|International Postdoc Survival Guide - Been There, Done That!|
Read the anecdotes and advice from seasoned veterans who have come to the United States to do a postdoctoral fellowship.
Submitted by Chiara Gamberi, Ph.D.
My experience as an Italian researcher in the U.S. has been very rewarding: it has given me the chance not only to do good research but also to meet interesting people. I have been able to make many good friends outside the university where I am working. I think this is really valuable because it exposes one to local culture and habits. Establishing a good variety of friendships is especially helpful to internationals because it helps one to find answers to the many practical questions that frequently arise when (and after) relocating.
In the case of the international postdoc (IP), he/she has to find his/her discovery attitude and be willing to ask many questions. While we tend to think of our native country's habits as the way it is, it is much easier for someone from another country to spot differences. On the other hand, if questions are asked, then a dialogue can begin. With a bit of help from both sides, there can be an understanding of each other habits.
There are several topics, however, that are difficult to understand without some institutional assistance. One of these is the U.S. tax system. Since are classified as non-resident aliens during their first two years in the U.S., they must file tax forms that are different form the forms submitted by citizens, permanent residents, and those non-residents that have been in the U.S. longer than two years. There may also be tax treaties between the U.S. and the IP’s country of origin that may offer some form of temporary reduced taxation. These treaties are subject to change, depending on international agreements.
I would like to mention a particular situation that may be one of the best kept little secrets and may actually save you some money if it applies, i.e., if your home country negotiated to have a two-year tax break. You may also be able to remain in the U.S. beyond the two years without having to pay back the defrayed taxes. Very few people actually begin their work in the U.S. on January 1. This means that during their third year in the U.S., most internationals would be classified as having dual status because the tax year coincides with the solar year. In other words, from January 1 until the second anniversary of their entry in the U.S., they would be subject to the tax break, but after the anniversary date and until December 31, they would pay taxes as any U.S. resident. That year, they could choose to either file their taxes as dual status to reflect the real situation, or to file as a resident, to simplify. Depending on the date of entry, the taxes calculated for the two filing methods could be substantially different.
I recommend that IP look into these matters with the help of somebody acquainted with the taxation of alien non-residents. Start with your International Office, which could naturally be the repository of this type of information. A representative at an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center may also be able to provide guidance, although very few international scholars actually use these services, so the representatives may have less experience with these questions. Of course, some private tax advisors may also aid, but at a charge.
Submitted by Jonathan Gitlin, Ph.D.
I arrived in the U.S. as a freshly minted postdoc in the summer of 2002 and almost immediately began to discover some of the little hurdles that seem common to new IP. Having a car in California is essential, but I had to have a California driver's license to get a bank loan, and the provisional drivers license wasn’t sufficient. The process of getting the documentation together to apply for a car loan took at least two months. I’ve seen it take longer more recently as wait times for SS numbers have gone up. Staying in touch with people back home can be expensive, but these days with e-mail, instant messaging and VOIP, it is getting a lot easier. I also began my involvement with the postdoctoral association as a way of meeting new people, which I have found invaluable. Mainly, I think the little things were what I noticed most - it has been said that the U.S. and UK are a people divided by a common language, and I could agree with that. The different attitudes towards work and holidays have been perceptible, too.
Submitted by Francis Golder, Ph.D.
I am a citizen of New Zealand and have “temporarily” resided in the U.S. since 1994. My visa status has varied over the last ten years from J-1 to H-1B to F-1 (with OPT) and now back to H-1B. Over the last ten years, I have been in the U.S. almost continuously except for the occasional trip to New Zealand or Australia to visit family, usually amounting to a few weeks every two years.
Last year, in November, I left to visit my family in Australia after petitioning the INS from within the U.S. and changing visa status from an F-1 to an H-1B. However, to reenter the U.S., I needed to visit the U.S. Embassy in Sydney and undergo an interview before a reentry visa was put in my passport. Immediately upon arrival in Australia, I sent my documentation to the U.S. Embassy and awaited a reply. I received a letter one week later indicating my appointment for an interview was scheduled for four weeks from receipt of the letter. I had to change my air ticket (at significant cost) and notify my work (an academic institute here in the U.S.) that instead of a two-week vacation, I’d be away from work, teaching, and experiments for five weeks. On a personal note, my domestic partner (a U.S. citizen) was left alone to care for the two foster children that have been placed in our home.
I believe there should be a process available here in the U.S. for people already present in the country to undergo background checks and an interview, if necessary, as part of their petition to change visa status or in preparation for leaving the country temporarily. Until then, postdocs considering traveling overseas after a change in visa status internally, should consider very carefully the impact of such a visit upon their work and families within the U.S.
Submitted by Aperna Mital, Ph.D.
A postdoctoral fellow typically can remain in the U.S. on a J-1 visa for up to three years; however, the NIH could sponsor J-1 visas that would allow postdoctoral fellows to remain in the U.S. up to five years. In 2003 when I traveled home to India, I was already in the fifth year of my J-1. When I appeared at the consulate to get my visa stamped, the consular officer was not aware of the State Department policy that allowed the NIH to approve a J-1 visa for up to five years. He did not stamp my visa in spite of the fact that I had all of the essential paperwork from my visa specialist. As a matter of fact, I had to e-mail my specialist and request that she send the paperwork along with the policy statement from the State Department.
These days it is difficult to get an appointment at the consulate. My follow-up appointment was scheduled two weeks later, and when I arrived, I had to wait four hours for the consular officer to see me. The consular officer said that he received my papers but did not have time to read them. Thanks to my husband, I had preprinted the 50-page document, so I gave it to him. The consular officer did not like that, but after another couple of hours, he finally stamped my visa. To cut the story short, consular officers are not always aware of the policies of the State Department and can cause a great deal of trouble for internationals at the consulate. Because of all this chaos, my husband and I had to cancel our honeymoon and had to stay in Delhi.
Submitted by Alle Rutebemberwa, Ph.D.
I have just completed my Ph.D. and have received “the communication”: I have been offered a postdoctoral fellowship. Yes! It is time to do my BTA (Been to America) stint. After the 24-hour journey, which includes two transit stops, I arrive in Washington, D.C. totally exhausted and jet-lagged. Coming from a country where driving is done on the left side of the road, my first month is spent trying to not get killed while crossing the street. I am accustomed to paying for items up-front, but here I am learning that having debt (i.e., possessing a credit card) is apparently a good thing. “We’re sorry we cannot help you. You have no credit history,” I am constantly told. This is a strange economic system. I am homesick already. Darwin was right: Survival is for the fittest! I need to develop new survival skills. I settle into my laboratory and my research project as I remember I did when I began to work on my Ph.D.; however, this settling-in begins on a different level. I find my research as interesting as it is challenging. Working near the NIH means that I am now exposed to a never-ending flow of scientific information. This constant flood of new information is both exciting and overwhelming. My postdoc experience is not yet over, and I continue to learn something new every day. Would I encourage another Ph.D. scientist to pursue a postdoc experience? Without hesitation.
Submitted by Derek Scholes, Ph.D.
I came over to Albany, NY from the UK in 1997, having never previously visited the USA. My distinct memory of those first days was of all the white houses and hedgeless lawns: I felt like I was on the set of The Wonder Years. And with daily 90-degree heat during that first summer, it was hard to believe that I had really started living in a new country and was not just on some extended science holiday.
Coming from the UK, I did not find that moving to the USA required a big adjustment. Of course, I missed family, friends, football and fish'n'chips. I still miss all of them. But people were friendly, and I did not have a problem finding a social life. I am now married to a beautiful American, am a Permanent Resident, and have settled in the USA for the foreseeable future.
In part, the postdoc was fun, and in part, it was a disappointment. I always enjoyed my research field – yeast genetics and transposition - and my work environment, and I remain interested to this day in the research field. And I believe I made a significant contribution to the field: most of the work currently being carried out in my previous postdoctoral lab stems from my discoveries. However, I found it very frustrating to work on a project that generated few papers, the papers that are all important if you are to make it as a research investigator with your own laboratory team. My first paper was a large genetic screen and extensive subsequent analysis that took years to complete. It eventually generated a 16-page publication in a quality journal, but it was only one line on my CV. I realized that I was not producing papers at the rate necessary to prove my worth to a future genetics department.
While my interest in science did not diminish, my own experience and that of others led me to become concerned for the place of the postdoc within the scientific workforce. This is one reason why I decided to become active in the NPA. I also fell in love with bioethics when I heard a famous bioethicist, Tom Murray of the Hastings Center, give a presentation on the ethics of genetic research. I am very keen to transition to the field of policy related to genetic issues, or to be involved with issues related to the scientific workforce. Unfortunately, after doing a postdoc, it is difficult to transition to another career path, particularly so if you are not a U.S. citizen. Currently, I have a staff scientist position in an influenza lab but am still working to make this career move.
I was lucky in that I never ran into any major visa-related difficulties. I did find it troublesome knowing that a rejection at any point would mean that I would have to give up my job and leave the country. And I do know of people who had significant problems - one French friend could not work for many weeks and had to travel across Canada to a U.S. consulate because some faceless official somewhere completed a form incorrectly. Revalidation of my visa necessitated many trips to Canada (a few hours drive from Albany) prior to going back home to England: the visa-processing times in Canada were always much quicker (same- day processing or overnight instead of 3 weeks at the U.S. Embassy in London). The U.S. State Department recommends that you always renew your visa stamp within your home country, but revalidating my visa in Canada always worked for me.
What are the advantages to living in the USA? Well, I found a wife! And I love the mountains, the hiking and the skiing. I love the opportunities I have to visit places like Montreal, New York, Boston, Chicago or Las Vegas. And I am able to maintain the Englishman in me through watching the BBC and live Premiership soccer. I have even found somewhere to play soccer on a Sunday morning.
Submitted by Ji-Cheng Wang, Ph.D.
I have worked as an international postdoc for five years at the City of Hope Beckman Research Institute in Duarte, California.
By working with my mentor, my colleagues, the institute administrator, the City of Hope Postdoctoral Organization (COH-PDO), and the National Postdoctoral Association (more specifically, the International Postdoctoral Committee), I have learned a lot about the history, the current issues, and the future trend of postdoctoral programs within the U.S. During the past several decades, there have been social and economic situations that have had global impact, reaching even the postdoc programs in the U.S. Due to the highly competitive job market, postdoctoral training has gradually become a necessity if one wants to find a desirable job. And the transition period for finding a job tends to be much longer now. Every year, there are more and more postdocs coming from countries outside the U.S.; currently, more than 50% of the U.S. postdoctoral population is international. The delimitation of postdoctoral training is neither simple nor clear-cut, which creates a lot of misunderstanding and some unfortunate consequences. In addition to the issues shared with domestic postdocs (grant-writing, future career development), there are additional challenges that face international postdocs including obtaining and maintaining the appropriate visa (immigration or non-immigration) and acquiring a social security card and driver’s license.
Since formal construction of the NPA in early 2003, many efforts have been made and much progress achieved through the collaborative work of several stakeholders to tackle the above-mentioned issues. I personally contribute my effort and time to this initiative as a team member with colleagues at City of Hope and the NPA/IPC.
After all, I do believe that the U.S. is the country with the most open policy to train young people to become mature, independent professionals, in both academic and non-academic fields. And I do believe that, as long as the consensus is clear and consistent among all involved parties that postdoctoral programs are transient periods of training for young scientists (whether from the U.S. or from another country) toward an independent professional career, more improvements can be made and more scientific (and perhaps economic) collaborations can be set up among postdocs at the national and international levels. I hope to contribute even more to this initiative in the future.