Foreign students in the United States
Foreign student enrolment dramatically increased during the 1980s and until the mid-1990s, followed by a decrease in first-time, full-time S&E foreign graduate enrolments after the events of September 11, 2001. By 2006, that decrease had reversed its course in all fields. After three consecutive years of decline, total foreign enrolment increased by a modest 1 per cent in 2006 (Burns et al., 2009).
Currently, almost half a million foreign students are enrolled in US universities. By 2006, 47.7 per cent of American PhD degrees were earned by foreign-born students. Within the past three decades, Asian students have constituted the largest population of foreign students in the USA. Chinese, Indian and South Korean students constitute almost half of the doctoral students in the USA (Stephan, 2010). Several studies have documented the importance of foreign doctoral students to the American science community. Foreign graduate and postdoctoral students are not only important in staffing university laboratories, but also play major roles in research production. A study of 133 papers published in Science having a last author affiliated with a US university found that 53 per cent of the co-authors were foreign students or postdoctoral candidates. Furthermore, foreign graduate students constitute almost 60 per cent of first-author graduate students (Black and Stephan, 2008). Also, in their analyses of counts of publications and number of citations for 100 research universities in 23 S&E disciplines, Stuen et al. (2008) find that foreign-born doctoral students make higher contributions (as measured by citations) to elite institutions as compared with citizen doctoral students. Chelleraj (2004) suggests that a 10 per cent increase in the number of foreign students would raise patents granted to universities by 6 per cent and non-university patents by 4 per cent.
Foreign-born graduate students' and scientists' existence in the USA is, of course, not without costs. The idea, for example, that foreign students “crowd out” natives has received much attention. According to a report by the National Science Foundation, the number of US citizen and permanent resident male graduate students decreased from 1993 to 2000, whereas the number of temporary foreign graduate students who are male increased (National Science Foundation, 2004). Borjas (2004) argues that the steepest drops in white male, native-student enrolments are observed in institutions in which foreign-student enrolment increases are the largest.
Although this information is consistent with the possibility that foreign students “crowd out” natives, some authors point to other factors that could contribute to these results. For instance, the decrease in the US population in the 20–24 age cohort within the past decade contributes to the decrease in the total number of native-student enrolments (Bean, 2005). In addition, the existence of more attractive job opportunities (higher-paying and with better working conditions) for native students can pull native-born college graduates towards more lucrative programmes (Bean and Brown, 2005; Stephan and Sharon, 2003). This effect is even stronger for native male students, who are more sensitive to US labour market conditions than are foreign students (Bean and Brown, 2005). Moreover, native female enrolments held steady during the 1990s, even in the face of simultaneous foreign-born female enrolment increases, a pattern not consistent with the “crowding out” argument. Both foreign-born and native groups of females increased their enrolments from 2000 to 2003 (Oliver, 2005).
The percentage of foreign students staying in the country after completing their studies has also been increasing. Aslanbeigui and Montecinos (1998) find that 45 per cent of foreign students from developing countries planned to stay for some time, 15 per cent planned to stay permanently and another 15 per cent planned to go to a third country. Finn (2005) indicates that the proportion of foreign students staying in the USA for at least 2 years after receiving their degrees increased from 49 per cent for the 1989 cohort to 71 per cent for the 2001 cohort. The stay rate is the highest among engineering, computer science and physical science graduates. There is also a significant difference in stay rates by students' country of origin. The difference is remarkable among the top source countries. Among the temporary residents who received their PhDs in 1996, China and India had very high stay rates, at 96 per cent and 86 per cent, respectively. The stay rates in 2001 were 40 per cent for Taiwan and 21 per cent for Korea. However, developments in other countries could influence the US dominance in attracting and keeping foreign talent. Other countries are not only strengthening their S&E education, but also producing more graduates each year (Freeman, 2009).
Given the important role that foreign students play in research, it is of policy interest to know whether ethnicity plays a role in determining the labs in which they work. We study university research laboratories, where most graduate students in S&E start their training, and become part of a “team” with fellow lab members. Understanding the ethnic compositions of research teams at the research laboratory level provides a new layer to our understanding of ethnic communities in the USA. A recent study highlights the role of ethnic communities in the USA and their contribution to technology transfers to their home countries. Ethnic scientific and entrepreneurial channels are found to be important for the transfer of both codified and tacit knowledge. In addition, I suggest that an understanding of the ethnic linkages provides insights into the “brain drain” versus “brain gain” debate (Kerr, 2008).
We chose to examine S&E research labs for two particular reasons. First, the research lab is a good representation of a foreign student's social environment, because doctoral students spend a significant portion of their time at school. Many research labs are populated with foreign students, and some of these labs are directed by foreign-born professors from the same country. Thus, labs present a closed environment, enabling us to observe possible networks. Second, research labs have a unique independent structure within the department. They are semi-autonomous groups within the university that receive separate funding and, at times, hire separate personnel. Foreign-born directors often continue to be in contact with their home academic institutions and, therefore, provide information about open lab positions to potential students. Likewise, students from home academic institutions may initiate contact with lab directors from their country of origin before formally applying for positions. Accordingly, these two characteristics of research labs enable us to observe both the network effect in a general sense, and the effects of lab directors as “active nodes” or initiators within those networks.
The network effect
Recent studies address high-skill labour movements using a social network perspective (Khadria, 2001; Meyer, 2001; Portes and Sensenbrenner, 1993; Vertovec, 2002). However, these studies do not focus exclusively on foreign doctoral students. Foreign student movements require specific attention in order to understand the internationalization of US higher education. Further, because a significant number of foreign students move into the US labour force at a later stage, the patterns through which foreign students enter S&E labs also have an influence on the composition of the scientific labour force in the USA (Hugo, 2002; Khadria, 2001; Li et al., 1996).
The networks that foreign students develop provide opportunities for friends and colleagues in their home countries. As Meyer (2001) indicates:
Connections with earlier migrants provide potential migrants with many resources that they use to diminish the risks and costs of migration: information about procedures (technical as well as legal), financial support, job prospects, administrative assistance, physical attendance, emotional solidarity. (Meyer, 2001: 93)
For foreign students, social networks are crucial to finding accommodation, goods and services, and social and economic information, as well as emotional support. Social networks serve as a guiding source for foreign students throughout their education. Some studies also suggest that the interpersonal ties of migrants continue to be effective after graduation in finding jobs either within the USA or back in their home country (Poros, 2001).
Portes and Sensenbrenner (1993) point out the varieties of structural and relational “embeddedness” in these networks (Meyer, 2001; Waldinger, 2005). Both the student and the faculty benefit from the easy flow of information that is a product of their shared culture.
Early studies regarded the flow of doctoral students from developing countries to developed countries as a “brain drain”. Along with the recognition that networks among skilled workers exist, a terminological shift has occurred that employs a global conception emphasizing the benefits that accrue to both the sending and the receiving ends. Saxenian (2002) calls this new dynamic “brain circulation”, drawing attention to the role of ethnic networks in mobilizing information, know-how, skills and capital. These new transnational communities provide shared information, contacts, and trust, creating new opportunities for once peripheral regions of the world economy. Policymakers are also seeking ways to utilize a globally mobile workforce and cultivate the benefits of brain exchange and brain circulation among countries (Saxenian, 2002).
The role of the director in research laboratories
The role of foreign-born faculty in the current context is noteworthy. The majority of foreign-born faculty members earn their graduate degrees in the USA after receiving their undergraduate education in their home country. Assuming that they still have ties with their undergraduate institutions, such faculty are likely to be important resources for students from the same country of origin who are applying to a doctoral programme in their respective departments. Many of these faculty members direct research laboratories and play a role in recruiting students, getting them admitted and offering them financial assistance. They routinely hire doctoral students directly. Therefore, an interesting question to ask is whether foreign research laboratory directors are more likely to hire students from their home country than are other laboratory directors.
Faculty members also play an important role in graduate students' lives, impacting how they think and do research. Trow (1977) suggests that the influences of graduate faculty can guide students' future research and teaching during their entire careers. As for foreign students, Tanyildiz (2008) found evidence from focus group interviews with Turkish students at the Georgia Institute of Technology that foreign students feel that their background is better understood by faculty from their country of origin and also feel more comfortable communicating with such faculty. The relationship between the graduate faculty and the graduate student in S&E is perfectly described by Fox (2003):
[In S&E fields] scientific work and training revolve strongly on faculty–student interchange. In science and engineering, faculty and students are bound together potentially in research facilities and projects, funded through faculty as principal investigators on which students largely undertake daily work. (Fox, 2003: 92)
Another important role of foreign lab directors could be explained through the concept of “mixed embeddedness” (Kloosterman and Rath, 2001). Mixed embeddedness aims to understand the socio-economic position of immigrants not only through their embeddedness in actual social networks, but also through their more abstract embeddedness in the social, economic and institutional environments of their adopted countries. This approach is particularly appropriate in the analysis of lab directors, because universities provide a unique environment that enables them to engage simultaneously in both their ethnic and non-ethnic networks. Thus, foreign-born directors not only efficiently communicate with compatriots students, but also play a crucial role in students' transitions into the scientific community in the USA.