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International students in non-STEM fields and postdocs


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Hi, I am an international student in the social sciences in a field not classified as STEM by DHS. This means that I have 1 year (on OPT) to work in the US after I graduate from my doctoral program. I am exploring postdoc options and I realized that I will most likely get put on a J1 visa if I do find a postdoc with a professor at a university. The J1 visa, unfortunately, comes with a 2 year home residency requirement that requires you to go back to your home country in most cases before you can transfer to a H1B visa or permanent residency. A couple of immigration lawyers I have talked to have told me to avoid this visa like the plague, because getting a waiver of this requirement is really painful and lengthy and can potentially block me from seeking a TT position in the US. No university will hire me without getting this requirement waived, and because the waiver process is long and academic job cycles happen a year in advance, the timing may just not match up. Based on a little research I did, most universities either refuse or seem hesitant to sponsor H1B (work) visas for postdocs, particularly in the current political climate. Students from STEM fields do not have this issue, as their F1 visa allows them to work for 3 years after graduating.

There is basically no scope for social science research in my home country, so I really want to stay here. But a postdoc is basically an unofficial requirement for R1 university jobs in my field, and I feel like I'm already at a disadvantage compared to domestic applicants because I cannot get NSF/NIH/USDA postdoctoral fellowships as they are citizenship restricted. If I give up on the postdoc altogether, I'm worried that I won't be competitive for jobs at bigger research schools. 

So. I'm wondering whether there any other international students in non-STEM fields out there who have had any success stories in dealing with a situation like this (like getting a waiver of the home residency requirement in time to go on the academic job market, or convincing a university to sponsor a H1B for a postdoc)? Or are there people out there in a similar situation, who just want to rant/vent their frustration here?

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I just want to clarify one thing: Not every single person on J1 has the two year home residency requirement. This is not automatic, there is a chance that it will apply only if 1) you are receiving funding for your J1 program (student, postdoc, whatever) from your home government or the US government, 2) if your program is on a special skills list deemed "necessary" by your home country or 3) if you are in some certain types of medical training program. 

You are right that schools don't generally sponsor postdocs on H1B because the process is lengthy (especially with premium processing for academics cancelled by the current administration) and expensive. This is a problem that STEM researchers face too.

I think that J1 might still be okay for you. I know some postdocs on J1 right now without any 2 year home requirement because their funding is not government-based. I mean, definitely take advice from your immigration lawyer---maybe they know something about your specifics that I don't, but J-1 certainly does not always come with the 2-year requirement.

Another option you can consider is the national interest waiver green cards, such as EB-1 or O-1 (i.e. self-sponsored rather than getting the university to sponsor you). I think if you are capable of getting postdocs at R1 institutions, you certainly stand a chance at getting this type of green card. One of my postdoc friends currently on J-1 (without the 2 year requirement) is in the process of applying for a national interest waiver green card. Another one of my friends who was in the same situation got one a couple of years ago and now has a permanent job in the US.

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Unfortunately, my field is on the Skills List for my home country, so I don't see how I can avoid getting the requirement. Almost every field on the planet is on the Skills List, so they have really been comprehensive in creating the list. I have looked into the national interest waiver option, but I am a citizen of India and the backlog in green cards for people from India is so long that the NIW takes forever. This is only true for people from India or China, so if you're not from either of the two countries an NIW is definitely an option. My only shot is the EB-1, which sounds great but the immigration lawyer I talked to said he won't even consider a case where an applicant has less than a 100 citations. In our field, it is very rare for a grad student to have that many citations right when they graduate, even if their work is outstanding. Research in our field is typically slower, which means that even if you have pubs in top journals it takes a few years for people to actually publish work that cites yours. It sounds like the things that matter for an EB-1 are the number of times you've been cited, the number of followers you have on Research Gate, etc. (at least according to the lawyer I talked to). While they do obviously take into account the quality of your pubs, recommendation letters, awards, etc. it seems like some of the criteria is also arbitrary. An EB-1 is really expensive so I feel like I cannot take that risk without knowing I have a good shot at getting it. Do you know what your friend's profile looked like when they applied for an EB-1?

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Oh okay, sorry to hear about the skills list and that you will be subject to the 2 year home residency thing :(

Yeah, EB-1 is really difficult to get and it will require having a substantial body of work. I just checked my friend's CV, in 2015 (about the time he got the EB-1, I think), he had 16 papers, 12 first-author works and an h-index around 10 according to his CV. He also held one of the most prestigious postdoctoral fellowship in Astronomy at that time. All of these metrics that aren't super meaningful in real-academia are really important for EB-1 and O-1 applications, including things like the impact factor of the journals you publish in etc. 

My other friend who is applying for O-1 or EB-1 later this year just finished their PhD last fall. He has around 20 papers written, but less than 10 first author ones, I think. He will be starting a new and super prestigious fellowship in our field this fall. 

The other thing you'll need is a ton of reference letters. I think the number is about 10-20 and you want to find them from as high ranking and prestigious people you can get. 

Sorry that I don't really have good news. Hope you can hear from others in a similar situation! If I think of anyone I know who might have info, I'll ask them for you!

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