Public Affairs Professor Explores Immigration of High-Skilled Workers
Dr. Meghna Sabharwal
Dr. Meghna Sabharwal came from India to the United States to pursue her PhD. And like many others from her native country, she decided to stay.
The UT Dallas assistant professor’s experiences inspired her to study why some foreign-born science and engineering PhD graduates stay in the United States, while others return to their home countries.
Sabharwal, who teaches public affairs in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, is being recognized for her contributions to understanding immigration of high-skilled workers. Most recently, she received the Julia J. Henderson International Award at the American Society for Public Administration conference in Chicago.
Theories on international immigration have been based largely on research involving low-skilled workers who come to countries including the United States for economic opportunities. Sabharwal’s research is exploring migration patterns among high-skilled workers such as university faculty members.
Sabharwal’s work stems from a $197,000 National Science Foundation grant she received to study a trend of increasing numbers of skilled immigrants deciding to return to their home countries after graduating from U.S. universities.
Historically, the majority of India-born PhDs in science and engineering have stayed in the United States, Sabharwal said. But she said that is changing.
“There are scientists and engineers trained in the United States who are now going back to their home countries. Should the United States be concerned? Will they compete with us? Is it a loss of human capital? Those are the issues we wanted to study,” she said.
Sabharwal’s research, which will continue through August, has taken her from Texas to a few remote parts of India. Her future studies will focus on returnees and transnational collaboration.
“There are scientists and engineers trained in the United States who are now going back to their home countries. Should the United States be concerned? Will they compete with us? Is it a loss of human capital? Those are the issues we wanted to study.”
Her most recent study focuses on the motivations of Indian faculty members who opt to stay in the United States. The study, “Scientific Diaspora: Stay Plans of Indian Faculty in the United States” was recently published in Perspectives on Global Development and Technology.
For the study, Sabharwal conducted 51 in-depth interviews with Indian faculty members in science and engineering at 18 universities with high research activity in 2013. Most of the faculty members worked in science and engineering departments. Most were married and had children, and on average spent over 15 years in academia.
The top reason the respondents gave for staying in the United States was the ability to work on cutting-edge research. They wanted to continue working with up-to-date technical resources, administrative support, well-trained graduate students and a large scientific community.
“It is my belief that America is probably the best in terms of the freedom in research that you enjoy,” one respondent said.
In addition, some preferred the U.S. education system. Others believed that U.S. society was more welcoming of their lifestyles.
“I stayed in the USA because I chose to be single and not get married. In India, you are constantly bombarded with comments if you are single,” one respondent said.
Others had begun to feel more at home in the United States after living here, although they maintained strong connections with colleagues, friends and family in India.
“Speaking to people who came to the United States and then went back (to India), they experienced reverse culture shock,” Sabharwal said. “Some told us they felt more foreign in India.”
Many said they would consider going back to live in India. One in three faculty members who stayed in the United States said distance from their family and culture was an issue.
One participant described the difficulty of living so far from his native country: “One thing I have come to realize as an immigrant is that all this comes at a huge social cost, leaving behind a very strong culture and extended family.”
Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].