The importance of Indian students for US engineering doctoral programs

We at Harris Search Associates are interviewing provosts and deans of engineering at Tier One research universities in the US, Singapore and Europe to sharpen our understanding of the global dimensions of the search for talent.   With more than 30 interviews completed and several more scheduled, some interesting facets of the supply of engineering PhDs are emerging.  Here we touch on only the background for our questions, but will post final results in September 2012.

Consider the following appointments:

• Pradeep Khosal, Dean of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University for eight years, will become Chancellor of the University of California, San Diego, on August 1, 2012. • Mitra Dutta, served as head of computer and electrical engineering until being named Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Illinois, Chicago,  in July 2012. • Satish Tripathi, is President of SUNY University at Buffalo. • Kumble Subbaswamy, Provost at the University of Kentucky, became Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, on July 1, 2012. • Renu Khator has served as President and Chancellor of the University of Houston since 2008. • After serving as interim Provost, Prabhat Hajela, was named Provost at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. • Krishnaswami Srihari is Dean of Engineering at Binghamton University.

In addition to outstanding accomplishments, these individuals share their origins in India and several earned PhDs in engineering from American universities.  It is the latter characteristic that represents a major asset to US engineering schools because these individuals are among a flow of Indians who for decades now have made up a sizable portion of the doctorates awarded by those schools.

A 2010 report to Congress by the Congressional Research Service noted that “the foreign student population earned . . . approximately 63.6% of the doctorate degrees in engineering.  In 2006 foreign students on temporary resident visas earned 32.0% of the doctorates in the sciences, and 58.6% of the doctorates in engineering.”

From 1997 through 2006, engineering doctorates awarded to both temporary and permanent residents showed a steady but slowing upward trend to 63.6% of total PhDs awarded in engineering.

Countries of origin of foreign-born students in the US are, in order of relative size, India, China, South Korea, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, Turkey, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia.  Engineering ranks second among fields of study, with 17.7% of all students. 

While the data on country-of-origin by discipline of PhD make it difficult to measure precisely the numbers of Indians who earned engineering doctorates, anecdotal reports from deans of engineering suggest that Indians are indeed drawn to and complete studies in engineering well out of proportion to the total enrollment of Indian students in US doctoral programs.

At first glance, prospects appear strong for American universities to continue to attract large enrollments of well-qualified Indians.  A recent OECD study concludes:

The global talent pool has never been larger – and will continue to expand, with rapidly-growing G20 nations likely leading the way.

That expectation is derived from three indicators:

• The expansion of higher education in rapidly-developing G20 nations has reduced the share of tertiary graduates from Europe, Japan and the United States in the global talent pool. • If current trends continue, China and India will account for 40% of all young people with a tertiary education in G20 and OECD countries by the year 2020, while the United States and European Union countries will account for just over a quarter. • The strong demand for employees in “knowledge economy” fields suggests that the global labour market can continue to absorb the increased supply of highly-educated individuals.

Coupled with projections for 2020, the OECD report provides data that make it possible to compare countries’ relative contributions to the pool of graduates eligible for post-graduate studies, including engineering (see table below).  Given the reliance many US engineering doctoral programs have on Asian and particularly Chinese and Indian students, these data can be viewed as signs that that steady flow of talent will continue to stream to American shores and campuses.

But China, India, South Korea – indeed, many nations – have made improving their tertiary education systems and institutions a major priority and they have enjoyed some success.  It is by no means far-fetched to imagine a day in the not too-distant future when college graduates will remain in their home countries, complete doctorates there, and join engineering and other faculties as professors and researchers.  (For that matter, it may well be the case that as Chinese and Indian universities improve, they will become destinations for American college graduates seeking to earn doctorates.

And finally, there are the anecdotes told by some of the deans of engineering we have interviewed who are themselves immigrants to the US.  More than one has mentioned attending reunions of their home-country university and learning from younger graduates that they do not plan to go abroad to American graduate schools to earn doctorates.  In fact, these young graduates eschew the idea of post-graduate studies in favor of remaining in their native countries, becoming entrepreneurs, especially in technology.  As one interviewee remarked, “many of our undergraduates are very confident that they can, as engineers, do good and do well; that is, they are prepared to take on big challenges such as energy and the environment, find solutions and make lives better for others while also enriching themselves.”  After all, more and more of the world has options once the reserve of Europe and North America.

Share of 25-34 year-olds with a tertiary degree across OECD and G20 countries (2000, 2010)


Country          2000           2010          2020         

Turkey                 1%                  2%                 2%

Brazil                   2%                  3%                3%

Canada                2%                  2%                 2%

Spain                   3%                  2%                1%

Indonesia             3%                  4%                6%

UK                       3%                  3%                4%

Germany              3%                   2%                2%

France                 3%                   3%                2%

Mexico                 3%                   3%                3%      

Korea                   4%                   4%                3%

India                    10%                  11%              12%

Japan                  10%                   7%                4%

Russian Fed          12%                  11%              7%

China                   17%                  18%              29%

USA                      17%                  14%             11%

Others                  10%                  12%             12%

Source:  OECD                                                *Projected


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