I am an international student applying for Computer Science PhD in US. Some universities I plan to apply to require Personal History Statement in addition to Statement of Purpose. I believe that I described my research interests, talents and motivation in my SOP quite well. I happen to be pretty "diverse" person as well, so I wrote about it in my PHS. The only drawback is that my PHS reveals some details of my background that may serve as a "red flag" of my lack of intention to come back to my home country after I graduate. I know this is not a good thing for visa approval, but I wonder what kind of attitude the university departments have to such students.

I received a lot of criticism for this approach. People say that I must not appear to be desperate and should avoid saying anything that is not directly relevant to my interest in Computer Science, but I believe that my history is an important part of my identity (and a chance for alternative funding sources), and I'm out of ideas of what else I can write about Computer Science that is not already mentioned by my SOP, Resume and recommenders.

So what would you suggest? Should I omit any details of my history that may raise suspision of my immigration intention?

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    My guess would be that university departments wouldn't care about a lack of intention to go back to your home country after graduation (frankly, I perceive the expectation that a foreigner must have an intention to go back to their home country as quite a xenophobic idea, unless it is uttered by a border agent, who is arguably doing their job by expressing that view), but I would be more concerned about university departments seeing a lack of genuine interest in the studies and instead using the studies as a means of getting into the country. Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 10:47
  • Thank you for the reply, I've taken your advice into account when I rewrote my PHS. My reluctance to live in my home country can still be inferred, but now it doesn't look like immigration is my primary reason for pursuing PhD. Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 14:51
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    @O.R.Mapper: While it is probably unlikely that the INS will see what is written in the university application (or is it?), the official designation of a student visa is to obtain "Nonimmigrant (F1) student status;" and part of the requirements is to prove "your intent to depart the United States upon completion of the course of study" (source). I fully intended to stay after my PhD, but there's no need to advertise this. It's an issue best taken seriously, and moral judgment doesn't help in giving advice. Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 16:44
  • @gnometorule: The possibility that immigration agencies might get to see the university application is a good point, which may complicate the issue. The regulations you cite illustrate why I grant an immigration officer expressing a view along the lines of "immigrants have to go home eventually", but that does not mean the university people processing the application share those views. (In fact, the opposite sentiment that foreign students should stay around after graduation to "give back" to the country that provided them with education is not unheard of in some places.) Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 17:36
  • @O.R.Mapper: I wholeheartedly agree, and the "giving back" comment in particular made me smile. As a grad student, I kept thinking exactly how silly it was to educate me in the U.S., to then not be interested in receiving something back. I left a somewhat sharp comment (sorry!) because I take INS issues extremely seriously. I'm currently renewing my Greencard, have no criminal record, and am married to an American; it still makes me uneasy, and I live by the letter. Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 17:41

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People who get a Ph.D. and also try to immigrate are generally quite welcome in US academia. The problem you may run into is that some people who just want to immigrate sometimes try to use a Ph.D. program as a visa source without having any real interest in a Ph.D., and then drop out when they find a company that can hire them. This is understandably annoying to professors, who may have spent quite a bit of time, energy, and money on such a student, only to find the student has been disingenuous all along. Thus, if you "smell" like such a student, you may find difficulty getting admitted.

If this is your intention, don't do it.

If you truly want a Ph.D., however, and the immigration is a separate desire, then I would advise you to just focus on the things that are about getting a Ph.D. Let your passion and your focus shine through, so that's the main thing that the professors notice. Don't worry about trying to hide your desire to immigrate: if it comes out naturally as a small part of your statement, that's OK, since the professors reading it will likely be guessing you want to immigrate unless you explicitly say otherwise.

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    But depending on the current conditions at Immigration and Naturalization Services, any indication that a student is not intending to "return home" after degree completion might cause fatal troubles at INS. Our math dept has had some cases of students who misunderstood what had to be said in this regard, said the wrong thing, and did not get visas. Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 15:32
  • Yes, I truly want a PhD. I think that even if I won a diversity lottery or something, I would still apply for PhD. I think that I made sure that my passion is still the main thing the professors notice. I don't mention my intention to immigrate anywhere, it can just be inferred from my situation (wishing to come back would be strange and irrational). Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 17:39
  • @PaulGarrett: I know about visa issues, I guess I'll just have to ile a bit if I am asked directly. I hope it will be the last major lie I'll ever have to say. But it may turn out to be unnecessary, PhD students with full funding (no other options are available to me) are rarely denied. Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 17:39
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    I think it is unwise to drop out of PhD, because it may seriously harm my recommendations and reputation, a social institution that really is important in US. Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 17:46

To reiterate the point of the other answers and comments, without this getting lost in a long suite of comments...

During the Bush administration, the INS was very strict about students' promising and giving some evidence that they'd return to their home country after degree completion... no matter what the regime was there, etc. Some kids from PRC had trouble because they could not adequately document that they had family in PRC giving them motivation to return! (I've been involved with grad admissions in math for the last 30 years and have seen the evolution of visa issues...) Also in that era, a Lebanese student who'd gone home to visit was detained (by INS) for some days without any charges, etc!

As far as I know, in principle the same rules still apply, but, as always, the question is about the degree to which they are enforced by INS.

As in some other comments, the illogic or self-inconsistency of the supposed need to declare no interest in immigrating... seems to be irrelevant to INS.

The separate issue of departmental/program reactions is less artificial. Still, over the years, a significant number of grad students have made clear, once here, that they would have taken any available route to get into the U.S., and, yes, this is a bit annoying, even if understandable, because it causes our departmental resources to be used somewhat less efficiently than we'd hope. Maybe this is inescapable...?

Nevertheless, we are reconciled to the fact that a certain rate of grad students discover after a year or two that they don't want to do PhD's in math, and that's fine. It's not obligatory, etc. If anything, the rate of attrition among domestic students may be higher than among international students, but/and we attribute this partly to the fact that a typical B.S. program in math in the U.S. does not have as much substance as many B.S. programs elsewhere, much less M.S. programs elsewhere, so there can easily be a larger element of surprise for U.S. undergrads going to grad school.

In summary: instead of thinking about "lying by omission", consider that "telling the truth" loses some (even more?) of its pretended-objective nature when the context in which questioning occurs is highly contrived, so that words take on different meanings and have surprise consequences...


The majority of foreign students would like to immigrate to the US after completing their degrees. Most faculty have no problem with this, but then again we're in the business of educating students, not smoothing the pathway to immigration. I wouldn't discuss your immigration plans in your application for a PhD program.

As others have mentioned you will also have explain to US government officials why you want to study in the US when you apply for your F1 student visa. You must have the intention of leaving the US after your studies in order to obtain this visa. Saying that you ultimately intend to immigrate to the US will most likely result in denial of your visa.

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    Does US immigration draw no distinction between an aspiration to eventually immigrate, and an intention to outstay a visa? Or putting it another way, is it insufficient to have a conditional intention to leave, conditional on not successfully immigrating? Would an immigration application made while in the country on a student visa be routinely denied anyway, on the basis that by the point the application is made, the person now would clearly prefer not to leave and that such a preference is unacceptable in an overseas student? Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 21:06
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    The requirement is “present intent to depart the U.S. at the conclusion of his or her studies.” That is, any aspiration to maybe eventually immigrate would be enough for denial of the visa. Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 21:14
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    I doubt that the consular officials who interview applicants for F1 visas would want to draw that fine line between "intent to remain within the US and switch to an immigrant visa status" and "intent to leave the US and then apply for immigration to the US." You could certainly try to make that argument but I wouldn't count on it working. Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 21:28
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    It'd be weird if the officials haven't twigged that the majority of applicants are lying to them about their intentions and getting away with it, but I'm sure they know their business. Presumably they turn a blind eye to the deception, and your job as an applicant is not to make it so obvious that they can't. Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 21:29
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    @SteveJessop It almost sounds like you expect logic to play some role in immigration policy. Sadly, no.
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 4:44

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