Big Majority of Foreign PhDs Stay in the U.S. Many Years After Degree

By David North, January 19, 2012

A large majority of a group that can appropriately be called the "best and the brightest," U.S.-trained foreign PhDs in the STEM fields, stay in the U.S. under the current immigration system, according to a new, authoritative study.

Relating that fact to immigration policy, the author of the study that was released today wrote:

The data in this report provide no support for the view that S/E recipients on temporary visas have had declining stay rates because of difficulty obtaining visas that would permit them to say in the United States to work.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; S/E for science and engineering. The report, part of an ongoing series is entitled "Stay Rates of Foreign Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2009", was written by Michael G. Finn, of the Science Education Program of Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. Oak Ridge is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Working from a rock-solid database, which will be described later, Dr. Finn follows the careers in the U.S. of foreign nationals who have secured a PhD from an American institution. He has conducted the study for many years, and the most significant findings are shown below, this for the aliens receiving S/E doctorates in the year 2004.

Percentage of Foreign Students Receiving S/E Doctorates in 2004 Who Were in the United States, 2005-2009

(includes students on temporary and permanent visas)

Degree Field Foreign Doctorate Recipients Percent in the United States
2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Physical science 1,711 78 76 73 71 70
Mathematics 583 74 72 67 64 64
Computer science 510 72 69 70 68 66
Agricultural science 454 54 52 51 49 46
Life science 2,144 76 74 72 73 72
Computer/EE engineering 1,110 76 73 72 71 68
Other engineering 2,444 71 68 66 65 63
Economics 659 47 44 45 44 43
Other social science 948 54 51 50 51 50
Total, all fields 10,563 70 68 66 65 64

Source: Oak Ridge Associated Universities

Dr. Finn's findings are that not only do the "stay rates" remain pretty steady, year after year, for a given cohort of new doctorates, but that the pattern for each cohort is likely to be very much like the one for the class of 2004, shown above. Were foreign-born doctoral students who became naturalized before getting their degree included in the study, I suspect the stay rates shown above would be a little higher. Were those who had green cards on graduation to be excluded, as they are not above, the stay rates would be a little lower. (There are about eight times as many new foreign-born doctorates on nonimmigrant visas at graduation as those holding green cards.)

Dr. Finn obtains the Social Security number of everyone with a new PhD every year; then he checks with Social Security Administration on the earnings recorded for each of those numbers as time passes. Frankly, I envy him this sturdy database. People with doctorates are unlikely to work in the underground labor market; death happens rarely to people in the first dozen years after securing a PhD; there is no need for estimates or projections or definitions with shaky bases. His methodology is impeccable.

The findings of this study relate directly to the current debates on the need to further augment our foreign-born skilled worker population; some industry advocates want a "staple bill" that would, in effect, attach a green card to the diploma of every alien with a new PhD. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House immigration subcommittee, for example, has been pushing such legislation, as noted in a prior blog. Her position, and that of the more-migration people, is that we are losing some of the world's best and brightest because of the current admissions systems. Dr. Finn's report indicates that the current system keeps a large majority of the new doctorates in the country, anyway.

Another industry initiative on Capitol Hill that has gotten even further than the Staple Bill is HR 3012, which has passed the House and is pending in the Senate. In contrast to the Lofgren bill, which would expand the number of green cards for highly educated high-tech workers, HR 3012 simply reduces the wait time for green cards now experienced by low- and high-tech workers from China and India while adding to the wait time for EB-2 and EB-3 employment-based workers from other nations. It would do this by removing the country-of-origin numerical limits after a transition period.

It is a rather trivial, and to me harmless, measure as it now stands, but may turn out to be one of those proverbial congressional "Christmas trees" to which various amendments will be added, such as one for a small class of Irish Immigrants. For a recent status report on this bill, see this article in Immigration Daily.

Again, Dr. Finn's findings, though he does not write about the legislation per se, undercut the arguments in favor of HR 3012.

Returning to the report itself, and its internals, we find that the people with the background most desired by industry (particularly the software employers) are exactly the ones most likely to stay under the current rules.

HR 3012 wants to hurry the green card process for people from China and India. The report's Table 6 shows that the average stay rate, after five years, is 62 percent for new doctorates who had temporary visas on graduation in 2004. But for those from China it was 89 percent and for India, 79 percent.

Further, as the table above shows, while the average stay rate was 64 percent for that population generally, it was 66 percent for those in computer science and 68 percent for those in computer/EE engineering. Much of the pressure for easier migration for high tech workers comes from Silicon Valley.

In contrast, while there is little pressure on Congress to keep foreign PhD economists and agricultural scientists in this country, people with these specialties are the least likely to stay, reporting rates of 43 percent and 45 percent, respectively.

One of the interesting minor findings are some of the other stay rates by country of nationality. At the bottom are the 101 new doctorates given to people from Saudi Arabia; 95 percent of them quickly returned to that oil-rich kingdom. An American Ph.D. must be highly regarded there, and salaries must be excellent. Thailand, for reasons which I do not understand, also draws most of its people back, with a stay rate of only 12 percent.

In contrast to the stay rates of 89 percent of the new doctorates from Mainland China, the comparable percentage for Taiwan was 37 percent. I remember talking to a STEM grad student from Taiwan a few years ago, and asked him about this pattern, which has persisted for years. He said that government funding of research on the island was roughly comparable to that of the U.S. and, besides, "it's always better to work at home."