Purpose Although a student’s sense of belonging is a key factor of persistence in higher education, research on international students’ belonging tends to rely on domain-agnostic survey measures and promote interpretations that focus mainly on social integration and adjustment. This paper aims to examine how male international graduate students in engineering understand and describe their sense of belonging and how they perceive its development at their institution. Design/methodology/approach The authors conducted in-depth interviews with 12 male electrical engineering doctoral students at a selective research university in the USA. This interpretive approach allowed students to articulate their subjective understanding of belonging within a specific disciplinary context. Findings Contrary to the broad notion that the social domain is the primary locus of students’ sense of belonging, participants emphasized the academic domain when referring to their struggles with, and attempts to develop, a sense of belonging. Results suggest that the meritocratic culture of engineering education may influence students to prioritize the academic domain when conceptualizing and developing their belonging. Moreover, the strong academic motivation endemic to international students pursuing graduate education at a top American research university intensified this mechanism. Originality/value This study argues that universities seeking to enhance international graduate students’ sense of belonging can be more intentional in providing opportunities for students to establish positive academic identities. Furthermore, addressing students’ non-academic identity and marginalization as relevant and essential topics in engineering will expand their understanding of what means to belong.