Claire Le Goues

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.^