This question is specifically about funded PhD programs, not self-funded PhD / masters programs.

In funded PhD programs in the STEM areas where there is a big international student body, e.g. students from China, India, Russia, is it because these international students are just objectively better, or is it due to a consistent lack of American applicants (because perhaps they choose business schools, medical / law schools, industry over academia)?

Any data would be helpful, too.


  • 8
    Have you considered the probability that the number of international applications is large? There are millions of people living outside the US who want to study/ work in the US, and having a PhD is one way.
    – Greg
    Jun 29, 2017 at 5:18
  • 8
    Around 95% of the world's population lives outside the USA so you would expect quite a lot of strong foreign candidates. Jun 29, 2017 at 8:21
  • 2
    The question as stated in the title suggests a false dichotomy, that only makes sense if you assume that American STEM PhD programs would choose to admit only American students if they could. As Morgan Rodgers points out, presumably some of the international applicants are better than some of the American applicants --- that's just common sense. Jun 29, 2017 at 10:55
  • 1
    Hi @MarkMeckes, first, thank you very much for stating the common sense conclusion that some of them would be better than some of the Americans, but unfortunately your comment isn't as great as you may think it is, sorry. I am addressing the case where there is a big international student body and am wondering if a big proportion of international candidates is objectively better than a big proportion of American candidates -- beyond common sense conclusions -- and I am wondering whether there is even a big enough pool of American applicants.
    – user75392
    Jun 30, 2017 at 6:25
  • That's really my question. Hope that clears things up for you, @MarkMeckes.
    – user75392
    Jun 30, 2017 at 6:25

1 Answer 1


I don't know the specifics of the US, but I can give you my 2 cents about what's going on in European countries under a similar situation, which I think might probably apply.

It's not about people being better or worse, but about several factors:

  1. Education/Attitude. In many "rich countries", the educational system has changed to a point where the knowledge about STEM subjects in primary/secondary education has become weaker, less demanding, often collaborative, and sometimes even "subjective". Parents are complaining about excessive homework, taking kids to alternative schools so they can play and spend more time with other kids and learn at their own pace, etc... Other things are valued more. You can see that the level of mathematics, physics, etc... has really declined from 50 years ago to now. My parents laughed at the STEM subjects/problems our generation studied at a certain age, and I laugh about what the current generation studies now. In the countries you mention (China, India, Russia), the rationale and culture are absolutely the opposite (as they were in "rich countries" 50 years ago): an emphasis is put in learning by the book, no matter if you like it or not, and individual ultra-high effort, because this is the path to get a better life, possible in another country, even if it's in detriment of having a healthy childhood, friendships, free time, or a proper socialization.

  2. Expectations/Knowledge. Because of the great life they had and what they often see on the Internet, TV, etc... young people expect that life is a low-effort/high-reward business. They have been sold that anyone can be anything, and it's a matter of just "wanting it very much" (or paying very much/knowing someone to get into the club of good jobs). The aim is to become a manager or earn a lot of money. Certainly, no sane person would consider a PhD/research career as a path to achieve that and the other ones you mention make much more sense (law, business...). When I studied Computer Science 20 years ago, you needed nearly an 8 out of 10 in your SAT to get in because of the high demand (same in other engineering studies). Nowadays, there are free spots, so everyone gets in. This has happened in many technical universities because students are moving to other areas of knowledge.

  3. Market. Here comes the market. You have two groups: (a) the local candidates, who were born having had everything, barely confronting any difficulty in their lives, and within that educational culture and expectations described above, (b) candidates from China, India, Russia, who often have had a tough life they would like to improve, with a different educational background and culture that values effort, willing to work extremely hard for a better life. STEM subjects are, in general tough and objective. A theorem, a piece of software, or an engine, simply have to work. The market prefers people from the (b) group.

  • 6
    Nowadays, there are free spots, so everyone gets in -- Hahahahahaha. No. Computer science is significantly more competitive than it was 20 years ago. My CS department (where I have worked for almost 20 years) gets 5-10 times as many applications as it did 20 years ago, for only twice as many spots (and only 30% more faculty).
    – JeffE
    Jun 29, 2017 at 10:14
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    @JeffE Probably not for CS, but the student numbers in chemistry (Germany) declined in the early nineties, i was told, by 30% or so, and are stable at a low level (practically everybody gets in) since then. The overall student number has doubled since 1990, however.
    – Karl
    Jun 29, 2017 at 16:48
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    @JeffE Are you sure that your comment applies to european universities? At least the answer of Pablo is talking specifically about Europe (and I do not think is way off to be honest).
    – PsySp
    Jun 29, 2017 at 18:22
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    -1. Very speculative answer. The segment of people from developing countries that make it to graduate schools in Europe or America are often very privileged themselves.
    – user8001
    Jun 29, 2017 at 23:01
  • @user8001 don't know much about Russia and India. I do know students in China would have to study extremely hard in order to have a chance to go abroad. Yes, there are privileged student who were able to go to Harvard or other Ivory colleges because their parents are wealthy enough to donate a lot money. They are minorities. Most Chinese students are not like that.
    – Nobody
    Jun 30, 2017 at 3:38

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