CS PhDs and US Immigration Policy, a Long and Pointlessly Insane Saga

(Should I be working on a grant proposal? Yes, yes I should. Am I writing a blog post instead? Yes, yes I am.)

I’m beginning to wonder if anyone at the NYT actually knows anything about higher education/research in STEM.

Exhibit N: an ENTIRE ARTICLE about whether STEM graduates should get visas, without a SINGLE SOLITARY MENTION of the fact that your tax dollars are, by and large, paying for their PhDs [1].

I’m becoming a bit of a broken record on this, but: The US government funds the most successful scientific enterprise in the world. This is a major driver of economic growth/innovation (e.g., much of the technology in your cell phone came out of publicly-funded basic science). A large proportion of the money the US government gives us as research grants, especially in CS where we have fewer expensive infrastructure needs than, say, experimental physics, pays for graduate students’ tuition and living expenses. Without the students, we can’t do the science [2].

tl;dr: 60.1% of the CS PhDs awarded in 2014 were to nonresident aliens [3]. The pipeline distribution looks similar. So: we bring in students on visas, pay for their PhDs, and then threaten to send them home to compete with us. Note that the Taulbee survey suggests that this doesn’t happen much in practice, as many of the people they track seem to have found North American employment. But still: there’s always the stress, and the visa situation dampens the entrepreneurial spirit, because such graduates typically need to be sponsored by big companies or universities in order to stay.

Many foreign students I’ve spoken to are understandably mystified by the total insanity of this “system.” My own mother, a naturalized American citizen who experienced the post-PhD can-I-get-a-greencard? stress (30 years ago! Times, they do not change), regularly comments that the US government, having funded her PhD, should have insisted she stay! Indeed, other (normal) governments usually attach riders along those lines to the scholarships they give their own students, that stipulate policies like “you must come back to work for at least as many years as we paid for you to study abroad.”

Someone somewhere (Trump?) is liable to say something like “Admit more US graduate students!” Listen, there simply aren’t enough of them. My admittedly limited experience on graduate admissions committees strongly suggests that virtually any CS graduate department would struggle to fill their cohorts with US students, even if they totally ignored applicants’ qualifications.

People (including commenters on the NYT article) periodically get up in arms and claim that the visa lobbying done by companies like MS constitutes a nefarious strategy to pay foreign workers a lower salary (which is basically demented, because last I checked they pay more or less the same salary to starting engineers regardless of country of origin), but you really can’t say that about us. We pay all graduate students the same stipend regardless. We have literally no economic incentive at all to admit a foreign vs. a local grad student.

tl;dr part 2: As a taxpayer, I would like the record to show that I strongly favor government policy that encourages people with PhDs in Computer Science, especially (though not limited to) those that I helped pay for, to stay in this country.

[1] I’m setting aside the Master’s question, since students who get terminal MS degrees are significantly more likely to pay for them, for reasons that mystify me but are rightfully the subject of another post.^

[2] There are many fields in which we might discuss whether there are too many PhDs for the amount of work available for them, insert various words about the faculty hiring crisis in the humanities here. CS is really not one of them. There is a fuzzy boundary between theory and math where a graduate with a PhD in Computer Science might have a harder time finding a job either in industry or academia. I’m caveating those people away, because they’re a small fraction of the total CS PhD population.^

[3] CRA Taulbee survey is your friend.^

4 thoughts on “CS PhDs and US Immigration Policy, a Long and Pointlessly Insane Saga

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. But the problem is that our political parties are too busy enjoying the art of making each other look bad that they don’t have any energy (political will capital) to provide any leadership on this issue.

    Also any reform that would help in this area is tied together with comprehensive immigration reform which the new Speaker of the House has declared off limits until Obama is out of power because he says Obsma can not be trusted on immigration. Why? Because Obama implanted executive orders within his power, as have all other Prezs, to act in a limited fashion to releave some of the worst consequences of our Congress’ failure to act on these issues for the past two decades.


  2. “your tax dollars are, by and large, paying for their PhDs” – that is not accurate and it saddens me every time I hear a professor saying this. PhD students do work for their salaries. We could argue about what percentage of the tuition / living expenses that should cover, but it is definitely not small. PhD students are by and large teaching and research assistant who are payed wages that barely afford them to live. Often they are not even sure if these living expenses will be available the next semester – I’ve had colleagues who lost teaching assistant positions while their advisers stopped having grant money which led them to having no source of income for half or a whole year. So universities are getting highly qualified workers that work for minimal salaries while being stressed that even these minimal salaries might not be available (CMU is probably better in guaranteeing consistency in funding, but most universities aren’t).

    Don’t get me wrong – I am aware and agree that PhD students are getting a lot back in return for their work – opportunity to learn and do research with researchers like you are among the great perks of being a grad student. I just wanted to make the point that this process is not as one sided as “US pays for foreign grad students PhDs”.


    1. Hi Sergiu:

      Thanks for your comment. I would like to correct a possible misread of my post: I completely agree with you that the tenuous nature of graduate student support in US academia is a problem, as is the exploitation of contingent academic labor in general. However, I’m not claiming that students don’t work; quite the contrary. Funded PhD students (which describes much of CS academia at research-intensive institutions) are supported via a stipend and tuition coverage. You are correct in saying that this totals a considerable sum of money (though of course variable by institution), and we could of course debate how much is sufficient and fair for the labor provided. Regardless, though, while the funding model differs by institution, by and large such funding comes out of grant money raised by advisers/departments.* Thus, when I say “I fund my graduate students” (and I do!), I mean “I provide the funding to pay for their tuition and provide a living stipend.” That money comes out of the grant money that I raise as a PI. The vast majority of my grant money comes from federal agencies like the NSF or the DoD research arms, such as DARPA; training new scientists is in fact a core element of the NSF’s mission. The NSF/DARPA are funded in large part through federal appropriations. So: tax dollars pay for PhD training.

      Your comment raises important concerns about the nature of PhD training and about the importance of consistent and sufficient support; I agree with you! Important work remains, here. I’m not claiming my students don’t work: I know they do, and I value it. Which is why I pay for it.

      *I’m overgeneralizing, of course, and there’s quite a bit of variability here, but this description is close enough to being generically correct to support this discussion.


  3. Thank you for your reply and the clarifications. I didn’t mean to derail the argument and I know your article makes an orthogonal point, but it felt important to clarify this part.

    I think the accurate statement is that tax dollars pay for PhDs doing work, not for PhDs getting a PhD. The latter interpretation suggests the government is being charitable, which is not the case. I miss interpreted your phrase as I often hear it being used in the second sense.


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