Postdoctoral research is the probably the most complex, stimulating, and harrowing phase of a scientist's career. Many aspects of that on-the-average 5-year period must come together for the experience to be effective and satisfying. Concerns such as professional status, job prospects, income, health insurance, and the quality of the advisor too often divert the postdoc's energies away from pure research concerns.

If the American postdoc has all too many distractions, the experience of the overseas trainee in the U.S. can be even rougher. International postdocs (who may also encounter language difficulties) must not only deal with the same array of knotty problems as his or her American counterpart, but also with the added complications of visa status.

The most important issue regarding postdocs and their visas, says Elizabeth Ellington, administrative assistant in the University of Pennsylvania's Office of Postdoctoral Programs, is that they feel very vulnerable regardless of whether their paperwork is processed correctly. If an American postdoc is terminated, he or she can just look for another domestic job. Terminated foreign postdocs must return to their home country. So, says Ellington, "most of them feel they have an ax hanging over their head."

Indeed, in almost every case the international postdoc is working against a given visa's expiration date, which is the signal to go home for a couple of years regardless of the professional or personal inconvenience. Because many overseas postdocs eventually opt to stay and work in the U.S. (see sidebar), career tactics must therefore be coordinated somehow with visa deadlines so that waivers or applications for a new visa status are completed in time. So it is all the more important to plan things carefully, obtain the right administrative and legal support, and above all understand the nuances of visa policies. Given those nuances, in the more complex cases it is almost always best to turn to an immigration attorney for help.

How many foreign postdocs decide to make their careers in the U.S.?

Unfortunately, the National Science Foundation (NSF), which measures these things, hasn't yet determined numbers specific to postdoc recipients. But there are related statistics. For example, of 8548 foreign Ph.D. recipients in the U.S., 6232 indicated they had plans to stay. Of that number, 4233 had solid U.S. job offers. These proportions, the NSF says, haven't changed over the last 5 years. The NSF also surveyed the number of foreign doctoral students who 5 years after receiving their degree were working in the U.S. That ratio was 50%. These data are from Science and Engineering Indicators--2000, Chapter 4.

Foreign postdoctoral trainees in the U.S. need to know some fundamentals so that they can do things right. To help get them started, Next Wave's Postdoc Network will offer a series of three articles on visa fundamentals for international postdocs. Part I--this week--deals with the basics of visas, for example, differences between the H-1B and J-1. Part II--coming in a couple of weeks--will include an interview with an attorney who helps international postdocs change their visa status when time is running out on their classifications. Part III--early next year--will consist of a rundown of the new law concerning the working visas, or H-1B, that many postdocs eventually get. The law, passed in October 2000, is called "The American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act." Postdocs should become familiar with that new law, especially if they aim toward obtaining permanent resident status in the U.S.

Overseas postdocs may also turn to the international centers that many (although not all) universities have established to help postdocs with all facets and phases of their academic life in the U.S. Ellington says that trainees should take advantage of those centers and get to know them and their staffs. But they should also work independently to improve their understanding of visa issues.

Ellington underscores the importance of filling out the visa paperwork correctly. "People typically filling out visa applications," she says, "are generally not visa experts. They are usually someone's administrative assistant. So depending on the quality of the resources at the institution, that person's mistakes are either caught or not caught. Postdocs should be encouraged to be their own experts."

Step one in becoming your own expert is to gain an understanding of the different visas that pertain to postdoctoral researchers. So, here's a rundown. ...

J-1. This is the most numerous of the visas. About halfof the 52,000 postdocs working in the U.S. are foreign nationals and about 65% of them carry the J-1. It is needed to enter the U.S., it is valid for 2 years, and it can almost routinely be extended into a third year by a simple application. But when the J-1 expires, the trainee must, according to law, return to his or her native land. The J-1 is obtained through the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which handles scientific and cultural exchange programs. All other visas are administered through the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Usually, however, the postdoc needs or wants to stay longer than 2 years, to finish their research or to look either for a job or a new postdoc appointment. That means another type of visa must be acquired, and this is usually the H-1B, or working visa.

The H-1B has been in the news over the past few years in connection with job shortages in the high-tech industry. American corporations, claiming to be unable to hire enough American citizens to fill all the jobs available, convinced Congress to enact the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act. The new law is a boon to all technical workers, including postdocs, in that it removes what were, up until recently, severe restrictions on the numbers of people who could come to work in the U.S. and eases procedures for lengthening their stays.

People whose J-1 is about to run out also have the option of obtaining an O-1. This visa is frequently used by postdocs who can show that their field of research is making a unique and important contribution to knowledge, such as a distinguished publication record or a small but critical research specialty. It's often a good idea to get specialized legal help if you're applying for an O-1 visa, although a good university international center should have sufficient resources to manage the paperwork.

This brief rundown of visa issues contains only the basics. There are other classifications, such as the TN-1, which applies only to Canadian trainees. Fortunately a couple of Web sites can help flesh out the details and add to the fundamentals:

State Department

  • J Exchange Program. This is the State Department's visa site for its scientific and cultural exchange program. It keeps a running update on policies related to the J-1 visa.
  • Tips for U.S. Visas. More information on the J visa.
  • Visa Services. The State Department's site for all visa information and policy updates.

Immigration and Naturalization Services

In addition to these U.S. government sites, many international offices at universities have posted great general visa information on their Web pages, in addition to guidelines specific for their university's postdocs. Be sure to visit the home page for your institution's international office. Some examples of what you mind find are the University of Pennsylvania's Immigration Information for International Students and Scholars and Stanford's visa comparison chart and FAQ page.

Sorting out visa and immigration issues can be time consuming, frustrating, and confusing. But by using the resources presented here and your institution's international office, you will be on your way to following Ellington's advice and becoming your own expert.