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.
This work has benefited in particular from the Workshop on Academic Science in South Africa organised by the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS) at Stellenbosch University 2016, and the 11th Workshop on The Organisation, Economics and Policy of Scientific Research organised by the Laboratorio di Economia dell’Innovazione Franco Momigliano (LEI) and Bureau of Research on Innovation, Complexity and Knowledge (BRICK) at the Collegio Carlo Alberto, University of Torino in 2017.