On the value of foreign PhDs in the developing world: Training versus selection effects in the case of South Africa

M. Müller*, R. Cowan, H. Barnard

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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When seeking to improve science in emerging economies, uncertainty exists whether PhD training in an emerging economy can yield comparable results to PhD training in the developed world. Scientific achievements may vary because of excellent training at good universities, but also because excellent students select (and are selected by) good universities. This paper compares the career effects of overseas and domestic PhD training for scholars working in an emerging economy, South Africa. We differentiate between and examine both selection and training effects for PhDs from three tiers of South African and two tiers of foreign universities. South African academics with PhDs from universities in industrialised countries generally achieve greater career success than those with local PhDs, but training by universities in industrialised countries is not necessarily better than local training. Our results suggest that the perceived superiority of foreign PhD training stems from selection rather than do training effects, and pure selection effects in fact explain career outcomes better than training effects. Focusing on training rather than selection, PhDs from top South African universities produce a similar quantity and quality research output to those trained by the leading universities in the developed world. From the perspective of an emerging economy with limited resources wishing to advance science, the development of local universities should thus be stressed, although it is clear that individuals who are able to study for a PhD abroad gain personally when they return.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)886-900
Number of pages15
JournalResearch Policy
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2018

JEL classifications

  • f63 - Globalization: Economic Development
  • h52 - National Government Expenditures and Education
  • i23 - Higher Education and Research Institutions
  • o20 - Development Planning and Policy: General
  • o30 - "Technological Change; Research and Development; Intellectual Property Rights: General"


  • Developing country
  • Doctoral studies
  • Scientific mobility
  • South Africa
  • Technological upgrading
  • University evaluation
  • Engineering
  • Developing world
  • Emerging economies
  • Scientific achievements
  • Training effects
  • Developing countries


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