NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


March 30, 2005

Foreigners are earning a greater percentage of science and engineering doctorates from U.S. universities than ever before. This is due to economic incentives for both Americans and foreign students, according to a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The researchers use data from the annual Survey of Earned Doctorates to detect demographic changes in science and engineering Ph.Ds:

  • In 1966, foreign-born students received 23 percent of science-engineering doctorates.
  • By the year 2000, they received 39 percent of those doctorates.
  • This occurred even as the United States expanded its Ph.D. educating capacity -- America graduated 11,000 more Ph. Ds in 2000 than in 1970.

The researchers give several reasons for the rapid increase in foreign obtained doctorates.

  • Foreign students -- especially those with foreign bachelors' degrees -- earn much more from a U.S. doctorate than from working in other careers in their native country.
  • Additionally, the science and engineering doctorate opens the door to working in the United States and U.S. multinational firms.

The researchers also state that the relative decline in American Ph.D. graduates is a reflection of economic choices. American students have other diverse educational prospects: medical school, law school and business school. Moreover, they can work as scientists and engineers without obtaining a Ph.D. Consequently, they have less incentive to invest in a doctorate than comparable foreigners with undergraduate degrees.

Source: David R. Francis, "Changing Demographics of U.S. Science-Engineering PhDs," NBER Digest, January 2005; based upon: Richard Freeman, Emily Jin and Chia-Yu Shen, "Where Do New U.S.-Trained Science-Engineering PhDs Come From?" National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 10554, June 2004.

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