• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Study abroad: full meals or sandwiches?


April 17, 2011


In his visit to Brazil, Barack Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed an agreement to increase the number of Brazilians studying in the United States. Brazil has had a tradition of granting fellowships for doctoral study abroad, mostly through the Ministry of Education (CAPES) and the National Research Council (CNPq), with the United States, France and Great Britain being the main receiving countries. In the last decade or so, there has been a tendency to reduce the number of full fellowships for doctoral studies, and replace them with the so-called "sandwich" fellowships, in which a student earns his Ph.D. at a Brazilian institution and then goes abroad for an academic year or so to enrich his or her education. The reason for this change was not lack of funds, although a four year doctoral fellowship in the US could cost above $200,000, but the conviction that, since Brazilian universities have developed a significant graduate education sector and are now granting about 11 thousand PhDs a year, it was no longer necessary to send students abroad.

In 2009, there were about 3,800 Brazilian students abroad with fellowships from the government, of which about 800 were for doctoral study, 2,000 for short-term "sandwiches " and one thousand for post-doctoral studies. To see this in perspective, according to data from the Institute of International Education, in 2008/9, there were 71,000 doctoral students from India, 57,000 from China doing doctoral studies in the US, against a total of 3,000 graduate students from Brazil. Some doctoral programs in Brazil are quite good, but still, there is good reason to ask whether the government's conviction that the country no longer needs to send bright students abroad to get doctoral degrees in the best universities is premature.

The new fellowships planned in the cooperation agreement are not for full doctoral programs, but for sandwich and post-doctoral programs. No assessment is available about the results of these sandwich fellowships. One obvious difficulty is that if a student arrives in an American university department for a year without being enrolled in a degree program and without being associated with a specific research project, he or she may be easily left to his own, without benefiting very much from the experience. It would be good if, through this agreement, the American government were able to convince the universities to pay more attention to these students, but it is not clear that the federal administration would have the means to do this.

Full, four year doctoral fellowships are very expensive, but it would also be possible to give the students support for the first one or two years of doctoral studies with the expectation that he or she could thereafter earn a local fellowship or work as a research or teaching assistant while completing their degree. In this way, the number of students going for doctoral studies would double for the same cost, and these students could then get the experience of a deeper immersion in the university abroad and get all the tacit knowledge that comes with studying abroad - a full meal, rather than just a sandwich.


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