So you are considering an academic job in the USA… then you are going to need to apply for work authorization. Most commonly called a visa or Greencard. This process will be the absolute pits! No matter which route you go – just accept it will be the most frustrating and stressful time and read on for my insight into making it a little more bearable.
The US immigration system is one of the most complicated in the world. Allow plenty of time, conduct your own research, double-check each form, keep copies of everything and consider hiring a lawyer. Don’t let the process get you down, eventually, the paperwork will be submitted and the visa will be approved.
Let’s discuss the most common options for legal work in the USA for university professors: J1/H1B/Greencard.
My path was J1 visa -> H1B visa – > Greencard via diversity lottery. Please note that all of the information on the specific visas is subject to change, in particular with the current US political climate. Use this blog as a starting point but make sure you find the most recent information from the USCIS and/or talk with a lawyer. The general pathways and thoughts should still apply even with changes in the laws.
J1 Visa for Academic and Visiting Positions
If you are in a visiting position (check out my post about visiting positions here) the university will most likely put you on a J1 exchange visa. The advantage is that your spouse (married only) can apply for work on their J2 visa. The bad news they have to apply for authorization which takes up to 90 days (and in the case of my husband took exactly 90 days). So, by the time they get it and start applying there will be limited options as not many companies want to hire somebody that is leaving in 6 months (remember visiting positions only last for 9 months). The J1 visa is cheaper for universities and is much less paperwork hence why they will use it for visiting positions. The J1 visa cannot be used for tenure track positions.
You might see/read that after having a J1 visa you must return to your home country for 2 years before applying for another visa. This only applies if a company or government from your home country is paying for your visit to the USA and therefore wants to ensure you return with the knowledge you acquired. If you go down the typical visiting position route then you will NOT have this 2-year requirement on your J1.
**UPDATE Feb 2019** One of my readers let me know that they and others they know had this restriction after doing paid internships at various companies like Google or Facebook.
H1B Academic for Tenure Track Positions
This is the most common visa for tenure track positions. There is currently a cap on the number of H1B visas. If you do some online research you will quickly learn that the cap is reached almost instantaneously.
Do not fear though ! Universities are exempt from this cap. Therefore, you will still be able to apply for Obviously, this is subject to change. **UPDATE FEB 2019** New H-1B visa regulations to give priority to US degree holders! The US government has announced new regulations to give greater preference to workers with advanced degrees from US institutions for H-1B non-immigrant professional visas. This could mean more people with masters will be able to get
H1B is the path to a Greencard (permanent residency). The initial H1B visa is 3 years and can be extended for an additional 3 years. After the 6 years the visa holder has to leave the USA for 1 year before being able to apply for a new H1B. Therefore once you have your H1B visa (and have arrived in the USA) you should apply for your Greencard. Most universities will support (financially and knowledge/lawyers).
You cannot change employer on an H1B visa (you would need to apply for a new visa). Another reason why a visiting position is a great idea – test out the waters and do a lot of research on your new tenure track position before you accept. The other major downside to the H1B visa is that your spouse will not be able to work. Yes, this is totally backwards! There has been some major push for this to change. It looked like it would for a short time however at the time of writing the current situation is still no work authorization for dependents.
If you are bringing family with you make sure you discuss upfront just how hard this will be. It can put financial and emotional strain on the whole family. My husband almost went crazy with no work after being in a very high-intensity job beforehand. He took up an advanced degree, most universities will have some financial support for dependents some even make their courses completely free. My husband also volunteered and towards the end of his non-work authorization time ‘worked’ more hours than I did at various nonprofits.
Greencard for Academic Positions
If it is your goal to work in America for more than 2-3 years then you will need to look at your Greencard options due to the limitations of visas. Universities will help you with this (to varying degrees) via employment-based immigration. Once you are in the USA on an H1B visa you should start your Greencard application. Note that you cannot apply for a Greencard when on a J1 exchange visa. Greencard application is going to be a long and frustrating journey where you will learn the strength of your patience and pull out more hair than you have. First, there is the time (2-5 years) it is going to take and then there is the lack of organization of the issuing department. I have heard horror stories of USCIS losing applications 2 years into the process and the applicant has to start again from the very beginning.
One way to overcome a lot of the heartache of the employment-based Greencard is the Green Card diversity lottery. This is how I received my Greencard. The lottery route is much much quicker – you will jump to the start of the queue. My Greencard process took about 9 months all up. Unfortunately, the lottery is only open to people from countries that have low immigration to the USA. Sorry! India and China you cannot apply. Check out the list of countries here. There are lots of resources on the Greencard lottery online. If you have any questions about it please email me at email@example.com
Other visa options for USA work authorization
These 3 options are in my experience talking with other international professors in the USA are the most common pathways. Many other options that are country-specific also exist. An example of this is the E3 for Australians. See working in the United States for more information.
My tips for making the work authorization path for doctoral degree holders a little less painful
- Take a deep breath – others have been there and it is possible
- Keep copies of everything
- Have a room/space where you can keep all of your paperwork spread out into piles where they won’t be disturbed or moved for a few months
- Read all instructions before completing forms
- Find somebody who has been through the process to bounce ideas off (email me if you don’t know anyone!)
- Read forums but don’t get weighed down by the negative stories. Remember, people who have fantastic/great/good/ok experiences don’t write about them as much as people who have bad/terrible/disastrous stories
- When reading forums remember that academic positions have some different procedures.
Check out these additional topics on getting an academic job in the USA that may be of interest to you.
- Timing – when should you start applying for a position
- Conferences – why I recommend you attend your discipline’s annual conference
- Visiting Positions – my route to a USA job, the easiest way to break into the market
- Money Matters – getting paid, credit history and the major differences in the USA
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