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Visa concerns deter foreign-born Ph.D.s from startups, finds study

Foreign-born Ph.D. graduates with science and engineering degrees from American universities are only half as likely to work for technology start-ups as US citizens, despite applying to and receiving offers for these jobs at the same rate.

That’s the finding of a new study by researchers at Cornell University, which discovered that these graduates prefer to work at larger technology companies with the resources and experience to sponsor foreign workers for H-1B or permanent residency visas.

According to the researchers, the findings suggest that visa policies are an obstacle for smaller technology companies, such as those working on connected and autonomous vehicles, who plan to hire foreign-born workers with specialised, in-demand skills.

More than half of the Ph.D. graduates in some disciplines in STEM fields are international, creating an uneven playing field for start-ups competing with established companies to attract top talent.


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“Startups are an important engine for innovation and economic growth,” said Michael Roach, from the university’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

“A key insight from this research is that rather than fostering entrepreneurial activity, U.S. visa policies may disadvantage young technology startups – and this applies to startups founded by immigrants and U.S. citizens alike.”

While hiring is already one of the key challenges for early-stage technology startups, said Roach, “current U.S. visa policies make it even harder”.

The researchers, who conducted a nine-year survey of more than 2,300 Ph.D.s for the study, pointed to figures from the National Science Foundation that found that half of the people who receive computer science doctorates from US universities were born in other countries. They said the figures highlighted the importance of access to this talent pool for both small and large companies.

“Over the past few decades, the American economy has become more dependent on science and technology innovation for growth, and at the same time, our science and technology Ph.D. programs have become more dependent on foreign talent,” said co-author John Skrentny, director of the Yankelovich Center for Social Science Research at the University of California, San Diego.

“We often see great innovations coming from Google and Apple, but a lot of their innovation is actually from buying startups,” Skrentny said. “These startups have trouble accessing the foreign talent our best universities are graduating.”


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