5 Ways International PhD Students Can Transition Into An Industry Job In The U.S.A.

“You are qualified for this position, but you have little or no chance because of your immigration status.”

I was so sick of hearing this.

I had lost count of the number of times I had been told this during the first phone interview with a hiring manager or recruiter.

The stakes for international PhDs are high and there’s no way around them.

There was only one path to securing a future in a country where I have lived, worked and taught for many years…

Outside of winning the H-1B lottery, I either needed to find a job offering visa sponsorship or I’d be forced to return to my home country.

This didn’t present odds that were in my favor.

Neither option felt like much of an option.

On top of writing my thesis, publishing papers and keeping on top of experiments, dealing with immigration issues only increased my levels of stress and anxiety.

I saw colleagues taking months off after graduating, traveling the world and aimlessly looking for jobs in their spare time.

It seemed like it was a hobby for them.

There was no sense of urgency and yet, the jobs seemed to find them.

Meanwhile, I frantically applied to as many jobs as I seemed even remotely qualified for, in hopes of catching a break.

What was I doing wrong?

I felt blacklisted.

I felt jealous.

I felt alone.

I realized I needed to put in substantially more effort to secure a job, and this was not going to be accomplished by flooding job sites with my applications.

I needed a killer job-search strategy.

I also needed to stop feeling sorry for myself.

I had to get rid of my negative, defeatist mindset before I could really start to succeed in my transition.

I worked harder to stay positive and optimistic and I armed myself with as much information about the visa system as possible.

Attitude and informationthese were the only things I could control.

I networked with industry professionals and learned how to market my skills in the business world.

I was diligent and perseverant ㅡ and it was hard work.

But it paid off.

Why International PhDs Have Immigration Challenges

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the demand for H-1B visas, which allow U.S. companies to employ foreign workers in special occupations such as STEM, surpassed the available allotment within five days for the fourth consecutive year and hit a record for the number of applications submitted: a total of 236,000, of which 85,000 are granted.

In 2015, research conducted by the Graduation Management Admission Council showed that 87% of all foreign students studying in American management programs intended to seek work in the U.S. after graduation.

Always lurking in the shadows of fellow international graduates is the knowledge that your place in this country is founded on a very precarious position.

Being denied a visa extension or being denied full-time employment is an option you won’t want to entertain, but one that is possible and even likely.

With the number of students from other countries completing their PhDs at U.S. universities, the competition is fierce.

The International Education Exchange published the Open Doors report, that showed that the number of foreign students in U.S. university programs has increased 72% in the past 15 years.

There are lots of graduates facing the same challenges you are right now and vying for the same jobs.

You must go even further to show you have the skills to transition into industry.

You must prove you are the right candidate for the job.

You must be confident in your abilities and follow a smart strategy to tilt the odds in your favor.

5 Job Search Strategies For International PhDs

It is clear that there are additional challenges that an international PhD has to face while securing an industry job.

On top of the common criteria you must fulfill to find an industry job ― such as tailoring your industry resume and building a network in your target company ―  as an international student, you must be prepared to take additional measures to deal with hurdles caused by your immigration status.

As if transitioning out of academia wasn’t challenging enough, now you have the added pressure and strain of simply securing where you can legally live and work.

These are top level stressors with high stakes and it’s normal to feel overwhelmed.

Getting the right coping skills and perspective now will help you stay focused on your goals for the long-term and increase your chances of success in landing the industry job you want in the country you want to work in.

Here are 5 tips for how international PhD students can transition into an industry job in the U.S.A. …

1. Do your research.

You are an academic, so this part is easy.

Research. Research. Research.

This is second nature to you ―  at this point, you’re an expert.

Gather as much information as you can and be well-informed about immigration laws.

Be discerning in the sources where you get your information from and make sure you verify your facts. 

For the most part, you are on your own when it comes to dealing with immigration documentation.

Unless you have family members in the U.S., others cannot help you, even if they want to.

It’s important to remain updated on the most current changes in immigration law and continue to seek the most relevant resources.

As long as you are a graduate student or postdoc, your ideal source of information is the International Scholars and Students center of your university.

Not all the people in this center are immigration lawyers and they only know the general rules.

Your case might be unique.

Do not completely rely on them or assume the information you receive will be accurate and current.

Verify all the information you get through other reliable sources.

2. Be organized and seek legal guidance.

Always be prepared with your immigration-related information and official documents.

Not being organized and having the right documents in order can push your career plans by months, even years.

This isn’t an area where you can afford to be sloppy.

Keep multiple copies of important documents and have them in order and ready at all times.

Have hard copies of each document and scanned versions (soft copies) on your personal computer.

Uncover all of your options by consulting with qualified, legal professionals that specialize in immigration law.

This aligns with the previous suggestion but it’s worth reiterating due to its critical importance.

There are multiple ways of achieving the immigration status that you want and various ways you can extend your current status.

Make sure you consult with immigration lawyers before you make final decisions.

Do not completely rely on what you’ve been told by friends or read online.

This is an area where dedicated professional counsel is essential and invaluable.

Most schools bring in immigration attorneys a few times a year to offer international students the opportunity to ask immigration-related questions.

Make use of these opportunities while you are still a PhD or postdoctoral scholar associated with the university.

Be proactive with your university and ask them if this is a service they provide… request it if they don’t.

3. Be patient but proactive.

The process of completing all the immigration steps that an international PhD or postdoc needs takes a long time.

After all the effort that goes into completing a PhD, most people feel a sense of entitlement.

As though job opportunities should find them.

This attitude will not serve you when you’re facing the wall of immigration paperwork and process.

When you face extra challenges and delays that divert your career plans, it’s natural to feel impatient and frustrated.

It’s normal to feel defeated and let down.

You might even feel completely burnt out.

The immigration process is out of your control so it’s important to remain patient.

But that’s the hardest thing to do.

After all… your entire career and many parts of your life are completely on hold at the mercy of the system.

You can’t make any plans until your immigration application is approved.

You’re stuck in limbo, without a definite timeline, ready to live your life.

Try and maintain a positive outlook and healthy perspective on the process to guard against the stress or anxiety wearing you down.

Get the support you need to ride this out.

The best you can do is to follow the rules and ensure timely submission of the required immigration documents.

Getting impatient will not help your cause and it won’t make the process faster.

Use this time to increase your industry acumen and explore networking opportunities.

4. Don’t blame other people.

Transitioning out of academia and securing a good industry job is hard enough by itself.

Additional obstacles created by immigration rules make it even more challenging and significantly reduces the number of options you have as an international graduate.

Blaming everyone else or feeling bitter about it won’t help your cause.

It might seem unfair that you have to deal with additional hurdles, it might make you angry.

But rules are there for a reason.

Moreover, you already knew it was going to be this way when you decided to move to a different country.

This is not personal.

You aren’t being punished on purpose.

Every other international student has to go through the same path.

A negative mindset will not improve your situation.

I know of international students who constantly talk about the problems caused by immigration laws, even when they were attending networking events.

Stop complaining.

Complaining will make you look bitter and pessimistic and not like someone worthy of an industry referral or offer.

People will be less likely to connect with you or offer help.

Be perseverant and optimistic.

5. Resist the urge to compare.

This is a common source of frustration and stress ㅡ comparison.

I know it was for me. Measuring my progress against those around me became a bad habit.

I loathed watching others accelerate towards their career goals while I sat at the mercy of a large and daunting immigration process.

It’s important to set time-bound targets, but be realistic as your situation also has the added component of not being fully within your control.

Don’t give in to despair by comparing yourself to those who don’t have immigration restrictions and hold-ups.

It will only make you feel angry and frustrated, as though your career is being held hostage by immigration delays while everyone else moves ahead of you.

Don’t waste your valuable energy on this futile process.

Take a step back and reassess.

You will have to deal with a number of additional challenges which they will never face.

Accept these challenges.

There is no escaping them.

You must work through them.

You haven’t done anything wrong and it’s not your fault, but you are responsible for your mindset.

Manage what you do have in your control wisely.

Stop focusing so much on other people and what they’re doing and put your energy into being thorough, detailed, and organized.

Challenge yourself to remain positive and be patient without comparison, focusing on your ultimate goal and honing your skills to present yourself as the best candidate available, regardless of your immigration status.

You are not alone in your struggle to find an industry job while trying to satisfy your visa requirements as an international student. The most important thing is to be prepared for this well before you graduate, and do not let frustrations get the best of you. You are a hard-working and diligent PhD with a lot to offer. Know the rules and abide by them while making that extra effort to network with industry professionals and become the next hire. Get professional and current advice and follow the process while mastering your mindset to stay optimistic and focused on your end goal. Continue to build your industry acumen and forge ahead to build a powerful network of contacts so that when your immigration is approved, you have established yourself as a superior candidate for your industry transition.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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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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