Should the US fear rising number of STEM PhDs in China?

Concern is growing in some quarters in the United States that China is rapidly catching up with the number of PhDs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) it produces compared to the US, which could have an impact on the US lead in certain sectors of research that contribute to national security.

But others say that while PhD-level expertise is a national priority for both the US and China, overly focusing on numbers does not necessarily indicate a country’s research prowess on a global level.

A new report by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) in the US released in August said that currently Chinese universities graduate roughly three STEM PhDs for every two graduated by US universities each year. By 2025, the report predicts that China will produce roughly twice as many STEM PhDs as the US.

“Based on current enrolment patterns, we project that by 2025 Chinese universities will produce more than 77,000 STEM PhD graduates per year compared to approximately 40,000 in the United States. If international students are excluded from the US count, Chinese STEM PhD graduates would outnumber their US counterparts more than three to one,” the report said.

The report notes that between 2003 and 2007, the Chinese government set up more than 1,300 new PhD programmes at dozens of institutions that previously did not offer doctoral programmes. During that period, the number of annual STEM PhD graduates in China more than doubled.

Between 2015 and 2019, the number of students entering PhD programmes at universities run by central ministries and agencies rose approximately 34%, from 59,039 to 79,031. This group of universities accounted for roughly 65% of the total increase in first-time PhD enrolments across China during that period,” the report said.

By contrast, the vast majority of PhDs graduating from Chinese universities are Chinese nationals. According to Chinese Ministry of Education data, international students accounted for only about 7% of doctoral enrolments in China in 2018, and the share was lower in previous years.

“If you’re a foreign student in the US, you’re really much more motivated than a [Chinese] mainland student going into a mainland programme,” said Zweig.

Simon said: “Students from abroad bring new ideas, new perspectives and new approaches into the lab environment. Their unique experiences working on diverse problems helps to open up existing ways of tackling problems. What they may lack in formal methodology training, they more than make up for in terms of work ethic and desire for high levels of achievement.