The state of the international scientist in the U.S.

Supporting foreign-born scientists contributing to biomedical research in the U.S.

Written by Adriana Bankston, Future of Research.

Ensuring a sustainable research enterprise requires a strong biomedical workforce. Today’s U.S. biomedical workforce is more diverse and international than ever before, and yet more research is needed to better understand and support foreign-born scientists contributing to biomedical research in the U.S.

The biomedical workforce

Between 1990 and 2014, while the total number of awarded PhDs has increased dramatically, this increase is mainly due to non-citizens, citizen women and men of color,[1] while the number of American graduate students is decreasing[2]. Among the postdoc population, international postdocs make up over half of postdocs working in the U.S.[3],[4]

Overall, according to the 2014 U.S. Census data, 52% of all U.S. biomedical scientists are foreign-born.[5] ,[6] Some factors contributing to the desire of foreign-born scientists to pursue postdocs in the U.S. are the reputation of the university, encouragement to pursue U.S. training and international mobility seen as a positive factor in science.[7] It is encouraging to see the attitudes which foreign-born scientists have towards pursuing research in the U.S. 


Foreign-born scientists thinking about coming to the U.S. for scientific training might consider the types of fellowships they are eligible to apply for, as well as which career options non-U.S. citizen scientists might have. One tactic for staying in the U.S. for longer is through the green card but, keeping in mind that often what is good for immigration is different from a career perspective. Immigrant researcher petitions emphasize quantity (of publications, posters, awards, peer reviewed-papers, etc.) as opposed to few, high quality items that might be more valuable from the points of view of a scientific career[8]. This conflict makes it difficult to satisfy both career and immigration requirements at the same time, both of which are needed.

Seeking out and applying for eligible fellowships can increase independence[9] and benefit the long-term career of foreign-born scientists, but often finding available resources for funding opportunities is not trivial.[10],[11] In relation to fellowships, it is also important to consider which university will support you as an international researcher- for example, some postdoctoral fellowships at U.S. institutions come with the loss of employee benefits, while others reward postdocs who are obtaining awards with supplementary stipends.[12] Do your research and choose your institution wisely in order to be in a supportive environment that will also help advance your career forward. 


International scientists are important contributors to research in the U.S., therefore choosing universities that will value their intellectual contributions is really important. This also refers to negotiating salary, which international scientists may be reluctant to do.[13],[14] But even more broadly, choosing the right advisor who will show support during their time at the bench (and beyond) is most important.

This is where being their own advocate comes in- it is critical to speak up if not being treated well in terms of the lab environment, salary or benefits, as well as seeking to understand how university policies and practices affect scientists. Another important means is identifying someone at the university who is willing to be approached with questions on these issues, including that of toxic advisors[15]. Unfortunately, power dynamics in academia is real and finding allies who can help navigate the system is critical to being successful and happy while doing research in the U.S.


Another really important issue is that advisors may not be aware of visa expiration dates, as well as policies and limitations of particular visa types, and whether or not their lab members require visa sponsorship. As all of these factors can have an effect on career options, one piece of advice is to coordinate career tactics with visa deadlines, so as to eliminate the option of potentially being stuck in an unpleasant or complicated situation that will not allow the pursuit of desired career goals.[16],[17]


If desiring to more strongly advocate for their science, foreign-born researchers should definitely do so, and being aware that many scientific societies offer resources and opportunities for engagement, as well as there are many local activities to engage in- such as organizing a state Hill Day or participating in a local town hall. Other options are chatting with reporters and writing op-eds on issues of interest, as well as advocating for science in public, which also comes with additional limitations.[18]

Calls to action

Despite the value of foreign-born researchers for the enterprise, this population still faces limitations to performing research in the U.S. from the perspectives of fellowships, salaries, visas and opportunities to advocate for their science.

  • A call to action I would therefore like to raise here is for universities to support this population- even just being aware of how all these factors affect their international researchers.

  • A second call to action is to foreign-born researchers themselves, and encouraging them to advocate for themselves and feel empowered to demand what they need from the research enterprise.

  • A third call to action is to American researchers- if international colleagues are struggling or facing particular barriers, be an advocate for them.

In this manner we can improve the research enterprise and ensure that it remains strong, diverse and positive for future generations.

Some talks from Future of Research on this topic can be found below:

Resources for empowering international researchers in the U.S.

Resources to address challenges for international graduate students and postdocs

Article written  by  Adriana Bankston, Future of Research