STEMming reverse brain drain: what would make foreign students stay in the US?

STEM disciplines have come to have a large percentage of international students. Girl image via

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines in the US have come to heavily rely on international students, who constitute about a third of all STEM graduate students in the US.

So what makes these individuals stay in the US upon graduation? This has come to be an important question considering that for science and engineering, 40% of US doctorates awarded today are to people from abroad. Understanding why international students may or may not want to leave the US and where they choose to work after they graduate is crucial for future immigration policies.

As a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I am part of an interdisciplinary research group headed by Richard Appelbaum that investigated international students’ career choices and found that those interested in becoming entrepreneurs were most inclined to stay after graduation.

US still a magnet for the entrepreneurial

Among multiple factors, the choice of career plays a key role in students deciding to stay or leave the US upon graduation. Our study found those who wanted to work with business groups, or start their own business, or work for a non-governmental organization had a 90% likelihood of wanting to stay in the US.

This suggests to us that the US continues to be viewed as a hub for innovation and research.

However, for those wanting a career in academia or a governmental agency, the choice is more complicated and depends on a combination of social, professional and personal reasons.

They come but they are going back in higher numbers

Perceived as a global leader in STEM innovation, the US remains the most popular destination in the world for international students.

International students are also more likely to earn a doctorate in a STEM related field than their American counterparts. From 2001 to 2011, 84% of doctorate degrees earned by international students were in STEM compared to only 63% by US citizens and permanent residents.

STEM areas are offering exciting possibilities of research. Scientist image via

However, given the importance of STEM research, increasingly many countries have come up with policies and programs to encourage individuals who studied abroad to return to their home countries.

From technological advancements in fully autonomous vehicles to medical breakthroughs in targeted drug delivery, STEM disciplines offer exciting possibilities of research with significant economic and global impact.

A 2011 study focusing only on foreign STEM doctoral recipients in the US has found that the percentage of individuals who stay long-term after graduation has steadily decreased.

At the same time, studies by Brookings, Harvard, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and the Institute of International Education have highlighted that international students are important contributors to the US economy and are integral to the future economic success of the country.

Immigration policies deter many from staying on

Our study also looked at current immigration policies and whether they acted as a possible barrier in retaining the best talent.

An Optional Practical Training (OPT) period allows individuals to stay and work in the US in a job related to their field of study for 12 months following graduation. Qualified STEM degree holders are then eligible to apply for an additional 17-month OPT extension. But to stay past their OPT period, international students must find a business willing to sponsor them for an H-1B visa.

Respondents in our study were forthright on how frustrating they found the H-1B visa process.

Students say visa issues are a major deterrent

For instance, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering said:

“The H-1B visa makes you get a sponsor for five years or so and you are bound to that employer and that is not very attractive. If the US wants to retain talent, people need freedom to pursue what they want to research.”

Another graduate student in mechanical engineering voiced a similar sentiment:

“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. ”

For policymakers in the US, such a large pool of STEM students raises crucial questions about the direction of future policies. Do we want to retain international STEM graduates? And if so, how do we go about easing immigration policies restrictions so as to encourage those most likely to contribute to the American economy?