Ziomara Gerdtzen analyzing protein purification process
PHOTO BY DIANA WATTERS
Students working as research assistants in
the U.S. have never gotten rich from their stipends. For most,
the benefits of tuition remission, health care, and the chance
to engage in intellectually stimulating and C.V. enhancing
research have been the big draws. Recognizing the importance
of student workers, the University of Minnesota, like many
other research universities, has tried to increase the amount
it pays student employees. Over the past 20 years the top
of the pay scale for graduate students has easily outpaced
the inflation rate. The bottom end of the scale, however,
has lagged slightly behind inflation.
For most student researchers this means that roommates and
ramen are the norm. For a student at the middle of the pay
scale, a 20-hour per week appointment pays roughly $1,500
per month--less than double the market rate for a one-bedroom
apartment in the Twin Cities. Because of this, second jobs
are not uncommon, at least among U.S. citizens. "It is
very difficult to make ends meet," said one student.
"I have one-and-a-half other jobs and I live with several
Anne Kantardjieff doing DNA analysis/gene cloning
PHOTO BY DIANA WATTERS
What do international students do when they
feel out of sorts? An American abroad might go to McDonalds
or Starbucks or watch a dubbed episode of CSI. But what does
a Bengali living in Bloomington or a Taiwanese residing in
St. Paul do? According to students, the Twin Cities campus
is a particular draw because it has ample access to elements
of various cultures--ethnic markets, international video stores,
religious assemblies, and restaurants--many of which are located
on mass transit lines or within walking distance from campus.
student-researchers in chemical engineering and materials
science (l to r): Patrick Hossler, Ziomara Gerdtzen, Benjamin
Roy, Jongchan Lee, Katie Wlaschin, David Umulis, Wei Lian, Mugda
Gadghil, Anne Kantardjieff, and Rakesh Motani
PHOTO BY DIANA WATTERS
Benjamin Roy doing an analysis of protein purification
PHOTO BY DIANA WATTERS
For this story, we interviewed dozens of student researchers
at the University of Minnesota. Any generalizations included here
are based on those interviews and on information from the Chronicle
of Higher Education, the Council of Graduate Schools, and the University's
International Student and Scholar Services. University graduate
students voted this April on whether or not to unionize. We did
not include this topic in the article because the vote was held
after we went to press.
Although faculty deservedly get accolades for cutting-edge research,
much of that research would not get done without students. This
past semester roughly 4,000 students worked in research-related
positions at the University of Minnesota, outnumbering University
faculty by 500. For anyone doubting the importance of students to
the University's research mission, Thomas Stoffregen, director of
the Human Factors Research Lab in the Department of Kinesiology,
has a succinct response: "No students means no research."
Student researchers do much of the day-to-day work in campus labs--conducting
experiments, tracking-down information, and running analysis. "On
a simple functional level, they help get more done," said Stoffregen.
"There is one of me and several of them."
Students also bring their own talents to projects, frequently helping
to shape the direction of the research. "Most of my research
is collaborative and both graduate and undergraduate students play
a large role in this," said Claudia Neuhauser, professor of
ecology, evolution and behavior (EEB) and director of graduate studies
for EEB. Added Stoffregen, "Good student researchers can be
collaborators, not just employees. You can learn from them."
So who are these student researchers? At the University of Minnesota,
the vast majority are graduate students, and roughly half are international
students, despite the fact that international students constitute
only six percent of all University of Minnesota students. But a
national downward trend in international student enrollment could
drastically change the face of research at the University.
Homesick on the frozen tundra
While it is commonplace to see international students in University
research labs, life here can be anything but normal for the students.
The first Minnesota winter is certainly a challenge for anyone from
a warm climate (the average high temperature in Bombay in January
is 85 degrees). American culture--the importance Americans place
on productivity and time, the celebration of individualism, our
direct communication style, and the lack of formality in personal
interactions--also makes many newcomers uneasy.
According to Alisa Eland, senior counselor in the University's International
Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), the transition to U.S. academics
and culture can be difficult for many new international students.
"When international students first arrive, they are often dealing
with many differences from what they are used to," she said.
"They may be adjusting to lifestyle differences such as food,
weather, transportation, and dealing with U.S. roommates for the
first time. There are usually also academic adjustments such as
language difficulties and learning how to navigate a new academic
system. Many international students also report that making friends
in Minnesota can be difficult."
And just like their American peers, international students often
find that money is scarce. "Finances is by far the most difficult
problem for these students," said Kay Thomas, ISSS director.
But unlike their American peers, international students are restricted
in how much they can work. Visa rules require full-time registration
and limit work to 20 hours per week during the semester. Exceptions
are rare. Therefore, if international students can't pay their bills,
they can't reduce their course load, work more hours, or take second
A downward trend
Despite these challenges, talented students from all over the world
have been coming to the University of Minnesota for years, helping
to push University research to the top of national research rankings.
Unfortunately, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number
of newly enrolled international students at the University each
year since 2001. In 2001, 1010 new international students enrolled;
in 2002 the number was 829; in 2003 it was 757; and in 2004 it was
671. While the overall number of enrolled international students
remains steady, these declines will begin to appear this coming
year as current students graduate.
The University of Minnesota is not alone in this trend. According
to the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), there have been significant
decreases in the number of first time international graduate students
studying in the U.S. each year since 2001. The largest declines
in both applications and enrollments have come from countries whose
students skew heavily toward the sciences. Nationwide, admissions
from China have dropped by 34 percent, from India by 19 percent,
and from the Republic of Korea by 12 percent. Not coincidentally,
science programs have seen much larger declines than liberal arts.
Admissions to engineering programs have dropped by 24 percent, to
life sciences and agriculture programs by 19 percent, and to programs
in the physical and earth sciences by 17 percent.
The correlation between country and curriculum could have an inordinately
large impact here. Currently, Asian students (led by students from
China, India, Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Japan) make-up
two-thirds of all international students at the University of Minnesota--ten
percent higher than the national average. And just over two-thirds
of international students at the University are enrolled in engineering;
computers; mathematics; and the health, physical, and life sciences.
According to studies by the CGS and the Chronicle of Higher Education,
drops in applications and enrollment are the result of difficulties
associated with added layers of security checks for student visas,
diminishing views of the United States abroad, the worldwide economic
downturn, and increased competition from universities in other parts
of the world.
Students we interviewed noted that the visa changes have been palpable.
"The visa process is way more difficult than before 9/11,"
said one. Another noted that he simply no longer returns home during
University breaks for fear of not being able to return. Several
other students told stories of friends or family who decided to
study elsewhere rather than go through the visa process.
Federal and local officials have heard the complaints and have been
working to simplify the visa process, with some success. "The
process is getting better," noted Thomas. "Most people
are getting visas. Now we need to get the word out."
Over the long-term, however, global competition will likely threaten
enrollments more than any other factor. China is persuading many
of its top students to stay home with dramatically improved universities;
and schools in Japan, Canada, and Britain have stepped-up their
recruiting in Asia to admit students caught in U.S. visa-related
turmoil. The country working hardest, though, is Australia. Offering
lower costs and closer proximity, Australian universities, with
government support, have seen marked increases in enrollments of
students from throughout Asia. In 2003, Australia reported a 27
percent increase in Indian students, a 20 percent increase in Chinese
students, and a 19 percent increase in students from the Republic
of Korea. If the newly recruited students have positive experiences
in Australia, China, Japan, Canada, and Britain, it is likely that
more students will choose these options in the future.
Until very recently universities in the United States had academic
reputations that could withstand mitigating factors. But post-9/11
could turn enrollment declines into a long-term trend. If this happens,
research in the U.S. will suffer. International students, particularly
those from China, India, and the Republic of Korea, are often more
advanced than their U.S. counterparts in math and science--areas
that drive scientific research. And the ripples felt in campus research
labs will reverberate to the U.S. corporations who recruit graduates
from American universities.
The next generation
Ultimately, the most important thing the University of Minnesota
can do to continue to attract top students, from the U.S. and abroad,
is to continue to provide opportunities for students to engage in
research and work with and learn from great faculty. Nearly every
student who responded to our questions mentioned the quality of
a particular department and the opportunity to work with a particular
researcher as the primary reasons for choosing the University of
That opportunity benefits both individual career development and
universities. "Coursework was the least important part of learning
for me," said Stoffregen. "Number one was talking to other
students and faculty, and number two was doing research." And
the market for academic jobs has changed. "There is a much
stronger emphasis now on already having publications on your C.V.
when you apply for faculty positions," he noted.
Most students that we interviewed recognize this. "It's an
incredible opportunity," said one student. "Yes, it's
difficult to balance everything, but I get to work with brilliant
faculty and students doing world-class research. If this is what
you want to eventually do, there is no better entry-level job."
And for universities looking for the next generation of brilliant
faculty, they need look no further than the current group of student
WRITTEN BY BRIAN LIEB