tl;dr: please skip to the last paragraph.

I am currently an international undergrad at an US university, studying math. I am currently thinking of going to graduate school and becoming a university professor after that.

My dad thinks that there must be some unforeseen and implicit racial/ethnic/national discrimination against Asians in U.S. higher learning and that I must therefore invariably be more studious in learning.

However, today's America is more diverse than ever, every university have non-discrimination policy, and collge faculty hirers are in general (I think, at least) educated people. Also, based on my interactions, no one in my college seems to be biased against racial minorities/different nationalities. So I am thinking that there wouldn't be much national/racial discrimination on graduate school admissions and in university faculty hiring, especially as my major is math, which is one of the objective academic discipline. I also plan to do a career with pure math and not on industrial/applied math.

I am perfectly fluent in English and can communicate perfectly like a native except for a almost non-existent accent. I am also very aquainted with American culture.

Of course, I know that there still must be some implicit national/racial diacrimination in job hiring process in non-academic sectors (e.g. companies/restaurants) despite there being laws against it. But since universities are places were nondiscrimination is highly encouraged and there are lots of international scholars, I think my dad's claim is highly exaggerated.

I believe that my current status as a citizen of South Korea, which is a close ally with U.S., shouldn't negatively affect my image in graduate school admission/university faculty job hiring.

I found some articles like this one but I think this is an exception to a general rule.

Long story short:

Is there national/racial discrimination against Asians in graduate school admissions and in university faculty hiring/promotion in math (and/or Physical Sciences in general)? I am asking for anything in the United States (i.e., no answer needed for other countries). "Discrimination" for scholarship doesn't count, -- nor does undergraduate admissions!!! I am looking specifically for an answer about math department or physical sciences. A general perception is a preferred answer rather than specific instances, though that too is good. Answers are wlecome from those working in the admission/hiring process. Also, lack of communication skills frequently attributed to international scholars doesn't count as racial/national discrimination in my question.

EDIT: In reply to the replies below, I am well aware that any sort of unjust racial/national discrimination is prohibited whatsoever in the U.S., and I am well aware that the mainstream media and the general consensus of the people is that any sort of unjust discrimination is absolutely bad. I've attended an American high school and watched tons of American news and TV. However, I am merely asking a professional view (that is not speculative, i.e. someone who's been working in the area for many years) to what extent some people's implicit biases against Asians seems to negatively impact grad admission/prof hiring. Of course, having been in U.S. I know that no one would say "we're gonna hire this white guy over this equally qualified Asian guy just because of race." Also, being in U.S. for many years do not always count as state residency, as I am not a permanent resident.

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    You are not going to find a big sign "Koreans need not apply" at the entrance of a American university. That does not mean there is no discrimination, but it is not going to be official or even unofficial policy. But academics are still humans with all their strengths and weaknesses. The closest thing to an official policy of discrimination would be that It may be harder for non-citizens to get certain grants or enter certain projects from say the NSA. May 15, 2018 at 8:02
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    There is a big difference between a Korean-American and a Korean. There is lots of discrimination against non-citizens (e.g., there is funding that requires US citizenship). Are you interested in just the racial issues, the citizenship issues, or both?
    – StrongBad
    May 15, 2018 at 22:29
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    Are you a Permanent Resident (immigration-law wise)? May 15, 2018 at 23:07
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    @JamesS.Cook Many US-funded REU programs reserve funding for US citizens. This is not discrimination, it's an eligibility criterion. Mar 14, 2019 at 15:56
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    @JamesS.Cook How on earth does someone "happen" to go to university in a foreign country? Mar 15, 2019 at 5:35

4 Answers 4


This is more of a comment, but it fits better in the answer format, so here goes.

An attitude such as you described your father as having might seem outrageous on the face of it. However, if we remember that it is coming from his reality, perhaps it can be more constructive for you, for him, and for your relationship, if you allow yourself to absorb his attitude, without debate, and without adopting it for yourself, but with curiosity and empathy.

Can you ask him in a gentle, interested, non-confrontational way what his experiences with discrimination have been? If things are polarized between you on the issue of Is discrimination against our ethnic group real or imagined?, then he might feel suspicious when you try to interview him. It might be helpful to let him know why you're interested. (Maybe -- "Knowledge is power. I want to know more about what discrimination looks like, sounds like, smells like, feels like.")

If he's able to see that you would like to learn from his experiences, so that you can go to college with your eyes open, and with a healthy skepticism, you two may have an easier time finding common ground.

  • 11
    There is only one reality; there is not "his reality" and "her reality" and so on. As to the one actual reality, there is substantial academic evidence of discrimination against Asians in academic entry, particularly in elite institutions in the US. This is not an outrageous claim at all; it is merely a foreseeable consequence of affirmative-action in university entry processes, and it is backed up by a mountain of empirical evidence.
    – Ben
    May 16, 2018 at 5:59
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    @Ben - If that phrasing bothers you, replace the word "reality" with "experience" or "collected experiences". May 16, 2018 at 19:20
  • @Sam - I hope it helps. Basically, what I'm saying is that sometimes a person has totally understandable reasons for taking a wildly irrational position. Take a look at this: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/questions/8334/…. I hope you'll post an update when you're ready (please ping me). May 16, 2018 at 19:26
  • @aparente: Much better. (I'm not sure how to ping.)
    – Ben
    May 16, 2018 at 22:53
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    @Ben - It's just SE lingo for notify -- which you did! Thanks. // Glad we converged on some understanding. May 17, 2018 at 2:36

There is quite a bit of academic research on university entry and race, mostly in US universities, so if you are interested in learning about racial discrimination in academia, this would be a good place to start. The phenomenon of discrimination against Asians in academia is well-known and has been identified regularly over the past twenty to thirty years, both in academic literature (e.g., Tsuang 1989, Wu 1995, Wong and Halgin 2011, Kim et al 2011) and in the press (see e.g., The Economist 2015). The Asian-American Coalition for Education claim that there is widespread discrimination against Asians in academia, particularly in the elite Ivy-league schools, and they provide references to a number of articles and books discussing this issue.

This issue has been studied in quite a bit of detail by the economist Thomas Sowell in the context of his research on affirmative action (an overview of his ideas on the subject is here and his recent book on the economics and politics of race is here). Sowell argues that affirmative action leads to discrimination against Asian applicants, as a consequence of this group having a higher proportion of applicants with high grades/skills. Since Asians are the "model minority", Sowell argues that the use of affirmative action in academia tends to involve a raising of the bar for entry for this group, in order to try to avoid their "overrepresentation".

Anyway, this is a big subject, and a lot has been written on it. Some users on this site may be able to give their own anecdotal experiences, but I recommend you examine this broader literature. The links I have provided will get you started, but there is also plenty more on the topic.

UPDATE: There is presently a major lawsuit against Harvard University for alleged discrimination against Asian applicants. It is alleged that Harvard admission staff have systematically down-rated Asian applicants on their "personality" in order to achieve racial balancing, consistent with the university's goal of racial diversity. @BlueRoses: If this is a topic that interests you, I cannot think of a better example than for you to watch how this legal case plays out.

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    I'd also recommend Milkman, Akinola & Chugh "What Happens Before" papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2063742 which presents some quantitative evidence on discrimination in informal settings - e.g. professors more likely to make time to meet with prospective students with white-male-sounding names.
    – G_B
    May 18, 2018 at 0:10
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    Do these studies apply to graduate school in mathematics? I certainly agree with this at the undergraduate level, but I feel that at the graduate level, at least in math, it not as much of an issue.
    – Kimball
    May 18, 2018 at 2:05
  • You will need to check the scope of individual studies to see their methodology and scope, but most look at records at a university-wide level. Anecdotal experience speculating that one particular subset of one department is exempted from those wider findings ought to be backed by evidence.
    – Ben
    May 18, 2018 at 2:32
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    @Kimball The Milkman/Akinola/Chugh study is specifically about doctoral candidates.
    – G_B
    May 18, 2018 at 7:10
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    the major lawsuit against Harvard University was about Asian-American students I believe, not Asian students (i.e. citizens of Asian countries and of Asian race, at least that is how I interpret the word). I think the affirmative action stuff only matters for the citizens of U.S. in this case.
    – user109420
    Jun 12, 2019 at 17:05

I have been a faculty member in the US in mathematics for over 10 years, and involved with graduate admissions a few times. Based on my observations, there is no significant discrimination against Koreans or Asians/Asians-Americans for graduate admissions, or for hiring procedures. Implicit bias is a thing, but academics for the most part work guard against it, and as there are many highly successful East Asian mathematicians, I don't think there is so much implicit bias against East Asians in mathematics anyway.

That said, if you are applying as an international student, then diversity initiatives may produce an affect similar to reverse discrimination for graduate admissions (this is not an issue for faculty hiring). Specifically, some schools may try to aim to admit X number of domestic students and Y number of international students. (At my mid-size public university, we typically admit fewer international students because of language concerns for TA assignments, though it sounds like that would not be a concern in your case. Additionally, while you may be officially applying as an international students, since you've been in the US so long and are going to college in the US, a search committee which differentiates domestic and international applicants may treat you essentially like a domestic student anyway.)

Then some schools, may try to admit most Z students from East Asian countries, so that they can also admit Y-Z students from other regions. Because of the large numbers of strong applicants from China and Korea, this means you may be facing more competition for a spot than if you were from Antarctica. In practice, this just means it may be somewhat harder for you to get into an elite school, but if you're a strong applicant you should still be able to get into top schools.


Higher education is extremely competitive and universities do what is in their best interest. Research universities especially, profit directly from grant funding; a big chunk of each grant goes into the university's pocket. They also fight tooth and nail for rankings as this brings in students and their tuition dollars (especially international students who pay in full). Choosing the inferior candidate for reasons of bias would go against that self-interest. One caveat is lately there has been a push for diversity, including it in the rankings even. And this does imply a bias against over-represented minorities. But I'm not sure it amounts to much except at the fringes, given the same reasons plus how difficult it is to impose preferences under current rules.

There are less direct kinds of factors like "leadership" and extra-curricular being used at the undergraduate level, which some see as a backdoor way to tilt the scales (personally I think this is the same bias against introverts that has always existed). At any rate one only needs to "work as hard" as everyone else at succeeding in these additional factors.

At the graduate level especially, American universities serve the world. In STEM fields international doctoral students outnumber domestic (Source: OECD). At many schools this is the case for faculty in these areas as well. You may find yourself competing for academic jobs against a pool of mostly international candidates.

One other caveat is state schools for student admissions. They are generally required by their state to reserve a large fraction of spots for state residents. But this may be limited to undergraduate and certain professional schools such as medicine. And note that one doesn't need to be a US resident to be a state resident.

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    In STEM fields international graduate students outnumber domestic. - Is this true? It's certainly true at some institutions I've been at but not at others. Also, I disagree with the last paragraph (not true for graduate admissions, and it's unclear if the OP counts as a resident).
    – Kimball
    May 18, 2018 at 2:13
  • @Kimball Fair points. Edited the wording a little to be more careful. As for STEM, yes at least it is clear when restricted to doctoral students as in the source I added. At least it was, this year was a pretty big hit in applications. May 18, 2018 at 5:35

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