Resources to address challenges for international students and postdocs

All scientific career paths are paved with many obstacles to being successful, and individuals can experience different or additional barriers that are not based on their scientific work, depending on their background. International scientists in the U.S. are one such group, requiring specific visas. Challenges facing this group include finding access to information about visas and fellowships that could support their research activities while in the U.S., as well as knowledge of rights and responsibilities when advocating for science in a public arena. These considerations may be particularly important for aspiring junior scientists who are either starting or continuing their research careers in the U.S.

Our workshop at the 2017 ASCB|EMBO meeting, entitled “Resources to Address Challenges for International Students and Postdocs,” intended to provide a space for discussions and suggested resources related to visas and fellowships for international scientists, as well as information on issues that might arise when international scientists advocate for science in a public arena. Moreover, the session aimed to connect international scientists to each other to share ideas and resources.

This workshop was not meant to provide legal advice, but was intended as a resource-sharing and data-gathering exercise for and about international graduate students and postdocs performing research in the U.S. We advised international scientists in the audience to think ahead, plan early, and consider their long-term strategic plan for pursuing research in the U.S. While the information presented may not apply to everyone, we attempted to provide general resources that could be broadly useful to international scientists. For more specific advice, we recommended they refer to the international office at their own institution or consult with an attorney, such as Brian Getson, described below.

Brian Getson is a leader of the Getson & Schatz Immigration Law Firm located in Philadelphia, PA. At the ASCB|EMBO meeting, he gave a talk entitled “Green Cards for Scientific Researchers: How to Win Your EB-1/NIW Case.” The talk provided useful background information about different types of visas for researchers (F-student; J-postdoc; H1B – work), described the typical process from an F visa to a green card, and extensively detailed the EB-1/NIW case (extraordinary ability), which is one of the best ways for international researchers to obtain a green card. The latter requires satisfying at least 3 out of 10 evidence categories for immigrant researcher petitions (including the number of prizes/awards, memberships in associations, publications, peer-review, citations, etc.). The webpage for the Law Firm also contains the same presentation in a webinar format entitled “Winning Your EB-1A NIW.

Snapshot of the workshop audience

Workshop summary

A survey of the workshop audience showed that most international scientists present were on an F visa, with smaller numbers either on J or H visas. All participants had at least some basic knowledge about these visa types, although, as was obvious following the session, many had questions about their individual cases. For those who also attended Brian Getson’s talk earlier in the meeting, this prior knowledge proved useful for our workshop. We recommended the Getson & Schatz page, the main page of the USCIS and the International Postdoc Survival Guide from the National Postdoctoral Association as resources on working in the U.S. on different visa types.

We also described our own immigration paths up to the point of obtaining green cards (as was relevant to this session, and is described below), which allowed us to discuss some topics the audience may need to be aware of and/or that may dictate the type of visa they seek to obtain in order to perform research in the U.S. These topics include switching visa types, the intent to stay in the U.S. following their degree, and motivations for remaining in the U.S. as opposed to pursuing research in their home country.

Gary’s story: I came to the U.S. on a J-1 visa, and was on that for just over two years when I received a green card through marriage. I moved from Boston Children’s Hospital to Tufts on the J-1, which required a lot of coordination with both institutions to make sure there was no break in employment. I finished at Boston Children’s on September 30 and began at Tufts October 1. This is critical because if an employee or employer ends the term of employment prematurely, the J-1 visa holder needs to leave the country immediately (the 30-day post-visa allowance to remain in the country only holds for successful completion of the term of the visa). The waiver on the 2-year home residency requirement was easy to acquire as I had come from the UK and wasn’t supported by UK government funding.

Adriana’s story: When I initially moved to the U.S., I was a dependent on my father’s H1B for a short time. I then transitioned to an F1 visa, which I was on for several years throughout my U.S. education, starting with college. The F1 visa allowed me to be more independent, and the international office at my university was instrumental in the visa transition process. After college, I did the Optional Practical Training (OPT) for one year and started graduate school immediately following the OPT. During graduate school, I also obtained a green card through marriage. My main motivation throughout the years was the intent to stay in the U.S. permanently as well as be able to apply for research grants that I wouldn’t be eligible for otherwise.

Although limited lessons can be drawn from our own individual cases, we hope the audience was able to relate to specific aspects of these experiences to help them think about their own immigration paths. For most of the remaining session, we asked the audience what they wanted to hear more about and what general concerns they had related to being an international researcher in the U.S.

General issues: We wanted to make the audience aware of the current political environment in the U.S., which might make international researchers feel uncertain about their desire and/or ability to pursue research here. Indeed, one of the questions from the audience was whether this was “the right time to come to the US,” which is a difficult question to answer. Although things are generally stable at the moment, it could potentially change overnight. Other general questions were: Does any group exist that could help them decide whether to perform research in the U.S.? What is the minimum set of achievements needed by a postdoc in the U.S. to obtain a green card? Could they actually plan and carry out their own project in a U.S. research center (or is that restricted); and would their particular background (for example someone with both an MD and PhD degree) allow for that? While we provided general advice on these questions, some answers likely depended on additional factors or can only be discussed on a case-by-case basis.

Visa-related concerns: While we unable to answer specific questions for individual cases, we pointed the audience to a few sources on particular visa types of interest, such as the 6-month temporary suspension of H-1B premium processing that occurred April 2017, and a discussion of responses from the USCIS to petitions with burdensome Requests for Evidence (RFE) from the Immigration Law Group. Other related questions were on the J-1 visa (whether vacation days count for home rule waivers); visa applications for their spouse (and any related job opportunities for them) and other family members; and the general green card application process (including whether they could apply for a green card directly from an F1 visa). It was apparent from these questions that some international scientists did not understand in detail how the green card application process worked, which is something the community could improve on. While international offices generally exist at universities, there may be a need for better communication between these offices and the international scientists at those institutions, as well potentially the need to offer a greater number of resources for visa-related concerns.

Fellowships questions: The audience was extremely interested in fellowship opportunities for international scientists (which are unrestricted to U.S. citizens or green card holders), including for graduate students and postdocs, and/or individuals on particular visa types (such as the J2). For this purpose, we pointed workshop participants to the Scholarships & Fellowships Open to Non-US Citizen Candidates from the University of Connecticut, and the International Postdoc Survival Guide from the National Postdoctoral Association. Again, international scientists in the audience were not aware these resources existed, indicating the need to better inform them in the future. This could also be the responsibility of international offices at universities, which might provide more information in this regard (in the form of a booklet, webinar, etc.) to international scientists when they start their university training. Facilitating more discussions among international scientists at particular universities about visa or fellowship-related experiences could also be valuable.

Career-related questions: The audience asked questions about specific career paths for international scientists, in particular for those on specific visas. One important question asked was related to career options for PhD students who are green card holders, but are not interested in applying for postdoctoral positions. Given that academic careers are now the minority among U.S. scientists, this is a broad question the scientific community should think about more deeply. Another question was about pursuing science policy careers as an international student in the U.S. While this question was beyond our expertise, it raised the point that audience members should think ahead about their career goals and seek to obtain the type of visa that will allow them to pursue these goals.

Gary McDowell discussing common visa types for study/work in the U.S.

Power dynamics arising from being on a visa: Finally, a more general, and also quite troubling question, was how to prevent research advisors from “holding your visa over your head.” This relates more generally to choosing an advisor carefully prior to joining a lab or obtaining help and advice from peers or additional mentors on how to navigate this type of situation. This issue also points to the question of how and who supervises the behaviors of advisors. Likely, there is currently only oversight of this on a departmental level, which is also highly variable and subject to university politics (for example, how the department values faculty who bring in grant money versus those who treat their lab members well). In general, there is little oversight of academic practices on a wider level, therefore this type of supervision is likely to be variable but poor overall in academia.

Additional perspectives

Two of the most interesting remarks from Brian Getson’s talk were: 1) “What is good for immigration is different for your career” and 2) “Do whatever you can to publish.” We considered both of these ideas when planning our session in terms of potential immigration and career concerns from workshop participants. Both of these remarks are relevant and important for international researchers to consider. However, the fact that quantity (of publications, posters, awards, peer reviewed-papers, etc.) is emphasized as required evidence categories for immigrant researcher petitions is in opposition to having few, high quality items in all of these areas, which may in fact be more valuable for the career success of an academic researcher. At the same time, satisfying the required immigration requirements to be able to perform this work in the U.S. is also critical. In the future, having more open discussion sessions related to this topic at scientific meetings as well as on individual university campuses may shed light onto how international scientists may satisfy both immigration and career requirements at the same time.

Additional relevant articles of interest:

Grad students, postdocs with U.S. visas face uncertainty

The Disappearing American Grad Student

Coming to America: Doing a Postdoc in the U.S.

Visas and the International Postdoc, Part 1: Be Your Own Expert

Visas and the International Postdoc, Part 2

Visas and the International Postdoc, Part 3: The American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act

Show Me the Money—Funding Opportunities for International Graduate Students and Postdocs

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Adriana Bankston is a Principal Legislative Analyst in the University of California (UC) Office of Federal Governmental Relations, where she serves as an advocate for UC with Congress, the Administration, and federal agencies. Prior to this position, Adriana was a Policy & Advocacy Fellow at The Society for Neuroscience (SfN), where she provided staff support for special and ongoing projects, including SfN’s annual lobby event and the society’s annual meeting. In addition to working at UC, Adriana also serves as Vice-President of Future of Research, and is Chief Outreach Officer at the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. Adriana obtained her PhD in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology from Emory University and a Bachelor’s in Biological Sciences from Clemson University.
Gary McDowell is Executive Director of The Future of Research, Inc. (, a nonprofit organization seeking to champion, engage and empower early career researchers with evidence-based resources to help them make improvements to the research enterprise. He is a COMPASS alumnus.