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The Post-Graduate Job Search for International Students

Interested in working in the U.S. after you graduate? First, the bad news: anyone searching for a job in today's market faces stiff competition. Now for the good news: if you're starting early, you can lay the groundwork for a successful job search.

Interested in working in the United States after you graduate from university? If so, brace yourself for a challenge. First, the bad news: anyone searching for a job in today’s market faces stiff competition, and being an international student adds an extra layer of difficulty. Your student visa will entitle you to at least one year of practical training, but in order to extend your stay for up to six years you’ll need an employer to sponsor you for a temporary work visa. Many employers, though, have policies against sponsoring visas such as the popular H-1B since they cost time and money. Moreover, some Americans resent international students for competing with U.S. citizens for jobs.

Now for the good news: you’re starting early, so you can lay the groundwork for a successful job search. One of the biggest mistakes international students make is to focus so much on their schoolwork that they fail to network with people who could help them in their careers.

“Stop studying as much! I’m not joking about this,” author Dan Beaudry writes in his book Power Ties: The International Student’s Guide to Finding a Job in the United States. Beaudry, a former head of campus recruiting for Monster.com, adds, “The most important thing you can do to get a job in the U.S. is to speak with people who are already at work in the career you want for yourself.”

Boston College graduate Janice Tam is a case in point. Originally from Hong Kong and raised in Canada, Tam took advantage of the chance to speak to on-campus recruiters. One such conversation led to an internship with the prestigious international accounting firm of Pricewaterhouse Coopers LLP, which, in turn, opened the door to a full-time job with visa sponsorship.

“They wanted a sociable person who would be easy to work with,” Tam says. “I did a good job in the training. My internship definitely got me the job.”

For fellow Boston College alumna Noemi Esparza, the daughter of a Japanese mother and Spanish father, the path to a job in the United States was a bumpier one. After graduating with a degree in marketing, she used her OPT (optional practical training) to get a job at a public relations firm in Boston. She felt that, as a woman, she would have more opportunities for advancement in the States than in Japan, so she hoped her employer would sponsor her for an H-1B visa. Then her supervisor, who was advocating for her, came back with the unfortunate reality: the company would only sponsor executive-level employees. She had no choice but to return to Japan, where she found a new job. Then, seemingly out of the blue, she got an e-mail from a headhunter asking her to apply for a new position in the San Francisco office of a Japanese company.

“It was fate,” Esparza says. “It was the perfect opportunity for me. They must have found me through my previous networking. Whether or not it works out immediately, network building can be a benefit down the road.”

Veerendra Virkar, of India, found success in his job hunt by connecting with people outside of his own culture group. “It was a bit of getting out of my comfort zone,” Virkar says. “In India, people don’t talk to strangers.” An American-born classmate in Virkar’s graduate business students’ organization suggested he apply for an internship at the company where he worked. Virkar got the internship, which led to a full-time job with visa sponsorship.  

The combination of excellent communications skills and perseverance that helped Janice Tam, Noemi Esparza, and Veerendra Virkar get ahead can work for you too. There are two types of practical training: OPT (optional practical training) and CPT (curricular practical training), with the latter required for curricula such as nursing or teaching. International students, alumni, and advisors offer the following tips to help you prepare for the job hunt:

Take advantage of school resources

The international students’ office at your college or university will be your lifeline, helping you navigate everything from visa regulations to the American handshake. “In many cultures, you’re not supposed to stand out,” says Adrienne Nussbaum, Director of the Office of International Students and Scholars at Boston College. “In the U.S., you have to do that to get a job.” In addition, you’ll need to know about important work regulations and deadlines. “I’ve had students cry in my office when I told them they can’t work without work permission,” Nussbaum says.

Often, the international students’ office will team up with career services to offer special programs such as career fairs and alumni success panels. In addition, your college’s career services office can help you with your résumé, cover letter, networking, and interviewing skills.

Develop your English and networking skills

“Students who want to be competitive in the workplace should take every opportunity to practice their English,” says Laura Wise, the International Student Advisor at Michigan State University. You can improve your English not only by taking classes but also by chatting with others about such common topics of conversation as school
and the weather.

“Students who are sitting in classes with members of their own culture group and Skyping their friends back home are missing opportunities to get their English where it could be,” says Marlene Arnold, Senior International Student Advisor at the University of Denver. “People overlook getting to know their classmates as part of networking.”

At the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, international students can participate in a workshop called The Art of Small Talk. “Small talk builds a bridge,” says Colleen Callahan-Panday, Assistant Director of WPI’s Office of International Students and Scholars. “It breaks the uncomfortable silence and shows your interest in another person and helps them get to know you. Just like you don’t propose on the first date, you don’t ask the difficult questions first in the job search process. First you let people get to know you.”

Joining a student activity can help you bond with American-born students as well. “If you’re good at or love some kind of sports, that’s your way in,” says Connie Ye, who has her M.B.A. from the University of Denver and is currently working as a financial analyst for Nordstrom.

Like many international alumni, Ye got her job because she knew someone at the company who recommended her. Most positions are filled through referrals rather than ads, so networking is an essential part of the job search. Informational interviewing and other forms of networking can help you get your foot in the door. “Networking is not something you start doing three weeks before you want a job,” says Tom Thomsen, Director of WPI’s Office of International Students and Scholars. “It’s something you can start doing as a freshman.”

Choose a practical major

Someone who comes to the United States with a desire to major in philosophy but the ultimate goal of working in a bank could be in trouble. Your practical training needs to be in your major. International students who study business may find the most opportunities in multinational firms. If you major in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM), you’re eligible for a 17-month extension on your practical training for jobs with approved employers. In the future, students in STEM fields might also enjoy a more direct route to U.S. citizenship, according to WPI’s Tom Thomsen.

Gregoire Seyrig, of France, a microbiologist who got his Ph.D. from Michigan State University, found a job much more easily than a friend who got his graduate degree in literature. After finishing up an HIV research project at the California Institute of Technology, Seyrig is looking into possibilities with biotechnology firms. “STEM gives me a big advantage,” he says. “It’s good to not need an H-1B.”

Get work experience before you graduate

Getting work experience prior to graduation enhances your chances of finding a job, according to Thomsen. Some colleges and universities, such as WPI, offer “co-ops” (short for cooperative education) in which students alternate periods of academic study with work experience, while many others offer internships or curricular training. In addition, with the permission of your college, you can work on campus for up to 20 hours per week in any type of job.

Mark Chung Kwan Fan, a graduate student in education at Michigan State University who comes from the small island of Mauritius, off the coast of Africa, credits his experience as an undergraduate resident advisor with helping him overcome his shyness. “It was a very scary thing,” Fan admits. “What if they don’t respect me? What if they can’t understand me? I learned by doing. I had a roommate conflict between two girls who didn’t get along. Managing that, I knew that if I did that, I can do anything now.”

Know your visa options

Since many employers are unfamiliar with work authorization regulations, you should be able to explain that your student visa entitles you to one year of practical training at no cost to them. Author Dan Beaudry and other experts recommend you focus on your career ambitions first and your visa second, instead of the other way around.

“Some students make the mistake of asking the sponsorship question too soon,” says Laura Wise of Michigan State University. “They’re so focused on sponsorship they overlook OPT and CPT.”

Since there are a limited number of H-1B visas to go around, international student advisors recommend looking into jobs in your home country or another country. Some multinational companies with offices in the United States might also have branches in your home country. An L visa, or intra-company transfer, could allow you to move back to the States after you’ve spent some time working abroad. Another option is to check with your embassy for jobs in your home country. A career counselor at your college can help you articulate your skills so you’ll be well prepared no matter where your job search takes you.

Believe in yourself

Many international students get discouraged when they see their American-born classmates snapping up jobs they’re denied because of their visa status. While many Americans may view international students as an asset because of their adaptability and resourcefulness, others want to keep U.S. jobs for native-born citizens. “Don’t take personal offense to that,” advises Michigan State’s Laura Wise. “If you’re not feeling comfortable, it may not be the best fit for you.”

Noemi Esparza grew up speaking English at an international school in Japan. Her parents met on a flight to Tokyo. Her Japanese mother was a flight attendant and her father—a businessman from Spain—a passenger. Although Esparza respects the opinion of Americans who want to see American jobs go to American citizens, she thinks that the most qualified person should get the position. For her, getting additional work experience in Japan helped build her confidence. “I was trying so hard and not getting anywhere,” she says about her efforts to stay in the United States after being turned down for an H-1B visa. “There were a couple bumps in the road, but it all worked out in the end.” She advises international students to keep networking and never give up.

Gregoire Seyrig, from France, agrees. Attracted to the optimism of the American culture, he’s now a successful microbiologist developing medical diagnostics to save lives around the world. “Many people thought I had no chance to get where I am,” he says. “I’m not a genius. My advice is to just do it. The most important thing is to not give up.”

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