Adjusting to a new culture and overcoming language barriers aren't the only challenges international students face when they come to the United States. For many, dealing with visas and other practical details can be just as stressful.
"Since we're not immigration lawyers, it's sometimes very difficult to understand the process," says Jieun Lee, a Korean student who expects to earn her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County next year. "One of my international friends has described being an international student in this country as being a full-time job."
International students aren't eligible for internships or postdoctoral fellowships at Veterans Affairs hospitals or other sites that require U.S. citizenship, for example. Postdoctoral fellowship sites may be reluctant to sponsor international applicants for a work visa. And timing student and work visas can be tricky as students transition from internship to postdoc to employment.
Advice for students
Getting a student visa, known as an F-1, is relatively straightforward: Once you're been accepted by a program, your school will give you a document called an I-20 that proves your status as a full-time student. You then apply for a visa—typically good for five years—at a U.S. Embassy or consulate in your home country. Students may stay in the U.S. for the duration of their studies, even if their F-1 visas expire in the meantime. (If you leave the country after your visa expires, you'll need to get a new one in your home country before you can return to the United States, but you run the risk of being rejected.)
The real challenges often begin when international students move out of the classroom, says Renu Thomas, a clinical psychology graduate student at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Thomas, who is from India, won a graduate assistantship at a community clinic, which requires a provisional license.
"I'm having a really hard time getting that through," says Thomas, explaining that the department that issues such licenses isn't familiar with international students and wasn't sure they were allowed to work. The key to overcoming such barriers is educating others and putting in the additional effort required, says Thomas.
"I had to produce some extra documents because the department wasn't sure what to do," she says.
International students who seek internships also face special hurdles, as almost a third of accredited internship sites only accept applications from U.S. citizens.
"International students can't apply to any state or federal agencies," explains Ayse Ciftci, PhD, a counseling psychology professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. As a result, international students must rule out VA hospitals, prisons and some community mental health clinics from the very beginning of their search—and that makes the imbalance between internship supply and demand even worse for international students, says Ciftci, who is originally from Turkey.
But it's not impossible to gain experience at such sites. By talking to other students, Jieun Lee discovered a way to fulfill her ambition of gaining VA experience: This fall, she'll start an internship with the Southwest Consortium Predoctoral Psychology Internship, a program through which students work at the New Mexico VA Healthcare System, the University of New Mexico Medical Center and other sites. Although most of the consortium's slots are funded by the VA and thus off-limits to international students, the consortium offers one slot for international students that is funded by the University of New Mexico Medical Center.
"I'm very excited because I'm going to be working in a medical setting, which I've never experienced before," says Lee. "This program is perfect for me."
Insights for postdocs
The same rules apply for postdocs: International psychologists who are neither U.S. citizens nor permanent residents aren't eligible for postdocs funded by federal or state agencies, says Ciftci.
Postdocs can be hard to come by for another reason, says Chetan Joshi, PhD. Joshi received acceptance letters from several postdoctoral programs, but none of them would sponsor a work visa. "That's understandable, given the fact that I would be with them only for a year," he says. "Employers usually sponsor you if you go to work for them for a long period of time."
Instead, Joshi accepted a permanent position as a staff psychologist and disability support services coordinator at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., which agreed to sponsor the visa.
International students and psychologists should be aware of the distinction between what's called curricular practical training (CPT) and optional practical training (OPT), says Shonali Raney, PhD, an Indian psychologist at the Counseling and Consultation Service at Ohio State University in Columbus. CPT is the government's way of allowing international students to work if that work experience is required as part of their curriculum, says Raney, explaining that psychology students typically rely on CPT for their internships.
For those who want to reinforce what they've learned once they've finished their programs, the government can authorize OPT, which allows international students or psychologists to take an additional year to get relevant work experience. Postdocs typically take this route, says Raney.
Valid F-1 visas are required to use both CPT and OPT. The catch with OPT? Once the year is up, says Raney, "you had better have a job or be going back home, because that's it."
Although OPT gives users a 60-day grace period at its conclusion, Raney worried that she wouldn't be able to find a job in time to avoid being sent home. "That's a lot of stress!" she said.
Instead, Raney took a job and transitioned to an H-1B visa. Designed for educated professionals with highly specialized knowledge, the H-1B visa is good for three years and renewable for another three years. "Employment is preferable [to postdocs], because it saves you a bunch of paperwork," she says.
After completing their training, international practitioners have one final hurdle if they'd like to work in the United States: licensure.
Be sure to check whether the state you plan to practice in will grant licenses to noncitizens, warns Ciftci, urging students to check licensure requirements with the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB).
"We are not aware of any states that will not license non-citizens," says Roberta L. Nutt, PhD, director of professional affairs at ASPPB. "They may exist, but we have not tracked them."
For clinical and research psychologists who wish to stay in the United States, the final step is permanent residency. There are several routes to a green card, Ciftci explains.
Most commonly, your employer applies for a green card on your behalf, a process they should begin when you start your job. You can also win your green card in the U.S. government's annual lottery. Open to people born in eligible countries with at least a high school degree or the equivalent work experience, the lottery distributes 50,000 green cards a year as a way of maintaining the nation's diversity.
Ciftci got her green card through the lottery.
"I just happened to be one of the lucky ones," she says.
By Rebecca A. Clay
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.
Further Reading, Resources
Hasan, N.T. (Ed.), Fouad, N.A. (Ed.), & Williams-Nickelson, C. (Ed.) (2008). Studying psychology in the United States: Expert guidance for international students. Washington, DC: APA.
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