Academic Job Hunting for Aliens

or Academic Job search for non-resident* foreign nationals in the US

In which @scitrigrrl discover one way that academics are like fashion models

DISCLAIMER: I am not an immigration lawyer, Tenure She Wrote does not have an immigration lawyer as a consultant, and what I have written here about visas is only the most cursory of notes about common things. If you have questions, concerns, worries about your immigration status, talk you the international center at your university (if you’re in the US), the International Center at your prospective institution, contact a US Consulate, or look at the USCIS website.

When @TenureSheWrote asked for reader questions, one that came up was this:

As a foreigner in US academia, there are some interesting challenges that are not always obvious to US-nationals, and some of these can be surprising as a foreigner even after over a decade in the US, particularly at transition points along the career trajectory, such as applying for faculty positions** in the US.

For the most part, however, my experiences on the job market, my discussions with other foreigners and Americans on the market at the same time, and now reviewing job applications, suggest that there are only a  few truly non-citizen specific issues. There are more that are variations-on-a-theme-of-job hunting.

The first two (related) things are this: Get familiar with the structure of US departments and universities, and familiarize yourself with the job search process. The easiest ways to do this are (1) to talk to people – your PI, other mentors in the department, new faculty are particularly good sources for job search specifics; and (2) read the internet. I highly recommend @doc_becca’s Job Search Aggregator. And I know that @genomedaddy has very recent posts since his successful search process.

Take comfort (or despair) in the fact that no-one else knows these things either and that the job application process is as frustrating, impenetrable, and foreign to most US nationals as it is for anyone else.

One thing that might be different is that even with over a decade here, some of us*** remain less familiar with all the different US universities and colleges****, so you might end up doing a little more digging into the university than those more familiar with school names. For example Northwestern University is different from Northeastern University*****, and although Northeastern is in the north east, Northwestern is not actually in the Northwest******.

Network. Network. Network. This is not at all specific to foreigners, but is particularly important for those who have come to the US as postdocs or are hoping to apply from another country. You may not have the same basis for a US-specific network as people who did their graduate work in the US. This is fixable. Meet people at all levels in your field at conferences. Stay in contact. Send your papers to people who have closely aligned research interests. Ask your mentors for introductions to others in the field. Apply to give talks at conferences. And twitter is your (very international) friend.

Have American academics look over your application materials. There is a lot of writing about yourself, your research, and often your teaching in job applications, and there is some expectation for a specific style of writing, style of self promotion. Just like everyone else on the job market, be sure to have others read through your materials. And just to be sure, have at least one American with some search committee experience read through so they know what to look for and any points of clarification.

And speaking of points of clarification, explain country-specific awards, grants, other honors that you have received, explain grades in any required transcripts. CVs often use a kind of shorthand – GPAs, NSF GFRP, NRSA, K99, an NIH score on a submitted grant – these are things that are clearly understood in the US. But (for example) an NHMRC grant? You might know it’s an Australian biomedical research grant, but your American readers probably don’t. Similarly a named PhD grant well known in the country you did your PhD might not be clear here in the US. Stating what it is and – if you can – the percent of applicants that receive them makes it easy to understand your acheivements for anyone reading the CV.
Another note for foreign students/postdocs – there are many training grants (NSF GFRP, for example, or NIH NRSAs) for which we are just not eligible, so often we have less “evidence of successful funding” on our CVs than our American counterparts. Your readers might not know this, so address it. State that as a foreign graduate student/postdoc you were not been eligible to apply for NRSAs, and follow that up with what successes you HAVE had, and what grants you have applied for. Evidence of writing applications is important, even if they have not been funded. Ask a letter writer (PhD or PostDoc mentor) to address this in their letter too, with a comment on your excellent writing abilities, any work you have done on grants for the lab, and that they have no doubt you will be able to write successful grants.
This general principal is true for everyone. Have your letter writer(s) address gaps or oddities in your application. If you are in a slow-to-generate-data field and that is why you have few publications from your post-doc, ask your post-doc mentor to write that. If you don’t have a letter from your graduate PI, have someone – preferably a thesis committee member – say why it’s not a red flag for your application.

Is the search committee less likely to select foreigners? In my experience******* on both sides of the job search process, the answer to this is a resounding NO. There has been no consideration of nationality/immigration status when looking at applications. When it has come up, it has been a version of wondering if the candidate is going to be willing to move to *this* institution or whether an offer closer to family (a consideration for all applicants) will be more appealing. I got asked variations on this theme a lot. I wasn’t applying to jobs in any other country, and I’d thought a lot about why (research reasons) I wanted to stay in the US in the long term. And more importantly, why I wanted to work at THIS particular institution. You can address this in your cover letter or research statement. And again, this is not foreign applicant specific – everyone SHOULD have a statement about why you want move to and work at this particular school.

Visa related things. I encourage you to contact the international center or HR at prospective institution and ask about sponsorship of visas and permanent residency for faculty is a conversation that is worth having at ANY institution. In addition,  the US Citizenship and Immigration services (UCSIS) website is here.
One reason for the relatively relaxed stance on foreign applicants for positions in academia compared to other professions is that many positions fall under Specialty Occupations category, meaning that unlike some other types of employers, academic employees will be able to be granted these visas after the yearly cap for H1-B visas is reached (usually pretty early in the year). Because of this, the people hiring you (your department) doesn’t have to consider whether you will be able to get a visa as an issue, so will focus on what is important to them – your academic qualifications, research productivity, and teaching.
One thing to check: if you are already in the US on a J-1 visa, some – not all – are subject to a two-year home residency requirement before another visa can be issued. Check whether you are subject to this, and if so, if you are eligible for a waiver. Talk to your international office or UCSIS for more information (again: I am no expert).
As for permanent residency (green card), if you get a faculty job, the university will likely sponsor you for permanent residency.  Be sure to ask. You should negotiate the cost of the green card in your start-up. University policies vary by institution, but definitely have that discussion. Remember: at this stage your department will be recruiting you. They want you to get your visa and greencard so you work there..
The bottom line here is that visas and immigration is complex (and takes more time photocopying documents than course prep). But universities have people whose job it is to work with international students and faculty. They will be the ones that know the university policies, the UCSIS policies, how long things take, what documents you need, and they are the ones that will be submitting visa applications on your behalf.


* Non-resident means working- or student-visa, but no greencard (permanent residency). Yes, that means even if we live in the US for years on various visas, without a greencard we are still “non-resident aliens”.

** I’m happy to talk about postdoc and grad school for foreigners as well. Let me know in the comments if you’re interested.

*** aka: Me

**** Follow March Madness Basketball Tournament to become familiar with some universities. Learn that Gonzaga is NOT a brand of blue cheese.

***** To be fair, I’ve heard plenty of American nationals get this wrong

****** It’s in Chicago.

******* Caveat: big research institutions. I cannot speak to small liberal arts colleges or small PUIs which may (or may not) be more limited in resources to support visa applications. I really do not know.

******** like fashion models!

16 thoughts on “Academic Job Hunting for Aliens

  1. One more thing – if your transcripts and documents from your home country are in another language, have a professional translation done and signed off as being a “true copy”, and keep copies of everything. Then add the explanations as suggested above.

    • Yes, absolutely. This is usually requested. Get several copies – you will also need it for Visa documentation.

  2. Thanks for a great post. In your experience, does it make a difference if a foreign applicant is already in the US, or the search committee would have to invite them from overseas?

  3. Definitely be aware of how norms in terms of what goes into application materials differs from your country than in the US. For example, in some European country (Germany I think? IDK) CVs typically include a head shot and marital status – not things you ever put in a US CV ever. Also, the expected level of enthusiasm in letters of reference can be very different. I’ve heard that European writers of recommendations tend to be very balanced even-keel descriptions of applicant’s positives and negatives, whereas the American standard is positively gushing and effusive and contains nothing but praise – so prep your letter writers correspondingly! (Disclaimer: I’m from the US and this is only what I’ve heard from others in my field.)

    • This is definitely true. American letters are much more effusive than many many other places. There is some acknowledgement of this in departments with a high number of international people, but absolutely talk to your letter writers.

  4. Another point that has not been raised here….reference letters. If the people writing them are not familiar with the expectations of a US recommendation letter, then the result will be a lukewarm letter, or worse, which can damage your options. There are a ton of webpages that can sent as references to check before the letters are written.

    The most challenging position is when you are directly interviewing from abroad, as I did. It is very difficult to get the nuances from a different country of the US academic system. This is especially true for the interviewing part, with the US having longer on-campus interviews, which are different in format and content to your own country. I found out I had to do a ton more of interviewing preparation than US nationals, just to make sure that I felt confident enough during the interview.

    Also true for start-up money, as from abroad it is complicated to build it up as well as when being already in the US (what can be a decent amount in your country can be pitiful in the US). As a recommendation, apart from asking around, be generous to yourself: ask as much as you need (within reason), as you will be stuck with that money later on, when you may realize it was not enough. If it needs to be negotiated, then your chair will ask you to reduce it. But he/she will never ask you to increase it! Also, ask the chair or someone else what else needs to be charged to the start up. Things like office computers and furniture need to be included. This can be a surprise depending of your country of origin, where these items are paid by the university. Also, add a portion of around 5k$ for the green card to pay premium processing. On the green card, be sure to ask if they will start the process right away. You don’t want it to start 2 or 3 years after.

    • This is ABSOLUTELY true regarding letters! There are very different styles surrounding reference letters from different countries. There is some acknowledgement of this (“oh! that explains it, this letter writer is British!”) but talking about this with your letter writers upfront is a really good idea.

  5. My experiences have been somewhat different. I have seen foreign applicants (and Americans working abroad) passed over in interview selection because of the cost of international tickets. For example, if we interview 4 we might do 3 national + 1 international but more than that would be unusual. Large R1’s assume that international hires and visas are part of normal operations but smaller institutions often do not have the capacity to complete and process H1-Bs or green cards and are reluctant to interview applicants that require visas. I have had two friends receive verbal offers that were rescinded because they needed visas. I just completed the H1-B process for hiring a research associate and it took 5 months, required an 87-page application and $3000 in fees, let alone how much the university had to pay for the staff in the international office to complete the application and processing. Smaller institutions often can’t address those requirements.

    • Thank you for including your experience here. I don’t have the experience with smaller schools, but this doesn’t surprise me at all. Visa processing is very expensive. International travel is expensive. Not all schools have the resources to support this.

  6. I just want to add that you should do your research **before** getting a J1 visa. This is already mentioned in the post. What is important here is that the two year home residency requirement depends on things like your country of origin and where the money paying you is coming from, some of these conditions fall outside the radar of some institutions who see the J1 visa as a convenient and cheap alternative to other visas. I don’t have any experience at the tenure track level in the US, but as a grad student in the US, I saw fellow grad students turn down Fulbright fellowships just to avoid having to get a J1 visa.

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  8. I’m late to the party here, but thanks for the helpful post. It would be great if you could write about the post doc search for non-resident aliens. We have a number of international students in our program, and there are many post docs that are US citizen students can apply for that they can’t (lots of training grants, for instance). We find these students struggle more with finding post docs they can even apply for, and many have to be much more creative. So, any advice you have would be appreciated.

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  10. I am on J1 visa, I have to year residency condition. I talked to an immigration attorney, he said that if my hiring institution supports me I am eligible for J1 waiver. Can I apply for a tenure track position? Will the hiring institute reject my application based on my visa status or they will help me get the waiver and H1B?

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