Posted by: Vikram | August 12, 2011

A comparison of academic achievement of Indian, Chinese and American PhD students in STEM fields

The motivation for this blog post came from a question asked by a commentator earlier. The question was ‘how do we determine whether students from system X or Y are successful’. What I am going to present in this post is a very small attempt to answer this very complex and challenging question. One common arena for students from different academic systems is an American graduate school, particularly science and engineering PhD programs. Americans are universally perceived to be in either small or diminishing numbers in such departments. Also, there is a widespread perception that foreign students, particularly those from India and China are ‘better’ and ‘brainier’ than their American counterparts.

I asked the Office of Information Management and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin for some data on PhD students in the departments of Computer Science, Chemical Engineering and Electrical Engineering. These departments are widely perceived as being dominated by Indian and Chinese students. I should mention that these departments of UT Austin are highly regarded, regularly finishing in the top 5 or 8 in rankings.

The IMA office provided me with the following data (from academic year 2001 to 2010):

  1. Total Enrollment in CS, ChemEng and EE PhD programs for each academic semester by country
  2. Average Cumulative GPA of the PhD students in CS, ChemEng and EE at the beginning of each semester by country
  3. Average courseload (measured by number of credit hours) of PhD students in CS, ChemEng and EE for each semester by country

I have plotted the data for the enrollment numbers and GPA’s in the figures below. The course load numbers indicated that international students took somewhat heavier course loads, but the gap between them and American students was narrowing. I will begin with a discussion of enrollment numbers.

Total PhD enrollment in CS, EE and ChemEng in the 2000's decade

The enrollment numbers were the most interesting. We see that there always been more American PhD students than Indian and Chinese students. Also, the difference has been steadily increasing over the last ten years. The number of American students increased steadily from just under 200 in 2001 to over 260 in 2010. This growth has slowed in the last four years. The number of Indian students increased rapidly at the beginning of the decade but have stagnated at just above 100 since 2003. On the other hand, the number of Chinese students PhD has seen a decline in this decade. The number peaked at around 140 in 2003 but has now come down to around 70-80.

Clearly, American students find themselves motivated to attend graduate school. Of course, this data is only for UT, and one would have to get similar data from other universities for a comprehensive assessment. But at UT, the trend for Chinese and Indian PhD students seems to be one of stagnation and even decline. One reason might be the fast economic growth in these countries which keeps students in their home countries. We now move on to the GPA figures, which are a little less interesting.

Average Cumulative GPA at beginning of Fall Semester for CS, EE and ChemEng PhD students during the 2000's

Average Cumulative GPA at beginning of Spring Semester for CS, EE and ChemEng PhD students during the 2000's

Overall, it seems that Chinese, Indian and American PhD students in these departments have about the same levels of achievement in their courses. There seems to less fluctuation in the performance of the American students, their average GPA before Fall hovers around 3.65, while before Spring it is around 3.77. There seems to be more variability in the GPAs for the Indian and Chinese students. In the Fall, Indian student GPA’s varied from an average of 3.77 in 2008 to less than 3.3 in 2010. During the same semester, Chinese student average GPA’s varied from just over 3.1 in 2009 to about 3.6 in 2005.

Frankly, I found this variability puzzling. I am not sure it even makes sense to try and explain it. That would require further analysis of data segregated by individual departments. But it is clear that American, Indian and Chinese students are mostly ready for the rigors of graduate course work.

I hope that this data and study, although of course small and by no means conclusive dispels some of the notions a lot of Indians have regarding American universities and America’s education system. I also hope it provides them with a context to take a critical look at their own system.


  1. Interesting stuff!

    One quick suggestion: If you plot the GPA figures with a 0-4 scale on the y-axis, the figures will better reflect your overall point — that there’s not much of a difference in the academic performance (and preparation) among the three groups.

    And two quick questions: (a) What is the average CGPA for the entire class? This will give us a picture of how well these groups have done relative to the average.

    (b) What is the total number of students, and how has that been doing over the years?

    • Thanks Dr. Abinandanan. You are absolutely right, I will redo those plots and put up the new ones. About the two questions, I did not ask for those data. I will ask the IMA office to supply that data. Will definitely help us understand these numbers better.

  2. The point you make about misconceptions on the part of Indian students about the American university system is a great one. But GPA isn’t really the best indicator of a student’s performance in a doctoral program, right? As in, there may be wild variation in GPAs and you could still have folks succeeding in grad school. And the other way too- you have people who fail to complete a PhD program successfully have high GPAs. Can you include some data related to this?

    • Welcome Sha. I agree completely. GPA is by no means a complete indicator of performance. I guess what I was getting at here was more preparation than performance. But I would conjecture that there is some kind of correlation between GPA and success.

  3. Motivating Blog!!

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