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International Postdoc Survival Guide - Postdocing in the U.S.
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Introduction Postdocing in the U.S. Going in With Your Eyes Open
Signposts to Living in the U.S. So, Nobody Will Give You a Credit Card? A Quick Guide to Visas (Public Version)
Beginner's Guide to Income Taxes for International Postdocs Been There, Done That!

About to start your postdoc in the United States? This will be certainly be a very exciting time with different experiences both professionally and personally. The difference between the postdoc experience in the United States for an international postdoc and a “local” postdoc can be quite different. Additionally, the experiences and expectations of being a postdoc in your own home country compared to a postdoc in the United States can also be profoundly different. While this experience will vary widely between individuals based on a number of factors including your location, your institution, and your primary investigator (PI), there are a number of common factors that seem to affect everyone’s experience. In the hope of making this transition a little smoother, here are a few major points to keep in mind.

One of the first hurdles you may encounter as an international postdoc in the United States probably occurs before you even arrive here to work. Before coming to the United States to work, you will require a valid visa. There are a number of visa types that you may be eligible for, and while it is not the topic of this article, it is certainly worth your while looking into the differences between them (A great place to start is the Quick Guide to Visas for International Postdocs). For example, different visas will allow different length of stay and determine whether or not your spouse can obtain employment authorization. Therefore, it is important that you are aware of the differences between the visas, and that you choose the appropriate visa for your (and your family’s) needs. While most of the paper work that is required will be performed by the sponsoring institution (your employer), it is still important to be aware of the visa requirements for yourself and your family, if they are coming with you. Even after you have arrived in the country, there are still certain requirements that must be met and maintained for your visa to remain valid. Therefore, it is important for you to stay abreast of any changes in visa policies. This type of news and information may be available to you through the international center at your institution.

One of the most obvious differences many international postdocs find between postdoctoral fellowships in their home countries and those in the United States is the philosophy behind the U.S. fellowship. A U.S. postdoc is still considered a trainee, which may be different to the perception in your home country and sometimes difficult to accept in the beginning. There is also a widespread but unwritten ‘rule’ that your postdoctoral training should not last longer than five years. By the end of those five years, you should be in a “real job”, e.g. assistant professorship whether a research assistant professor or tenure-track. However, advancement is often difficult without individual funding and there are certain difficulties that are unique to international postdocs. While there is a host of different funding agencies, including government, private and public foundations, that provide funding for broad areas of research, e.g. National Institute of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Howard Hughes Medical Institute, or specific research interests, e.g. National Parkinson Foundation, most funding agencies exclude non-residents from applying for awards and fellowships. Although a few agencies do provide such support, these grants are open to everyone, leaving the pool of grants available to international individuals highly limited.

While we are not suggesting that it is easy for a U.S. citizen or permanent resident to obtain funding, the limited resources available exacerbate this problem for the international postdoc. There are two consequences of being unable to attain independent funding. First, the ability to successfully apply for funding is highly regarded and counts in your favor when you are applying for your next position beyond the postdoc. Second, if you do not have independent funding, you are paid from the research grant of your P.I. In many cases, your P.I. will therefore determine your salary, and there is evidence suggesting that international postdocs generally end up being paid less than their U.S. counterparts.

A number of other differences are also frequently encountered in an international postdoc’s experience in the United States. In the United States, postdocs are often expected to work long hours and put in more hours than is written on their time sheets, often working late and on weekends. While the number of hours you are ‘expected’ to put in differs from place to place, from lab to lab, it is the general expectation that a postdoc will put in longer hours than other lab personnel. It can become particularly difficult trying to balance your professional responsibilities with your personal/family life. These particular concerns will vary between individual experiences, based on the expectations of your principal investigator.

In addition to the long hours, postdocs have traditionally received poor pay. While an NIH guideline for postdoctoral stipends has been established to try to rectify the problem of low pay for postdoctoral researchers, many institutions have yet to implement internal policies to follow the guidelines. The salary offered to you will depend on your institution, whether there is an internal policy enforcing adherence to the guidelines, if not, then it will depend on your P.I. and his/her decision as to whether or not he/she will follow the guidelines.

Another difference that may not initially be apparent but may come as a surprise is a possible age difference between you and the other postdocs and graduate students in the lab. Depending on the length of the doctoral training program and requirements from your home country before entering a graduate program, it is not uncommon to find yourself as one of the youngest persons in the lab. Due to the longer training both in the graduate and undergraduate programs, many postdocs arriving from other countries with much shorter training programs, or ones who finished their training quickly, may find themselves in the same age bracket as the graduate students and much younger than the other postdocs in the lab. While this should not pose any major problems for yourself and your work, this may be difficult for your lab mates to deal with, and it is something you should know.

This is a general list of some of the experiences, differences and difficulties that you may encounter during your postdoc experience in the United States. As mentioned already, the experience will be different for everyone, based on a number of different factors: lab, P.I., institution, etc. However, it is our hope that this article will help prepare you for the transition to your postdoc experience in the United States and make this change a little smoother.