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5 Visa Processes International PhDs Master To Lock Down A Job

Visa Processes for PhDs can be complicated – luckily, contributing author Arunundoy Sur, PhD, can break it down for you.

I started applying for jobs early.

I was preparing to graduate, and I felt lucky to receive some positive responses right away.

In a very short period of time, I had interviews lined up with 4 different companies.

I went through multiple rounds of interviews and even reached the stage of salary negotiation in 3 of these cases.

It all seemed to be going well.

Being proactive was paying off, and now I had a new job lined up before graduation.

But then something incredible happened…

All of the companies retracted their job offers.

They all did this with similarly vague, robotic responses.

They said that they’d decided to go a different route.


Wasn’t I guaranteed at least one of these jobs? 

I had received positive feedback from every person I met.

I had followed all the proper interview etiquette.

I had done everything right.

Meanwhile, graduation was just around the corner…

And now, anxiety was building around my immigration status.

Immigration law states that international students attending school in the U.S. must have full-time employment within 90 days of graduation.

3 months might sound like ample time  – it’s not.

Getting a response after submitting your industry resume, going through multiple rounds of interviews, and eventually receiving a job offer often takes much longer than 3 months.

About a month after my graduation, I caught a break and landed a job.

I accepted the offer—even though it wasn’t my first choice—and the starting salary was lower than I wanted.

Immigration laws left me with very little time to make a decision – waiting wasn’t an option, and I couldn’t risk holding off and looking into other companies.

Here’s what I didn’t realize: The previous offers had been retracted because I was an international student.

The employers did not want to deal with the hassle of additional immigration paperwork when they could hire someone equally as qualified with American citizenship.

I might have been the right choice, but I was the harder choice – someone else got the job.

Getting chosen over a U.S. citizen—or even just someone with permission to work in the U.S.—is an uphill climb.

It’s so much easier for companies to go with a simpler hire…

And my story is not unique.

I do not regret the first industry job I accepted, but I wish someone had prepared me for the challenges that international students face.

international phd at new office

What International PhDs Need To Know About Visa Policies

Did you know that 45% of foreign graduate students extend their Visas just to remain in the country where they studied?

Trends show that international students can provide benefits to key metropolitan areas and can strengthen local economies.

The Migration Policy Institute reports that 55,000 diversity Visas—otherwise known as “green cards”—are made available as part of a lottery system.

The demand for lottery Visas is always much higher than what is actually available.

And like any lottery, the odds are not guaranteed – they are often quite slim.

Sound overwhelming?

You are not alone.

There are thousands of PhDs in your shoes who want to transition out of academia, but they’re struggling with Visa requirements.

If you want to rise above them, you have to arm yourself with knowledge:

  • Know your options.
  • Know your legal facts.
  • Get professional advice.

Then you can start to strategize your approach to industry employers during the interview process.

If you want a company to sponsor you, then make it clear that you’ll do most of the Visa work for them.

You don’t want the company to do any more work than the bare minimum required to sponsor you.

That means you need to be a virtual library of knowledge on this topic.

Imagine all the questions a company might have about how Visas work or where to acquire a certain document/whom to send it to…

You are responsible for knowing these things.

This strategy has the added bonus of demonstrating your competency.

But you need to work extra hard – harder than your non-international competitors.

The impression of your competency and overall value needs to be so pronounced that your immigration status will seem trivial.

5 Visa Or Citizenship Options International PhDs Can Leverage To Get Hired

The American immigration process is for neither the faint of heart nor the impatient.

It’s an established system with strict policies.

Multiple Visa options exist, and identifying the best approach requires diligence, professional advice, and strategy.

The details of the steps and time taken to complete them will vary based on: 

  • The jobs you apply for
  • Whether you have relatives in the U.S.
  • Which country you come from

Always seek help from legal professionals to ensure successful completion of immigration procedures.

Look at joining a group for international PhDs with similar goals…

Cheeky Scientist’s own International PhD Community (IPC) has everything an international PhD needs for success…

Including career advice, insider info, and industry guidance customized for international PhDs.

But for now, start here with 5 of the most common Visa options available.

Use this knowledge to get an early advantage and ensure you never get turned down for a job due to something like a Visa.

1. The F-1 OPT (optional professional training).

If you came to the U.S. as a graduate student, you must have started out on an F1 Visa – also known as a “student Visa.”

Once you are close to graduating from your program, you should apply for OPT (Optional Professional Training) through your school’s international student services office.

This will permit you to stay and work in the U.S. for some time following graduation.

The average time required to get an OPT from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is 1-2 months.

Be careful when you apply to maximize the number of days that you have available following graduation.

You will need to find full-time employment within 90 days of the start date printed on your OPT card.

The best-case scenario: You have full-time work lined up before you graduate, and you are conscious of your starting date for that work.

You can find more detailed information about OPT at the USCIS website.

rugged phd considers visa options

2. The F-1 STEM OPT extension.

Your OPT will typically be valid for 12 months.

Those who graduate from an American university STEM program are eligible to apply for an extension of OPT…

But only if they have not already applied for another Visa status.

Currently, this extension is valid for 24 months.

In order to be eligible for this extension, you have to meet two criteria:

  1. You should be employed in a field associated with your field of study
  2. Your employer should be enrolled in the e-verify program.

Find out more details about the e-verify program and check whether a company is registered in this program here.

3. The J-1 Visa.

This will be your most likely Visa status if you decide to do a postdoc in academia after your PhD.

The official term used for this category is “work-and-study-based exchange visitor programs” and is reserved for non-profit or educational institutions.

Your institution must be accredited with the Exchange Visitor Program through the U.S. State Department.

Multiple programs exist and qualify under the J1 Visa and the application must be sponsored by the institution.

The university where you are doing your postdoctoral research will apply for your J1 Visa to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational Cultural Affairs.

4. The H1B Visa.

This category of Visa will typically be your option if you start a job in industry after your PhD, while you are still on OPT.

Your employer, whether in industry or academia, will have to sponsor your application for H1B to the USCIS.

Although you can get H1B through both academic and non-academic jobs, there are a few differences between them.

The H1B offered to academic positions—such as international postdoctoral scholars—falls under the cap-exempt H1B.

In order to be eligible for cap-exempt H1B, you should be employed by a “not-for-profit institution of higher education,” which covers all employees of universities.

The first difference is that there are no restrictions on the number of applications – unlike a non-academic H1B submitted through private companies.

So if you are a postdoc and your application is submitted by the university, you will not have to go through a lottery to be selected.

However, the H1B offered by academia does not allow you to switch directly to industry positions.

If you want to join a company after a few years as a postdoc, and you have a cap-exempt H1B Visa, you will need to go through the lottery.

IMPORTANT: The cap for H1B Visas is often reached within days.

Before you can officially receive H1B and become eligible to work for your employer, the lottery requires further screening of relevant documents and waiting at least a few months to receive your approval from USCIS.

phd working at industry company

5. The “green card.”

A green card gives you a longer-term status compared to J1 or H1 Visas and it also makes it a lot easier to change jobs.

Everything else is a temporary fix for your immigration woes that can serve to extend your time while you work towards this.

Once you have a green card, your next employer will not have to do any immigration paperwork (like what’s required with the H1B).

There are several pathways to securing a green card, but the vast majority of STEM PhDs generally take two possible routes to securing a green card: the EB-1 or EB-2.

The EB-1 category is further divided into the following two types: EB-1A for extraordinary ability and EB-1B for applicants who can be classified as outstanding researchers.

Depending upon your professional track record, you can be eligible for either as a science PhD.

The advantage of the EB-1 is that it demands a shorter wait than the EB-2.

EB-2 Visas are given to professionals who are employed full-time in the U.S. and have an advanced degree (Master’s degree or higher).

PhDs will qualify for this category, and generally, your employer will have to file the application on your behalf.

As a STEM PhD, it is possible to apply for a residency from either a J1 or H1 status.

But according to most legal professionals, there are some advantages for filing for permanent residence while on H1B status rather than when you’re on J-1.

 No matter the route you wish to take, the process of applying for and securing a green card requires much more than having a PhD, and the outcome is hard to predict.

It is also expensive, complex, and time-consuming.

As with all of these options, professional legal advice is invaluable before pursuing a green card.

For international PhDs, the job search is tougher. But you can do it with the help of a program like Cheeky Scientist’s International PhD Community. Remember that if you want a company to sponsor you, you need to make it clear that you’ll do most of the Visa work for them. You don’t want the company to put forth more than the minimum effort required to sponsor you, so your knowledge of this topic must be top-notch. Imagine all the questions a company might have about Visas, and make a note to learn the answers.

Show them you’re competent, capable, and worth the small hassle of sponsorship. Show them you already know exactly what sponsorship requires of them. As a starting point, you’ll need to know about the F-1 OPT (optional professional training); the F-1 STEM OPT extension; the J-1 Visa; the H1B Visa; and the “green card.” 

To learn more about industry onboarding for PhDs, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Arunodoy Sur, PhD
Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Arunodoy is a Ph.D. in Integrative Biology and has training in intellectual property, entrepreneurship, and venture capitalism. He also has experience with global biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies, including clinical trial consulting. Arunodoy is passionate about the translation of academic research to the real world and commercialization of scientific innovation so that it can help solve problems and benefit people. He possesses in-depth understanding of both technological and commercial aspects associated with the life science industry.

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