Graduates of Chinese Universities Take the Lead in Earning American Ph.D.'s

July 14, 2008

Two Chinese universities have moved ahead of the University of California at Berkeley as the top sources of students who go on to earn doctorates at American institutions.

Tsinghua and Peking Universities, and Seoul National University, in South Korea, also topped the list (in that order) of how many of their bachelor’s-degree holders earned natural-science or engineering Ph.D.’s at American institutions in 2006. By that measure, Cornell University was fourth and Berkeley was fifth.

Fully half of the top 20 institutions on the list were foreign: a total of seven Chinese institutions, and one each in India, South Korea, and Taiwan.

As recently as 2004, Berkeley was No. 1 in the production of all Ph.D.’s, including education, the humanities, and the social sciences. But Tsinghua, often called “the MIT of China,” claimed the top spot in 2005, and Peking moved up to No. 2 in 2006, the most recent year for which data were available.

That’s according to an analysis, first reported in the current issue of the journal Science, of data from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates. The review was performed by the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, a nonprofit group in Washington that tracks the science and engineering work force.

The trends speak to a growing concern among American educators and policy makers that China and other Asian nations are likely to produce large numbers of scientists and engineers who will help them out-compete the United States technologically. For now, that concern is allayed somewhat because many Asian students who earn Ph.D.’s in America seek to remain there to work. But their choices could change as their home country’s economies — especially China’s — mature.

The numbers reflect the abundance of foreign students pursuing Ph.D.’s in science or engineering — one third of all doctoral students in those fields — at American institutions. —Jeffrey Brainard