How protectionistic are PhD admissions?

Here, protectionism means to favor residents of the country (or state) the university is in, as far as PhD admissions are concerned. Usually, protectionism arises due to funding restrictions or other burdens of a financial nature (e.g. tuition waivers).

But how much of a disadvantage are foreign students at, when it comes to PhD admissions?

I understand that the answer differs from a country to another, and from an institution to another within the same country. And even different fields within the same institution have different standards, so please pay attention to context when providing answers.


Basically, admissions decisions follow from two main issues:

  • government policies regarding funding and immigration
  • the available pool of applicants

For instance, recent policies in California made it very difficult for the University of California system to enroll international graduate students. This was not the result of internal decisions, but rather something imposed upon them by the government. Similarly, a visa embargo applied to a particular country would make it impossible for a university to bring in students from that country.

Other than that, I think most graduate admissions groups are looking for the best available talent, rather than having a specific quota of domestic or international students. They might do some recruiting domestically if they're not getting enough domestic candidates (compared to any "targets" they might have), but I don't think they're going to admit domestic candidates that are unqualified just because they're domestic.

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  • can you please share some info about policies in California? – Salvador Dali Jan 24 '15 at 22:15
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    From the Berkeley ChemE website: "Unfortunately, recent changes in the University of California budget make it difficult for this department to accept students who are not citizens or permanent residents of the United States." This amounts to state policy, since the state government determines the budget and spending rules for the UC system. – aeismail Jan 25 '15 at 0:12
  • Strange, I'm not aware of policy changes hurting the math department's ability to accept international applicants (although I don't work there so I might just not know). The restrictions that FAQ lists don't seem all that onerous. I wonder whether ChemE had previously been admitting some applicants with very low TOEFL scores (because they were supported by grants and didn't need to teach), but policy changes ruled that out, while math students were always expected to teach and thus always had additional restrictions. But that's just a guess. – Anonymous Mathematician Jan 25 '15 at 0:41
  • What about out-of-state domestics then? One would think that tuition waivers would cost the same for out-of-state domestics as it would cost for internationals... – NSERC Protester Jan 25 '15 at 0:52
  • @user12169: I think the issue might be that international students might never be able to qualify for the waivers, while US students could after some period of time. – aeismail Jan 28 '15 at 5:08

In the UK, in STEM areas without industry funding (where I have most experience), funding restrictions typically meant there are at least 10 places restricted to home (or in some cases EU) students for every place open to students of all nationalities.

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    I think I would really need to see a source to believe this. Especially preferring UK citizens over other EU nationalities seems pretty clearly in conflict with EU law. (and that max. every 11th graduate student in the UK is international seems hardly believable to me, from the samples I know) – xLeitix Jan 24 '15 at 23:06
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    @xLeitix Policies in the UK do, in practice, tend to treat UK and EU students differently. The EPSRC studentship eligibility policy requires UK and EU applicants to have been 'ordinarily resident' in the UK for at least 3 years prior to the start of the grant to be able to obtain a stipend. While I do know UK citizens that are unable to obtain funding through such restrictions, this obviously impacts non-UK citizens much more strongly, and it is protectionistic in a slightly looser term than as used by the OP. – E.P. Jan 24 '15 at 23:35
  • @xLetix: there are certainly more than 9% non-EU graduate students in the UK, but most of them have money from their own governments. I suspect that Ian is referring to students funded from UK sources. – Neil Strickland Jan 26 '15 at 5:49

In Germany, PhD positions are often awarded individually by the Professors. So if you know your Professor well, you have an extremely higher likelihood of getting a PhD with him.

However, if you have really outstanding talent/grades, you can still beat these personal relationships, only it is very much harder.

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  • This isn't quite the same thing—this is comparing "domestic" to "international" (or equivalently in-state versus out-of-state). – aeismail Jan 25 '15 at 0:10

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