Confessions of a Postdoc (22): Scientists without Borders

(January 9th, 2015) Since 2010, Anjana Nityanandam has shared her inner thoughts, experiences and feelings that come with being a postdoc. Here are her latest insights into the world of a research scientist that many are probably all too familiar with.

Here’s an idea. PhD’s the world over should be able to travel to any corner of the planet to do research, without worrying about visas and work permits. Somewhat like diplomats. I am not saying we should get to travel business class and stay in five-star hotels but we should be able to travel without restrictions. No geographical boundaries for us, we should be free to work wherever we want to, if we are hired by an employer who is willing to pay us a decent salary. Does that sound too radical? If it does, blame it on my recent struggle figuring out a way to stay longer in the United States to complete what I came here to do.

I am saddened to say that although I love this country and every bit of living in it, they make it really difficult for foreigners, even the highly qualified ones, to build a career here. I wish I knew this before coming to the US. I would still have come, but I would have been better prepared. I wish someone had told me that coming to the US on a J1 visa, which is what most universities and research institutes will get you when joining as a postdoc, does not mean a smooth ride into the future. Since a J1 cannot be extended beyond 5 years, if you wanted to stay longer to either complete the postdoc or switch to a new job, things start getting dicey. Setting aside the fact that the job market in both academia and industry is fiercely competitive, the visa issues by themselves are a major bottleneck to landing a decent position.

The most difficult part for foreign researchers, with regard to work permits, is transitioning from academia to a biotech/pharma industry post. Most small and even medium-sized companies are very reluctant to sponsor a work visa (called H1B) for you, even if you are more than qualified for the job. First, because it’s going to cost them a bit; second, and more importantly, there is exactly one deadline in an entire year when applications for an H1B can be filed.

Because of the overload of applications, the visas, believe it or not, are issued based on a lottery system! I was mortified when I first found out. It sounds incredulous and basically means that even if you do manage to land a job in a company that’s willing to sponsor your visa, there are absolutely no guarantees that you will get one. Never will fate have played a bigger role in your career. And finally, if all does go well, you still are not allowed to start working in a company on an H1B visa before the beginning of October.

This means, if you are interviewed for a Job in May, and got accepted in say, August, there is no way you can start working before October of the following year! How many companies do you think are going to wait that long for you? They would rather hire someone, even if less skilled than you, who is either a citizen or has a Green Card and is flexible to start work whenever required. Very often, the only escape route for a foreign postdoc, once the 5 year run of a J1 ends, is to find another postdoc where the lab head is willing to sponsor the more expensive and equally temporary ‘academic H1B’ visa for the next couple of years. For a small lab with limited funding, that can be quite expensive.

Sounds complicated? Welcome to my world! Sounds like that Green Card is the magical elixir to all problems, doesn’t it? But it’s not easy to get, at least not for postdocs in academia. Because unlike engineers who are employed at private companies, Universities and Research Institutes wouldn’t sponsor your Green Card petition or pay the attorney fees, unless you are hired as a faculty member, as an assistant professor. No one will lift a finger to do anything for postdocs. I truly believe we are universally perceived as dispensable. We come a dime a dozen, so if not you, then someone else. There is no dearth of decent hardworking postdocs and the academic world knows this all too well. But I digress.

The bottom line is that a self-sponsored Green Card petition is ridiculously expensive. It gets trickier for those who come from countries who already have a lot of immigrants in the US, countries like India and China. Due to long waiting periods, their options are often limited to applying in a high-risk category meant only for people with extraordinary skills and talents. Yeah, good luck with that!

This piece is starting to sound dreary. That wasn’t quite the intention. I am just venting my frustration. Like I said earlier, I wish I knew what I was getting myself into. If I did, I would have worked at the whole ‘getting a Green Card’ angle from the day I landed in San Diego. There are things you can do to boost your CV. I wish I had started four years ago.

But, all is not lost. There is always hope. The US is, after all, the land of opportunities. Yes, oftentimes it is exasperating, but then again, what profession isn’t? For those of you planning to visit the US for an academic postdoc, be prepared and have a plan for if and when you decide to go back. Wouldn’t it be great though if all we had to worry about was the actual research, and if we were free to pursue it wherever we wanted? After all the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears we invested into a PhD, after earning the highest degree in the land, don’t we deserve a little respite?

Anjana Nityanandam

Last Changes: 02.17.2015

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