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APS Addresses Decline in International Student Applications to U.S. Physics Ph.D. Programs

Survey reveals that some physics departments had a 40 percent drop in non-U.S. applicants.

September 19, 2018 | Tawanda W. Johnson

In the wake of a decline in applications from international students to physics Ph.D. programs in the United States, APS leadership recently met with congressional staff on Capitol Hill as part of a larger effort to reverse the trend.

“Physics students want to come to the United States from all over the world because they know their educational and career opportunities here will be extraordinary,” said APS President Roger Falcone. “Our country’s research, technology, and economy have been enormously strengthened by a positive attitude toward such immigration of students. We should continue to be a welcoming place, and to embrace open and global mobility for people.”

Added Francis Slakey, chief government affairs officer in the APS Office of Government Affairs (APS OGA), “The U.S. is at high risk of no longer attracting the best and brightest minds in physics.”

During the 2018 APS March Meeting, a small number of Society members informed APS OGA that their physics departments had experienced a substantial decrease in the number of applications from non-U.S.-based students to their respective Ph.D. physics programs between 2017 and 2018.

To help inform the Society’s response, APS OGA worked with department chairs of U.S. physics Ph.D. programs that reported graduating 10 or more students per year to gather data concerning the number of international student applicants. A total of 74 department chairs were contacted, and 49 responded to the inquiry.

The departments that responded to the survey represent 40 percent of all international physics graduate students enrolled in the U.S.  Additionally, 41 percent of all physics graduate students enrolled in the U.S. were at one of the 49 respondent departments.

According to the data collected in the report, there was an overall decrease of almost 12 percent in the number of international applicants to the physics Ph.D. programs that responded to the survey.

Although some institutions did not see a decline in their international applications, there were a handful of programs that experienced declines of more than 40 percent.

Among the questions asked in the study were: “How has the general decline in applications impacted your 2018 cohort?,” “Has the overall class size changed?,” and “Did you accept more domestic students?”

The replies, all of them reported anonymously to protect the integrity of the Ph.D. physics programs, included the following: “We’ve admitted more domestic students, so as to fill our program. On the other hand, many of the better applicants in the past were international students, so our sense is that the overall quality of the applicants we admitted this year was somewhat lower than in the past.”

Respondents were also asked, “Could you comment on what countries had the largest declines in terms of applicants, from 2017 to 2018? For schools reporting their Chinese applicant numbers, the average decline was 16.4 percent.

Some department chairs speculated about the possible reasons for the decrease. “There is speculation among the faculty, but it is not necessarily evidence based: That Chinese institutions have ‘arrived’ in terms of quality, meaning many Chinese students prefer to stay home rather than go to the U.S. for graduate study,” replied one department chair.

Another department chair stated, “Anecdotal evidence and rumors suggest that China has been investing heavily in training young scientists, particularly in the area of condensed matter physics, and so many talented students may be choosing to stay in China for their post-graduate studies rather than go abroad…”

To address these concerns, APS OGA is implementing a strategy that entails making the F-1 visa – the standard method international students use to enter the U.S. to study at colleges and universities – “dual intent.” Under current law, international students have to prove that they will return to their countries after they have been educated in the United States. That can be an extremely high burden of proof for students who may have to demonstrate that they have a spouse, a child, an ill relative or property to care for back home.

With an F-1 “dual-intent” visa, students would no longer be required to provide proof that they are only in the United States temporarily and have the ability to declare that they plan to live and work in the United States permanently, giving them a smoother pathway for a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) career in America.

Historically, the United States has been able to attract the best and brightest students to its universities and research facilities. And those students have had a positive effect on the U.S. economy. During the 2016-17 academic year, for example, international students and their families at U.S. universities and colleges contributed an estimated $36.9 billion to the U.S. economy. Moreover, American innovation is bolstered by international talent. Of the 87 startup companies valued at least at $1 billion in 2016, more than half were founded by immigrants, with 21 companies’ founders first coming to the U.S. as international students.

But in recent years, the United States’ overseas counterparts have ramped up their research programs, giving America more competition. That dynamic, coupled with a drop in international enrollment in STEM fields at U.S. universities, is driving the APS strategy. APS OGA is also working with a number of other scientific societies to flesh out the plan.

Additionally, APS OGA recently organized meetings on Capitol Hill with 16 physics department chairs who advocated for the importance of attracting international students to physics Ph.D. programs and making the F-1 visa “dual intent.”

“There are several reasons that attracting international students to the field of physics is important. First of all, it is good for physics: the more different world experiences we bring in, the more different ways we can think about solutions to a problem,” said Brett D. DePaola, William and Joan Porter Professor & Head of the Department of Physics at Kansas State University.

DePaola added, “Second, I’ve found that over the years on average, international students are better prepared for graduate level classroom work than their American counterparts. But our domestic students, on average, are better prepared for laboratory work. Both skill sets are important in developing strong physicists. I’ve found that by working together, our domestic and international students teach each other, eliminating the knowledge and experience gaps for both groups. Thus, international students are definite assets to the United States graduate education programs in physics.”

The author is APS Press Secretary.

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