How much of a disadvantage are you if you are not a US citizen, but want to enter American academia? It seems Americans have lots of advantages starting early, including NSF graduate fellowships, continuing with more access to DARPA money, US-citizen specific awards like PECASE, etc.

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    I am an international student who went to college (undergraduate) in the United States. I have heard (but not officially in any way) that admissions committees tend to classify students such as myself with domestic candidates (and not with folks applying from overseas). Of course, I am ineligible for NSF grants, etc. but I have been led to believe that having been an undergraduate in the US has been to my advantage in the grad school search. (It would be nice to hear from senior members of academia if the above is true for admissions committees) – Aru Ray Jul 23 '12 at 20:20
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    A nice question but should be narrowed a bit. For example, for undergraduate students almost all research internships are only for US-citizens and permanent residents (I know only 2 programs (sic!) which aren't). For other cases the situation may be very different. Could you add "for undergraduates", "for PhDs", "for postdocs" or sth else? – Piotr Migdal Jul 23 '12 at 21:22

True, some federal funding of grad students in the US is restricted to US citizens or permanent residents, but, in mathematics, most funding of grad students is as TAs (=Teaching Assistant) supporting lower-division mathematics courses.

The question of admission itself is mostly separate from federal citizenship requirements. Let me explain some things an admission committee wonders about, statistically, at least, about international applications, that would not be relevant to an applicant already in the US and with no visa issues:

  1. It turns out that quite a few applicants simply want to get to the U.S., in effect as informal political asylum, while having limited genuine interest in mathematics, and this creates visa and other complications subsequently. I have no objection to fairly open immigration policies, but I do object to adding that noise to applications to our graduate program.

  2. Given that the bulk of funding is as TAs, problems with understanding colloquial spoken English cannot be taken lightly. This isn't about "cultural bias", but about the practical features of teaching in this environment.

  3. Minimum funding to generate visa papers: The INS (U.S. "Immigration and Naturalization Services", which controls visas of non-US-citizens) mandates that we promise a certain annual stipend for international grad students... ok... except that that number is several thousand dollars above what the university sets as the ceiling for standard stipends. Not hard to imagine the craziness and injustices this leads to.

    Edit: Theoretically, the university is not necessarily responsible for guaranteeing the (needlessly high) minimum, but different universities develop policies designed to keep them at some safe distance from "trouble with INS", and sometimes/often such policies create complications not originally intended, and not due directly to INS. (Also, interpretations and policies drift over years, and I'm refering to a situation from a few years ago...)

  4. International students demand resources for their spouses. We have repeatedly "discovered" that an admitted international student is married, "needs" a visa for a spouse, the spouse needs admission to something, etc. It is easy to understand the desperation that leads to such situations, but it also corrupts things, and absorbs resources.

    Edit: Yes, if things are done right, as noted in comments, it "should not be" the university's responsibility to "take care of" other family members. Nevertheless, for reasons I do not fully understand, it somehow has come to this on many occasions. (The quasi-legal details are mercifully slipping from my mind! :)

  5. Many other college-university cultures have a hugely different emphasis on problem-solving versus memorization, and relation of teacher and student. Thus, although in one sense the U.S. system generates the weakest outcomes in specialty, because of all the other required coursework for "breadth", the balance of demands, and the goals, of upper-division coursework is mostly compatible with what happens at the beginning of grad school. Further, the less structured parts of the rest of grad school have counterparts in some undergrad projects. In contrast, we have found that several other traditions give students not prototype whatsoever for coping with ambiguity, and this can lead to strange crises well into a PhD.

    Edit: Again, not to be claiming that all non-USA programs are the same! For this last point, let's say "traditions which emphasize memorization and reciting, of definitions, theorems, proofs, and examples", as opposed to problem-solving as at least a component of activities. It seems that getting into the habit of thinking that there is a "sacred canon" of results, even perhaps including wording, is not a good habit of mind. Similarly, an exaggerated impulse of "following orders" or "compliance", while a habit highly rewarded in some situations, is not so much the desired methodology after the very beginning of grad school. Thus, success in a prior situation may be misleading to a student, when further adaptation and growth is needed.

Don't misunderstand me: I understand how such things come about. Nevertheless, with limited resources, not only money but energy to help people get in sync with their responsibilities as grad students, there is a serious question about how to allocate. Thus, we can capsulize this by saying that grad school applicants from within the US system are more "known quantities", are already fairly in-sync with the system, are cheaper dollar-wise, and are rarely or never under the threat of returning in disgrace to a genuinely dangerous situation in their home country if we stop renewing their TA!

A small further edit: At a university receiving state funds (although this amount is ever-decreasing), the state legislature, and the electorate, take the viewpoint that the university has an obligation to give priority to students from the region, if not literally the state, and to serve the state's and region's goals. This has become less idealistic during economic downturns, unsurprisingly.

Edit: in response to some comments... I certainly do not claim that "all" non-USA undergrad programs are the same, "bad", etc., nor that all in-USA programs are "good". At the same time, I didn't want to single out specific traditions for criticism. And, certainly, applicants in the U.S. can easily "achieve" weaknesses for no particular reason. As I understood the question, it was inquiring about the realities of the situation, advantages that in-USA applicants tend to have over not-in-USA, at least in the minds of admissions committees.

I do not think literal xenophobia or cultural bias plays any role in admissions, in case people wonder. If anything, the generally stronger undergrad prep of people from non-USA programs has created a "bias" against US students on that criterion alone. The practical and prosaic considerations mentioned above diminish post-PhD, so that "nationality" plays no detectable role in post-doc hiring or tenure-track hiring. (For that matter, examination of the faculty at most "research" universities shows a pretty international population!)

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    I'm a little surprised by a couple of points in this answer - first about minimum funding requirements, I understand that incoming students are required to show the availability of a fixed amount of money to support themselves when applying for an F1 visa, but I did not think that graduate programs were required in any way to have a matching stipend. In fact, I was offered a TAship at UW Madison (Mathematics) whose stipend was less than the amount required by INS and I was given to understand that I would have to be responsible for the additional amount myself (although it seems that the ... – Aru Ray Jul 23 '12 at 23:19
  • ... INS amount is an overestimation.) Second, I was under the impression that dependent spouses and children of F1 visa holders could apply for F2 visas without any contact with the university, although I have to admit that I have no personal experience in this. These said, +1 for a fantastically detailed and thoughtful answer. It makes lots of sense for universities to prioritize accepting domestic students and in particular 'known quantities' in terms of experience and background. As an international student some policies seem confusing - for example, ... – Aru Ray Jul 23 '12 at 23:25
  • ... I am ineligible for any NSF grants, but I was once supported by the AFOSR (Air Force!) – Aru Ray Jul 23 '12 at 23:25
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    As an international student you are ineligible for NSF fellowships, but you can certainly be supported by NSF grants. – JeffE Jul 24 '12 at 2:13
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    @paulgarrett, point (1) through (4) are very clear. It seems to me you wanted to say something about (5) but you're not sure how to say it. Would you either elaborate on it or make it shorter and simpler if you ever edit the answer again? It would be great for those oversea applicants to understand them before they set their foot in U.S. Thanks for your answer on behalf of them! Very great answer. – scaaahu Jul 24 '12 at 4:13

At the grad level in CS, fully 80% of admitted students in most universities (funded or otherwise) are from foreign countries. So any department that prefers domestic students is going to have a tough time attracting students :). There are numerous funding opportunities limited only to domestic students - in addition to the ones you list, the IGERT funding program is specifically for domestic students, but it's to encourage more domestic students to go to grad school.

At the postdoc level, visa requirements can make selecting a foreign student a little tricky but not impossible.

At the faculty level, I am not aware of any issues involving hiring non-US citizens. In our last round, we hired Chinese, Croatian, Turkish, and South African researchers !

It is true that DARPA money can be limited to US citizens, but in CS before tenure, this is not necessarily a bad thing :). It gives you an excuse NOT to go after DARPA funding which can be very difficult to get and even worse if you get it.

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    The only issue I'm aware of for faculty hiring is that it's harder to US departments to interview candidates who currently live outside North America. Most American CS faculty were not born in the US. – JeffE Jul 24 '12 at 2:12

I'd say none , actually since the high-school system in the United States is an absolute disaster you might have an advantage . This really depends on you though , when did you start learning English , how comfortable are you in a conversation with native speakers , etc .

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