Setting up International Ph.D.s and Postdocs for Success

We should advise our temporary visa–holding trainees how to expand their skills and experiences to prepare for diverse jobs and a successful immigration process, write Paola Cépeda and Natalie Chernets.

October 17, 2022
Two students are gathered around a third student, who is holding a cellphone. All three are looking at the screen.
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Our institutions serve a large population of temporary visa–holding graduate students and postdocs, collectively called trainees. On average, 57 percent of postdocs and 30 percent of doctoral students are temporary visa holders. Some STEM fields exhibit an even higher percentage of temporary visa–holding trainees. According to the National Science Foundation 2020 Survey on Earned Doctorates, 73 percent of doctoral students on temporary visas planned to remain in the U.S. Similarly, a University of California, San Francisco, study found that more than 50 percent of their temporary visa–holding postdocs stay in the country after their training. Moreover, the data suggest that most temporary visa trainees, both students and postdocs, aspire to a long-term career in the United States.

What Is an Immigration Portfolio?

The career success of both domestic and temporary visa–holding trainees depends on their skills, credentials and experience. Trainees on student or scholar visas also need to obtain a work visa or even permanent residence as fast as possible to secure their career plans in the United States. If they decide to take the self-sponsored path to permanent residence, temporary visa holders must create a personal brand for immigration purposes. That brand translates into an immigration portfolio, an organized document collection providing evidence that the scholar’s background and qualifications satisfy the immigration criteria for permanent residence. Think about a faculty application or tenure promotion package, but more robust, for obtaining permanent residence.

An immigration portfolio helps temporary visa–holding scholars stand out with evidence of their credentials, work experience, international recognition and the importance of their work. Examples of documents that comprise an immigration portfolio are citation index, speaker invitations from national and international conferences, confirmation of peer-review submissions, news media articles about the scholar’s scientific work, proof of leadership roles in professional organizations, and reference letters from experts in the field, among others. Preparing an immigration portfolio takes time, effort and knowledge. Such portfolios are much more detailed than faculty job and tenure packages, and our academic community does not prepare temporary visa–holding trainees to assemble them. In fact, many trainees aren’t aware soon enough that they need an immigration portfolio or what one is, which is why they are not strategic about engaging in professional activities that help meet the immigration criteria for permanent residence.

One of the reasons why immigration portfolios are so unfamiliar is that our institutions approach immigration primarily from a compliance perspective. We are reluctant to advise our trainees on this matter due to liability. Thus, we refer our temporary visa–holding trainees to the international office or immigration attorneys. We offer immigration workshops once or twice a year, but they only scratch the surface, describing the different visa options and permanent residence paths. They certainly do not address the professional development aspect of immigration education, including preparing an immigration portfolio.

Even if our trainees decide to work with an immigration attorney, they must present evidence of their scholarly achievements and impact on their research discipline. Immigration attorneys are not experts in our trainees’ research fields, so our graduate students and postdocs must be ready to advocate for themselves and provide evidence that, through their academic work, they meet the immigration criteria.

Neither of us is an immigration expert, nor do we expect career professionals or faculty mentors to become one. Immigration regulations are fast-changing and complex. Thus, we need to rely on the expertise of immigration attorneys and our institutions’ international offices. At the same time, we all have a distinct opportunity to advise temporary visa–holding trainees to use professional development as a powerful tool to enhance their immigration portfolios. While expanding their skills and experiences for their exploration and preparation for diverse careers, our trainees can also work toward a successful immigration process.

Using Professional Development to Strengthen Immigration Portfolios

It may surprise you that the immigration criteria for advanced degree holders are intimately related to the scientific and academic training we are already providing in our institutions. We are already helping our trainees communicate the transferable skills they acquire in their training to diverse careers. Similarly, we can help temporary visa–holding trainees translate their accomplishments and skills into evidence for an immigration portfolio. The most up-to-date information about immigration criteria can be found here and here.

One path to permanent residence is the self-sponsored EB-1A Extraordinary Ability category. This category has the most explicit criteria but is also the hardest to satisfy. To apply for it, trainees need to meet at least three of the 10 criteria listed below and show evidence that they will continue to work in their area of expertise. Other categories for advanced degree holders are the employer-sponsored EB-1B Outstanding Professors and Researchers category and the self-sponsored EB-2 National Interest Waiver. The extraordinary ability criteria can be useful for assembling an immigration portfolio for the other two advanced degree categories. Furthermore, extraordinary ability is the preferred category for our trainees from China and India, due to the long waiting time for nationals of these countries to get permanent residence in other categories. The extraordinary ability criteria as of this month are as follows:

  • Evidence of receipt of lesser nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence
  • Evidence of membership in associations in the field that demand outstanding achievement of their members
  • Evidence of published material about you in professional or major trade publications or other major media
  • Evidence that you have been asked to judge the work of others, either individually or on a panel
  • Evidence of your original scientific, scholarly, artistic, athletic or business-related contributions of major significance to the field
  • Evidence of your authorship of scholarly articles in professional or major trade publications or other major media
  • Evidence that your work has been displayed at artistic exhibitions or showcases
  • Evidence of your performance of a leading or critical role in distinguished organizations
  • Evidence that you command a high salary or other significantly high remuneration in relation to others in the field
  • Evidence of your commercial successes in the performing arts

Based on the extraordinary ability criteria above, it is not surprising that (co-)authored scientific publications, citation index and academic awards are used as evidence in an immigration portfolio. Because it is relevant for their excellence and competitiveness in their disciplines, all trainees dedicate much of their time to publishing more papers and achieving a high citation index. They also strive to be recognized with national and international awards. Therefore, as part of their training, we are already providing all graduate students and postdocs—not just temporary visa holders—with curricular and co-curricular opportunities that help them excel in those areas.

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We all know that publishing a new manuscript takes months and even years, and generating additional citations for a newly published manuscript also takes time. Based on the criteria above, publications are not the only evidence of extraordinary ability. Some activities relevant to a successful immigration portfolio may take less time and, thus, offer a higher return on investment. For example, serving as a judge in a professional society poster competition or becoming a peer reviewer for reputable journals can provide evidence that one has been asked to judge the work of others.

Unlike the years it takes to publish a new manuscript and generate additional citations, the time commitment to judge a poster may be a few hours, while reviewing a manuscript can take a few days or weeks. Since many of our trainees are not actively seeking peer review or judging opportunities, we can teach them how to pursue such opportunities, either through their faculty advisers’ network or cold emailing journal editors. We also need to educate our trainees to receive credit for the peer reviews they prepare. If a faculty adviser delegates a peer-review task to their trainees, trainees might not receive credit for their work. In such cases, there is no record of their work, and thus no evidence for their immigration portfolio. To avoid that situation, faculty advisers can decline the review invitation and recommend their trainee as a reviewer for the manuscript.

Similarly, our trainees should build and maintain a strong network in their field, not just for their professional reputation but also for their immigration portfolio. Specifically, to provide evidence of the impact and novelty of their research, our trainees need to rely on recommendation letters from experts in their field with whom they never collaborated before but who can attest to the quality of our trainees’ work. Therefore, when we host workshops on building networking skills, we could bring to the attention of our trainees the importance of cultivating strong professional relationships for immigration purposes.

Let’s consider another example. When our trainees publish a manuscript, they often miss the opportunity to publicize the impact of their work in professional or major trade publications or other major media. Yet the communications team at our institutions is always looking to highlight novel research and would be happy to promote our trainees’ work in lay terms. Evidence for an immigration portfolio is generated when independent media outlets reproduce the institutional news or press release. We need to remind trainees that the press release has to mention the trainee’s name, not just their adviser’s, as a key contributor to be useful for an immigration portfolio. When the trainee takes an active role in publicizing their work, they can ensure they receive the appropriate credit for it.

We can further support trainees on temporary visas by creating a peer mentoring group dedicated to permanent residence. Like career exploration groups, the goal is to give trainees accountability when assembling their immigration portfolios. As immigration is a long and often emotionally charged process, these groups also serve as a supporting community. In our experience, the participants appreciate the advice they can receive on identifying questions to ask their immigration attorneys, connecting with peers who have successfully navigated the immigration process and learning strategies to strengthen their immigration portfolios.

In summary, trainees on temporary visas need our guidance on how to be strategic in meeting the immigration criteria for advanced degree holders and ensuring a satisfying career in the United States. We can rely on many tools to provide professional development that aligns with an immigration portfolio. Creating a mentoring group dedicated to permanent residence, hosting a workshop on becoming a peer reviewer or partnering with the institutional communications team are just a few examples of what we can do. Remember that the success of our trainees, both domestic and temporary visa holders, is our responsibility.

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Logo of the Graduate Career ConsortiumPaola Cépeda is the director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at Washington University in St. Louis. She received her Ph.D. in linguistics from Stony Brook University and currently serves as the international officer at the National Postdoctoral Association. Natalie Chernets is director of postdoctoral affairs and professional development, associate director of the M.D./Ph.D. program, and assistant professor at Drexel University, where she received her Ph.D. in electrical engineering. They both serve on the American Association for Medical Colleges’ postdoctoral section of the national steering committee for the Group on Research, Education and Training (GREAT)and are also members of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. This article represents their views alone.

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