Thursday, January 25, 2007

Graduate admissions, human capital and globalization

I'm on the graduate admissions committee this year. We're in the middle of reviewing over 200 applications for about a dozen places in our PhD program. About 3/4 of the applicants are foreign, the vast majority of those from China, while less than a quarter are domestic. We're a middle-level PhD program at a flagship public university -- not ranked among the top 20 physics departments, but probably not very different from the next 20 departments, with several very strong research specialties.

Through some independent research, I've learned that the top 5% or so of students from the very best universities in China (e.g., Beijing University or Tsinghua University) can expect to be admitted to the top 10 programs in the US, so they might not apply at Oregon. A typical student admitted here from China will be in the top 10-20% of their class at one of the top 5-10 departments. The modal GRE quant score is a perfect 800 (>94 percentile) and a typical GRE subject score of an admitted Chinese applicant is above 90th percentile. Very few American applicants score above the 90th percentile on the subject test (the top ranks are dominated by foreigners), and those individuals usually end up at top US grad schools.

Our yield (ratio of students who enroll to those who are accepted) is about 10%, probably because most of these applicants are accepted at multiple programs of similar quality. Among our applicants I've already spotted winners of the Chinese national physics and math Olympiads (these teams often score 5 golds at the world competition) and numerous graduates of the "Special Youth" program which admits young talents to university early. One applicant is 19 and took general relativity at age 18. (As I mentioned already, the very strongest Chinese applicants are only applying to the top 5 or 10 US graduate programs, so we may not see them in our pool.)

How do these students perform in graduate school? Typically very well in the courses and on the comprehensive exams. The top scorers on the PhD candidacy exam, both here and when I was a professor at Yale, are disproportionately from China (and rarely Americans, although I think when I was a grad student myself at Berkeley there were often Americans at or near the top). The harder question is whether, in the long term, these Chinese students are as productive researchers as the domestic students. I haven't seen any systematic studies of this, but I suppose they are at least comparable since a lot of professors these days are PRC immigrants who went through graduate school here. I suspect that mastering English might be harder for many of these students than the physics itself.

One thing I am sure of -- without these foreign applicants the strength of US graduate programs in physics would be reduced significantly (I am sure the situation is the same in engineering and other sciences). We're reaping the benefits of a very well organized system for training students up to the BS and MS levels; most of these students want to stay in the US after finishing their educations. I suppose more and more good students are staying at home for their PhD, rather than coming to the US, but at the moment we can still draw on a huge pool of human talent from abroad.


Anonymous said...

I'm proud to say that in my class at Stanford an American did manage to get the top score on the qualifying exams. Second place went to a foreigner - a Canadian experimentalist!

Anonymous said...


It is not obvious what would happen to quality if foreigners were excluded. It might lead to physicists getting paid better and therefore more quality US citizens would go into physics. Doesn't it sound odd that the professions that generously allow immigration have significantly lower salaries than professions that don't? If we can allow the best physicists worldwide into graduate school, why shouldn't we allow the best candidates wordlwide into medical or law school?

Gordon Pasha

Anonymous said...

Here's a question - do programs that take these chinese and other foreign students do enough to make them part of the campus community and to prepare them for a career in the US? I did my PhD at a top US university, was close friends with a number of chinese and other foreign students, and found that even basic english and grammar instruction was unavailable to students that needed it. I think this hurt their graduate experience and future job prospects. The universities get great grad students, but don't adequately prepare them for life and work outside the lab, including teaching and industry positions.

Steve Hsu said...

Hey great comments!

1) At the very top departments the US students are as good as anybody. I'm sure this is borne out by later research achievements as well. But, at all the lower tiers the level is enhanced by the foreign students.

2) Yes, it would be great if there was open admission and generous grad fellowships for foreigners to come here and study law, medicine, etc. It would increase competition and reduce compensation there as it does in the sciences! See,

3) I think a lot of these students would benefit from more help in English, communication, etc., instead of just being exploited in the lab. Having said that, a lot of advisors are very good mentors to their foreign students.

Anonymous said...

"The universities get great grad students, but don't adequately prepare them for life and work outside the lab, including teaching and industry positions."

This is true in general, not just for foreign students!

I think success in physics, past the graduate school level, depends on social skills to a larger degree than most would imagine. Here Chinese with poor English are at a disadvantage. Indians tend to have better English and seem to be better represented at the higher levels (also true in finance).

Conversely, I've known a couple mediocre Israeli students who seemed to get by on nothing more than their ability to schmooze in Hebrew.

Anonymous said...

Graduate students get paid to go to graduate school through research grants paid for by the American taxpayer. Shouldn't therefore the American students get first pick at graduate school admission and the research grants as well.

mrquetiapine said...

The USA is the ultimate brain drain destination for obvious economic reason's.

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