International Graduates and Postdocs Struggle with Career Confidence

April 22, 2024

By Susi Varvayanis

A new study reports that international doctoral students and postdocs are less familiar with the wide array of career options where their Ph.D. skills are needed and report feeling less support from their graduate program or department than counterparts with U.S. citizenship. When feeling more supported by their graduate program or department, however, international trainees reported having higher career self-efficacy, the belief of feeling empowered to make career decisions and a conviction to be successful in a career.

“It’s important to encourage help-seeking behavior through creating inclusive professional development programs. Campus-wide solutions such as those being implemented at Cornell through our Office of Career and Professional Development in the Graduate School are important to overcome any barriers,” adds Susi Varvayanis, executive director of Careers Beyond Academia, a program within the office.

These career exploration and skill building programs and experiential opportunities can help all grad students and postdocs feel better prepared, identify good fits, and set themselves apart as top candidates.

A team of authors, including Varvayanis, published “Citizenship status and career self-efficacy: An intersectional study of biomedical trainees in the United States,” an intersectional study of the influence of citizenship status, gender, and career choices on the career self-efficacy of over 6,000 doctoral students and postdocs across the nation. The PLOS ONE publication extends findings of a recent companion paper on intersecting identities and Ph.D. career prospects, underscoring that lower career self-efficacy was observed in women compared with men and emphasizing the importance of feeling supported to pursue various career options.

Specifically, the researchers found career self-efficacy of non-citizen doctoral students and postdocs is significantly lower than that of U.S. citizen counterparts across 17 National Institutes of Health Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (NIH-BEST) grantee institutions, including Cornell.

The researchers discuss many potential reasons for these observed results, and highlight that not all non-citizen trainees are alike, so cross-cultural communication is key.

“We hope that our work inspires urgent conversations about considering how citizenship status can create precarious conditions for our talented and high skilled trainees,” lead co-author Deepshika Chaterjee, assistant professor of psychology at Baruch College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, stated.

“The findings of this study resonate with my lived experience as a brown woman who immigrated to United States for my Ph.D. degree. The study fills important gaps in knowledge about self-efficacy beliefs in doctoral students with intersectional identities (gender and international status) and proposes systemic solutions,” added co-senior author Sunita Chaudhary, associate professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and director of research education at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

Specific career interests may be related to career self-efficacy—in fact, non-citizen trainees were most interested in pursuing a tenure track professorial career, and notably, citizen women presented the lowest interest in this path. The results held across doctoral and postdoctoral respondents, demonstrating there was no difference due to advanced training.

Since graduate schools across the nation attract significant numbers of international doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars, career and professional development support is needed to empower all to pursue their dreams and explore the many options where their skills are needed to address society’s most pressing problems.

The paper’s other authors include Ana T. Nogueira, Inge Wefes, Roger Chalkley, Cynthia N. Fuhrmann, Janani Varadarajan, Gabrielle A. Jacob, Christiann H. Gaines, Nisan M. Hubbard, and Rebekah L. Layton.

Read the full paper and learn more about the Graduate School Office of Career and Professional Development.