubt if it is much different in the US today. The trends were obvious when I was a post-doc there in the 1980s.

8. sadza - December 02, 2010 at 11:03 am

Dear 7. raymond_j_ritchie

I'm afraid you're wrong about the US at least -- unlike in Australia (or the UK), one does not get residency after completing a BA. The American student visa is a non-immigrant visa, and does sometimes give the opportunity to work for one or two years afterwards ('optional practical training') but again is absolutely no help in getting a green card (residency).

So someone pursuing a bachelors followed by a grad degree in the US would almost certainly still be on a student visa, unless they married an American.

9. mingus - December 08, 2010 at 01:49 am

To raymond_j_ritchie: You seem to believe that all the science and engineering jobs are in academia. Actually there are more such graduates working outside academia than inside it, and that is where the great demand is. So why don't you apply for jobs where your skills are needed instead of pursuing soem hopeless dream?

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