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If you are an international graduate student, you understand that navigating the road to employment in the United States can be tricky. That’s why you prepare. You assess your interests, skills and values; develop a professional network; research potential employers; and impress interviewers with your stellar résumé/CV and interview skills. One day, your hard work finally pays off: you get your first U.S. job offer! You’re done, right?
Not quite yet.
Because of the special considerations international students face when seeking employment in the United States (see advice here), it’s easy to understand why you might mistake that first job offer for the destination you’ve been working toward. You have reached a major milestone, and that absolutely deserves to be celebrated. But you may still face a few more curves ahead on the road to the career of your dreams. Here are six steps to help make your post-job offer journey easier.
Ask for time to consider the offer. Given the time constraints that come with many forms of employment authorization for international students -- such as deadlines to begin employment or a limit on the number of days you are allowed to be unemployed -- you may feel the urge to accept your first job offer on the spot. Instead, take a deep breath, express enthusiasm and gratitude for the opportunity, and ask for time (a few days to about a week or so is fairly standard) to consider the offer. If your prospective employer pushes you to make a decision immediately, that’s a potential red flag -- it should give you even more incentive to pause and carefully assess both the offer and the organization before making a decision. Even if you’re 100 percent certain this is the job of your dreams, taking a night or two to sleep on it is still a good idea. That allows you time to fully evaluate the offer, think of questions and prepare potential points of negotiation. (More on that later.)
Reach out to other prospective employers. After you’ve secured some time to consider the offer, it’s a good idea to check in with other potential employers. You don’t need to contact every company or organization you’ve ever applied to. However, if you’ve recently interviewed for other positions that could be a match, reach out to those employers. Reiterate that you remain interested in working with them, let them know you’ve received an offer and share your deadline to make a decision. That will give them the opportunity to make an offer of their own -- or not. Either way, reaching out allows you to get clarity on where you stand with all of the potential employers you’re seriously interested in before you accept an offer.
Evaluate your offer(s). Once you know where you stand in terms of your offer(s), the next step is to assess your options. Compensation is near the top of the list for most job seekers, and understandably so -- everyone needs money to live, and we all want to be paid fairly for our hard work and expertise. There’s more to evaluating a job offer (or offers, if you have more than one), however, than looking at base salary alone. Factors like location, paid leave, medical and retirement benefits, work schedule, opportunities for advancement, and job fit can play a big role in your job satisfaction and quality of life over the long term.
Speaking of the long term, now’s a good time to think seriously about how long you’d like to work in the United States and what you’ll need to do immigration-wise to make that happen. If your career goals in the country are long term but your current work authorization comes with an expiration date, it makes sense to evaluate whether the employer you’re considering joining is willing/able to assist you with the next steps in maintaining your employment eligibility. That could mean, for instance, completing a training plan for STEM OPT, sponsoring a change of status to H-1B or assisting you with applying for permanent residency in the United States. (See here for ways to approach H-1B sponsorship discussions with prospective employers.)
If you accept a position with an employer that doesn’t match your long-term goals, you may be forced to switch employers sooner than you would otherwise prefer. While changing employers is far from uncommon, it can sometimes be a challenge for international students. Your immigration status and/or specific form of employment authorization could place constraints on your ability to make a move, either now or later on down the road. If maintaining your work eligibility indefinitely is at the top of your list of priorities, I encourage you to discuss the details of your particular situation with an immigration attorney or qualified staff member at your university before accepting an offer.
Ask questions and negotiate as needed. After evaluating your offer(s) holistically based on your priorities, you’ll probably have a few questions for your prospective employer. Schedule a phone call, get those burning questions answered and prepare to negotiate for what matters most to you. (Get advice for acing job negotiations here and here.)
Set a realistic start date. When negotiations have successfully concluded and you’re ready to accept an offer, the next step is to set your start date. The employer may have a date in mind, or they may simply ask when you can start. In any case, it’s essential to make sure you will have the appropriate employment authorization in hand before committing to a specific start date.
If your employment authorization application is still in process, it helps to know the standard processing time for the work authorization you have applied for and where your application is in that process. As much as you might want your application to be processed faster than normal, it’s safest to assume it will take the full normal processing time and plan accordingly.
For example, let’s say the normal processing time for your employment authorization application is about 90 days, and your application has been pending for 30 days. If your employer wants you to begin work next week, you’ve got a potentially challenging conversation ahead of you.
Challenging though it may be, honesty is the best policy. Don’t agree to an unrealistic start date based on the hope that your application will be processed faster than normal. If your employment authorization doesn’t arrive in time, you’ll have to renegotiate the start date -- and most likely burn a little bit of good will with your future employer in the process. Instead of committing to a firm start date that’s outside of your control, aim to set a flexible “target” start date based on normal processing times (plus mailing time if your employment authorization will be arriving by mail). Assure your future employer you will keep them updated with any developments and then follow through. Because of the time and effort that goes into selecting the right candidate, many employers are willing to show more patience and flexibility in negotiating a start date than you might expect, as long as you are up front about your situation and keep the lines of communication open.
Sometimes, however, employers need a new hire to start as soon as possible, and they aren’t willing or able to wait. In a worst-case scenario, they may even rescind the offer if you are unable to start by a specific date. Difficult as it may be, resist the temptation to begin working before you have authorization. The consequences for unauthorized employment can be serious, and no job is worth risking your immigration status in the United States.
Always remember: you have options. Yes, you worked hard to earn your first U.S. job offer. Yes, the road to employment in the United States can be particularly bumpy for international graduate students. Even so, never forget you have options. You are not obligated to accept the first job you are offered, and just because this is your first offer does not mean it will be your last.
The bottom line: when approaching your job search, your goal should be to find the best overall fit for you. If you have concerns that the position you’ve been offered might not be the best match, or you’re worried the timing simply isn’t right, seek guidance from people you trust: graduate career professionals and international student advisers on your campus, professors, members of your professional network and others. If you choose to decline a job offer, make sure to do so politely and professionally.
I hope these tips will help bring you closer to your first stop on the larger journey of building a successful and rewarding career, and I wish you all the best on the road ahead.