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Foreign STEM Students and Immigration Policy

Paper Session

Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 2:30 PM - 4:30 PM

Pennsylvania Convention Center, 202-B
Hosted By: American Economic Association
  • Chair: Shulamit Kahn, Boston University

Explaining the Place Premium in STEM Careers

Shulamit Kahn
Boston University
Megan MacGarvie
Boston University and NBER


A very large share of STEM doctoral recipients and those in the scientific workforce of the United States are not natives of the US. In this paper, we provide some of the first evidence on medium-term stay rates from a new longitudinal survey dataset on STEM PhDs from US institutions that for the first time includes scientists who have left the US. We ask what factors matter most for the retention of foreign graduates in the US, or conversely, for the countries seeking the return of their citizens educated abroad. We also estimate salary differentials between scientists and engineers who remain in the US and their observably similar peers in other countries. We find that increases in income per capita, democratization, and spending on R&D in the home country are associated with higher return rates, but that there is little relationship between the ranking of an individual’s PhD institution and the probability of remaining in the US. Those who return home experience a substantial salary reduction on average, but after adjusting for purchasing power and individual and job characteristics, returnees to the highest-income home countries experience no significant salary penalty relative to those in the US. We also observe no difference in average salaries between non-natives in the US and native US citizens, after controlling for characteristics.

Innovation in the Tech Start-up Process: Early Employees and Founders

Sari Pekkala Kerr
Wellesley College & Massachusetts Institute of Technology
William R. Kerr
Harvard Business School & NBER


Tech start-up companies are often founded around a specific innovation that they are hoping to bring to market. Many of them also engage in extensive R&D, resulting in innovations that may later be patented. Research has identified many key factors that impact the success of that process, including the availability of human capital (or innovative talent), the resources that are existing or can be generated during the start-up process, networks, and so on. Foreign STEM students and immigrant scientists are an important source of talent both in the innovation process as well as being founders of tech firms. Start-up firms also engage a variety of actors during this process, including the founders and/or owners, early employees, external consultants, collaborators, and so on. This paper takes a close look at several cohorts of tech startups in the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) where we have collected detailed survey data on the roles of employees, owners and founders in the innovation process, details about their personalities, their goals and their use of the networking facilities at CIC, and combined these with firm-level outcome data that includes patents and citations, venture capital financing, data on IPOs and other exits, and other detailed data on the founders’ place of birth, specific education and other human capital indicators. Using these data we provide a comprehensive look at the innovation process, and the role that networks play in the process. We also look at the correlations between the tech startup employees’ and founders’ personality characteristics and their innovation outcomes, contributing to earlier literature studying this nexus.

Will the United States Keep the Best and the Brightest? Career and Location Preferences of Foreign STEM PhDs

Ina Ganguli
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Patrick Gaulé


A key factor behind the emergence and persistence of U.S. leadership in STEM fields has been its ability to attract and retain top tier talent from other countries. Talented foreigners have typically come to the U.S. as graduate students and stayed in the U.S. in academic or industry careers. The current U.S. political climate is characterized by uncertainty regarding H-1B visas, a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, and possible cuts in federal funding for scientific research, all of which could affect the location preferences of foreign STEM PhDs. Time will tell whether the location decisions of foreign STEM students will change; however, an early indicator of potentially shifting location preferences can be obtained by surveying them. In this paper, we discuss findings from a recent novel survey of current doctoral students in a major STEM field – Chemistry – conducted in 2017 at 50 U.S. institutions about their career and location preferences. First, we estimate the career preferences of foreign and US STEM PhD students for different types of post-graduation jobs – postdocs, industry, or teaching positions – using both hypothetical choice methods and more standard Likert measures of preferences for different careers. Second, we examine students’ location preferences using based on a hypothetical choice method. We proceed to use these counterfactual job questions to construct a revealed-preferences ranking of universities as locations to do a chemistry postdoc. Our findings show the foreign and U.S. Chemistry Ph.D. students have significantly different preferences for careers, with foreign students being much more likely to prefer doing a postdoc. Foreign students also value a U.S. location more than U.S. students, and their revealed preference ranking of locations for a postdoc differ in many ways. Our results suggest the U.S. will manage to retain talented foreign graduate students and no brain exodus is in sight.

Human Mobility and Knowledge Flows

Dany Bahar
Brookings Institution
Raj Choudhury
Harvard Business School


Kirk Doran
University of Notre Dame
Jeffrey Grogger
University of Chicago
Sarah Turner
University of Virginia
Bruce Weinberg
Ohio State University
JEL Classifications
  • O0 - General
  • J6 - Mobility, Unemployment, Vacancies, and Immigrant Workers