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Experience required.

Those two little words are all but guaranteed to strike dread into the heart of practically every international graduate student job seeker. It’s a classic catch-22: How can you gain real-world work experience when your immigration status requires you to be a full-time student and/or limits your ability to work off campus?

Building and maintaining a strong professional network is vital, of course, as is effectively marketing yourself to prospective employers. Despite their value, however, these strategies alone may not always be enough to help you rise above more experienced candidates and land the postgraduation job of your dreams. (For advice on the postgraduation job search as an international graduate student, see here and here.)

Enter the internship. Internships are a great way to develop your professional network in the United States and gain practical experience in your field of study before you complete your degree. And contrary to popular perception, internships aren’t just for undergraduates. Graduate students have a lot to gain from pursuing internships, as well.

The good news is, for most international graduate students, internships are totally doable -- as long as you take time to plan ahead and keep a few special considerations in mind. Over the course of my career, the international students I’ve worked with have found internships with a wide range of employers, from big tech companies to local government offices to symphony orchestras. While each individual’s situation is distinct, virtually any international student can take certain actions to strengthen the odds of landing a rewarding internship.

Here are five steps to help you successfully pursue internship opportunities in the United States as an international graduate student.

No. 1. Gather information and identify potential opportunities. All graduate students can benefit from early, systematic career exploration. But getting a head start on exploring employment options is particularly important for international students, who may require special authorization to work off campus.

If you’re not sure whether, when or under what circumstances you’re allowed to accept off-campus employment in the United States, start by talking to the international student advisers at your institution and/or a qualified immigration attorney to get a solid understanding of what is possible in your particular situation -- even if you don’t plan to work right away. Off-campus employment authorization for international students often comes with strict requirements and can take time to get approved. You don’t want to miss out on your dream internship opportunity down the road because you waited too long to ask about the approval process.

Once you have a solid understanding of what type(s) of internship(s) you may be able to accept based on your current immigration status, it’s time to start exploring potential opportunities. If, like most international graduate students, you are limited to working in your major field of study, it makes sense to begin your information-gathering mission by connecting with others in your academic department. Fellow international graduate students in your program who’ve had internships in the past can provide a wealth of information, as can alumni who are currently employed in your field. LinkedIn is a great career tool for graduate students and makes it easy to connect with others. Don’t be afraid to reach out and form new professional connections -- you never know where they might lead. (See here for advice on how to reach out to others for career help.)

Talking to professors and graduate advisers in your program can also be helpful. They are often called upon to write letters of recommendation and are likely to know where graduate students from your department have interned in the past. At this phase of the game, when you’re focused on information gathering, it’s perfectly fine to cast a wide net and seek input from multiple professors in your department, even those who may not be your immediate supervisor.

Similarly, graduate career professionals on your campus will probably have a good idea of which employers have hired or are hiring graduate student interns in your field. While you shouldn’t feel compelled to limit your search to employers who have a history of hiring others from your department, collecting such information provides a solid starting point for identifying potential internship opportunities.

No. 2. Narrow your options. Once you have a good idea of the potential internship opportunities you’d like to pursue further, it’s time to start narrowing your options. In addition to researching prospective employers, networking and conducting informational interviews to explore which internships might be the best match for your interests and goals, consider the following factors when narrowing your search:

  • Timing. Internship programs can vary widely in terms of work schedules and seasons. Some companies may hire full-time interns during the summer only; others may hire part-time interns year-round. Talk to your adviser/mentor/supervising professor about what type of internship fits best with your academic and professional goals, academic program completion timeline, and departmental policies. Then meet with your international student adviser and/or immigration attorney (again) to ensure the plan that works for you academically -- and from a funding perspective if you are receiving funding from your institution -- also works for you immigrationwise.
  • Compensation. It’s safe to assume that, given the choice, we would all prefer to be compensated fairly (dare I say generously?) for the work that we do. However, there might be some cases when it would make sense to consider an unpaid internship. (Talking to a graduate career professional at your institution can help you weigh the pros and cons of a specific opportunity.) It’s important to note that employment authorization may still be required for an unpaid internship. The bottom line: check with your international student office and/or immigration attorney before beginning any off-campus practical or academic training, whether paid or unpaid.
  • Job fit. Sometimes, what may initially look like a perfect-on-paper job turns out to simply not be the right fit for you. If you discover that a particular internship opportunity doesn’t mesh with your values or long-term goals, don’t be afraid to eliminate it from your list. Saying no to an opportunity that’s not quite right for you can ultimately free you to find a better match.

No. 3. Apply and interview for internship positions. Right place, right time, right fit -- when you’ve found an internship opportunity that seems right for you all around, don’t hesitate to apply. Work authorization is not normally required before applying and interviewing for internship positions. In fact, in many cases, the employment authorization for international student internships is employer specific, meaning you must interview for and be offered an internship position before becoming eligible to obtain internship employment authorization.

If you’re worried about how to explain all that to a prospective employer, especially one who may not have hired international graduate students in the past, ask for help from your university’s international office before you interview. Many international offices have handouts or web pages with information for prospective internship employers on how the process of hiring international student interns works. If not, ask your international office for the name and contact information of the best person on the campus for the employer to call with any questions they may have, and then share those details with your prospective employer. When it comes to immigration regulations and employment, ensuring your prospective employer gets their advice from the experts helps to protect both you and the company.

No. 4. Get an internship offer and obtain the appropriate employment authorization. Once you’ve decided to accept an offer for an internship position (congratulations!), remember not to begin working until you have obtained the appropriate employment authorization. Depending on the type of employment authorization required, you many need a written job offer from your future employer. Make sure you complete all necessary steps to have your employment authorization in hand before you report to work for your internship. The consequences for working without authorization -- even as an intern -- can be serious, and no job is worth risking your immigration status in the United States.

No. 5. Make the most of your internship. With all the time and effort that goes into securing an internship as an international student, it’s easy to understand why you may feel like you’ve reached the finish line once you have your employment authorization in hand. In reality, the true work of your internship -- gaining hands-on experience in your field, developing and applying your skills, and building professional relationships -- is just beginning. Get tips for making the most of your internship experience here and advice for starting a new job here.

With hard work, planning and persistence, the right internship can be the perfect complement to your graduate studies, helping to form the foundation of your future career.

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