Why International Engineering and Science Students Stay or Go

A new survey reveals why international STEM students choose to stay in the U.S. or return home

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Why International Engineering and Science Students Stay or Go
Photo: Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Foreign-born talent has fueled many Silicon Valley startups and contributed heavily to U.S. leadership in in science and engineering for decades. But national data shows that just half of science and engineering doctoral recipients who were born overseas end up staying in the U.S. to pursue their post-graduation careers. A new study has teased out several reasons why students choose to stay in the U.S. or go back to their home countries.

The limitations of U.S. immigration policy and H-1B work visas are one of the biggest challenges for foreign students interested in pursuing U.S. careers. That’s according to a survey of 166 international graduate students conducted by the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Many students who participated in the survey pointed to uncertainty about obtaining permanent resident status after graduation as a major deterrent to both studying in the U.S. and trying to work in the U.S. after graduation. For the study, which appeared in the 11 March 2015 issue of the journal PLOS One, one mechanical engineering student summed up the frustrations of many peers thusly:

The fact that you don’t have a green card at the end of your PhD—it’s a nightmare. For international students, not having a green card, it impacts the job search, everything. The U.S. is welcoming to graduate students to come and study but there doesn’t seem to be a plan for after students graduate. Students settle for jobs that are below them because they work for companies that will provide them with a green card.

But the study also examined how several professional, social and personal factors influenced the decisions of foreign students. The study authors focused on three key decisions: whether to pursue higher education in the home country, whether to stay in the U.S. or return home after graduation, and whether to pursue a career in academia or industry.

One of the strongest predictors of whether a student will stay or leave is whether he or she wants to pursue a career in academia or industry. Students who wanted industry careers had a 90 percent probability of pursuing U.S.-based careers after graduation. By comparison, students who planned to pursue academic careers believed they would receive better treatment from colleagues in their home country. As a result, this group had an 86 percent probability of leaving the U.S. after graduation.

The quality of U.S. mentors and professional networks factored heavily into the decisions of students who wanted to go into academia but decided to leave the United States after earning their degrees. But not in the way one might predict. Many students who believed the U.S. offered higher quality mentors or professional networks were more likely to return to their home countries.

“We were most surprised by the role mentorship and networking played in whether a student decided to stay or leave,” said Xueying (Shirley) Han, lead author on the study and a postdoctoral scholar in marine biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in a press release. “Individuals who felt they had strong mentorships and networking actually felt more comfortable leaving the U.S.”

It’s possible that foreign students who had forged strong relationships with U.S. mentors or professional networks were more confident about returning home to work, according to Han and her colleagues. Students who had weaker U.S. relationships might be more interested in staying longer in order to strengthen professional ties.

One important thing to note is the study’s relatively small sample size. Of the 166 students surveyed, about 73 percent were engineers and the rest studied life and physical sciences. But the demographics of the survey respondents did generally match the national distribution of international students studying in the U.S.; the largest groups hailed from China and India.

Such foreign talent continues to drive much of U.S. innovation. About 44 percent of Silicon Valley startups currently include a foreign founder. Foreign born scientists and engineers also contributed more than half of the international patents filed by multinational corporations based in the United States. But the United States can’t assume it will continue to attract the world’s best talent without addressing these students’ concerns. Many international students pointed to Europe as an increasingly competitive choice for studying science and engineeringin large part because of more relaxed immigration policies.

In order for policymakers to craft smart policy, they need to consider the complex interaction of factors that go into foreign students’ career decisions,” Han said. “And if the U.S. wants to maintain its competitive economic edge, it needs to provide an alternative for highly skilled scientists and researchers to stay.”

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