Tag: yourtaxdollarsatwork

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.^

Industry vs. Academia, or: the Grey Lady Misses the Point

(Emery peer pressured me to blog, presumably rather than ranting entirely in Facebook posts, which is where a moderately shorter version of this first appeared.  I admit this does feel a hair more legitimate.  At least, I feel less compelled to apologize for the length.)

This article:

Uber Would Like to Buy Your Robotics Department (NYTimes)

…is frustrating. To the best of my (limited) knowledge, it more or less accurately represents the facts of the Uber-CMU-NREC deal (and is notably less inflammatory than early reporting on the subject), and yet still totally misses the point:

To start, it treats an event that it acknowledges was both foreseeable and anomalous (i.e., the NREC staff were already eyeing the private sector; everyone was surprised at the scale of the hire) as indicative of a trend.

More importantly, while it does sort of acknowledge the benefits to Pittsburgh, it mostly just conflates Pittsburgh/CMU with Silicon Valley/Stanford, which is rote nonsense for reasons that would take at least another several blog posts to explain. Setting aside concerns about Uber’s management, this is mostly just a good thing for Pittsburgh, a town with a real estate surplus and remarkably healthy town/gown/tech relations (…I doubt it would be nearly so positive for SV).

Anecdata: Note long after the technology center was first announced, an actual Uber driver said to me that, even though the goal is to eliminate his job: “…but that’s years away, and something like that is great for the city.”

It’s the same story with Google, which only gets a passing (though again, accurate!) reference: Andrew Moore did leave CMU for Google. He then built a multi-hundred-person [1] satellite lab in PGH that is substantively contributing to the revitalization (…ignoring issues of gentrification for the purposes of this discussion) of the East End.


One datapoint, but still: Individual faculty members leaving for industry isn’t really the problem (Maybe it’s worse in CA?). The real issue, which the article doesn’t touch on at all, is the draw on students. Why engage in a summer research project for $15 an hour when you can make $20k interning at Facebook? No research experience–>no exposure to research as a career option, and a weak grad school application. And why bother, frankly, when fbook converts the internship into a $100k+ offer for a fresh BA/BS?

(We’re also probably the only field in the history of academia to have such a surfeit of grad students who want to be professors, no matter what it feels like from the job search side. This doesn’t bother me much, though, since they at least give research a fair shake.)

Lest this sound like First World Problems, let’s return to the elided benefits to the city and think about how deeply positive this story really is: Taxpayer funded pie-in-the-sky ML and robotics research turn, over 20-30 years, into Google labs and advanced technology centers in a beautiful, vibrant city that by all rights should have collapsed with the steel industry, but didn’t. University research creates jobs. Sustained public investment in levels 1-4 research, which the private sector increasingly does not fund, is fundamental to the US economy and technological success.

We need to improve the way we, academics, communicate that fact to the public, since politicians are conveniently ignorant of what we do all day (LOOKING AT YOU WISCONSIN).

Upshot: rather than a “woe is CMU” story, why can’t someone write a “good job, NSF/NASA/DARPA” story?  I’m not that close to the situation, being neither a roboticist nor, like, the Dean, but that’s more my sense of the sentiment on the ground, for whatever that’s worth. And also: The tech boom may be posing a risk to academic computer science, but probably not through the acquisition and commercialization of industry-ready technologies.

(All opinions are my own, etc etc.)

[1] Original post had a 600 here, but I realized that I actually totally made up that number, which is probably cool for Facebook but maybe misleading in the legitimacy of a blog post.^