The preponderance of international postdoctoral researchers working in the United States underscores the crucial role that these talented researchers play in the overall research endeavor. In addition to many of the usual challenges confronted by postdoctoral researchers in general, international postdoctoral researchers face unique circumstances that can also create problems related to language, culture, law, and visas.
Foremost among these challenges are visa issues and the related restrictions on travel outside the United States. Visa requirements also present challenges for international postdoctoral researchers in terms of restrictions on the employment of spouses and their own ability to remain in the country when moving from one position to another. In fact, these visa restrictions can place international postdoctoral researchers in a more vulnerable position with their principal investigators, because losing a position may make it impossible for the individual and spouse or family to remain in the country. Even the prospect of losing one’s visa status may reduce the postdoc’s ability or willingness to advocate for what would be normal workplace issues for domestic postdoctoral researchers.
One of the leading challenges facing international postdoctoral researchers is navigating the morass of visa regulations, requirements, and restrictions. The already complex regulations have been made even more difficult with the tightening of visa regulations in the wake of terrorist attacks in 2001. The current types of visas available to incoming international postdoctoral researchers are listed in Box A-1.
The EB (extraordinary ability) visas are very rare, and most postdoctoral researchers are on J-1 (exchange visitors) or H-1B (specialty occupations) visas. In the past decade, many universities and other institutions have created guidelines to help postdoctoral researchers, mentors, and administrators navigate through the complexities of visa procurement and maintenance. The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) provides open access to “A Quick Guide to Visas” on its website and provides more in-depth information for its members. The public site provides an overview of visa types suitable for most postdoctoral researchers, a glossary of terms, and a list of frequently asked questions.
Types of Visas, Rules and Restrictions
• Non-immigrant, employer-sponsored
o F-1 OPT: STEM Optional Practical Training Extension
♦ 2-year maximum
♦ F-2 spousal visa
o J-1: Exchange Visitors
♦ 5-year maximum followed by 2 years out of country
♦ J-2 employable spousal visa
o H-1B: Specialty Occupations
♦ 6-year maximum
♦ H-4 unemployable spousal visa
♦ University employees not counted toward cap on total number of visas
• Immigrant, self-sponsored
o E-1A: Extraordinary Ability
o E-2: National Interest Waiver
• Immigrant, employer-sponsored
o E-1B: Outstanding Researcher
o E-2: Advanced Degree
SOURCES: More information about U.S. Visa rules and restrictions is available at http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/english.html. Accessed May 8, 2014.
The visa system is complex and often a mystery to mentors as well as postdoctoral researchers. Institutions that host foreign postdoctoral researchers would provide a valuable service by creating a central source of information guidance. Most research institutions have administrative offices dedicated to international students that can assist both postdoctoral researchers and their mentors navigate the complexities of applying for and maintaining appropriate visas. However, in many cases, these offices are not well versed in the unique needs of postdoctoral trainees, because their primary focus is undergraduate or graduate students. In addition, frequently there is little coordination between these offices and departments and individual mentors, either by direct assistance or by general education about visa requirements. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, all too often, important visa decisions are left in the hands of individual mentors who do not have sufficient understanding of the implications. Even well-meaning mentors or departmental administrators can place international postdoctoral researchers in future jeopardy if they do not have a complete understanding of the visa system. What is needed is close and continued cooperation between institutional offices, mentors, departmental administrators, and international postdoctoral researchers to establish guidelines and procedures to ensure visas are handled in the most appropriate manner.
English as Second Language and Culture Skills
Additional challenges faced by many international postdoctoral researchers result from language and cultural differences. Although most postdoctoral researchers for whom English is not a native language have acquired sufficient English language skills prior to arriving in the United States, or engage in formal
and informal activities to improve communications skills, many still might need additional assistance to develop the language ability necessary to be an effective teacher or to work in industry.
Even with adequate language proficiency, international postdoctoral researchers face cultural challenges that may result in impediments to proper advising and career advancement. Questions of how to approach mentors and colleagues arise even for those raised in the same culture, but these are compounded for postdoctoral researchers from countries that have vastly different cultural norms for dealing with authority figures. In some cases, these cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings that impede adequate mentoring. On the other end of the spectrum, those international postdoctoral researchers who work in laboratories made up exclusively of colleagues from the same culture may not develop the requisite communication skills to be viable job candidates in the future. Postdoctoral researchers at some institutions have formed self-help groups to deal with some of these issues. That is certainly helpful, and, under best practices, institutions would facilitate and support such efforts.
International postdoctoral researchers also need help in dealing with U.S. institutions, such as public schools, the health care system, the motor vehicles department, and the Internal Revenue Service, all of which can be problematic even for U.S. natives.
The United States could also learn from what other countries are doing in postdoctoral training. U.S. institutions should be aware of salaries and benefits in other countries, as well as the quality of training and career prospects so that they can maintain a postdoctoral training system that can attract the most talented researchers. The United States can learn from innovative and effective policies developed in other countries. For example, the United Kingdom has an important document, “Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers,” signed by funding agencies and prominent scientific institutions, and supported by universities and professional societies, that sets important standards for the role of individual scientists in the pursuit of research. Under the principles of the Concordat, both funders and researchers are obligated to regularly review their progress as to whether scientists under their purview are given the support called for by the agreement.
The creation of the NPA was an important initiative by postdoctoral researchers themselves to make information available and to advocate for postdoctoral interests. As the research enterprise becomes more global, it would be useful to organize postdoctoral researchers and the various postdoctoral associations across the globe to share information and promote the interests of postdoctoral researchers.
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