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Studying While Working, Working While Studying

What work opportunities are there while studying in the United States and after you earn a degree? Here are some answers.

Finding a job can be tough for any young person today, but it can be especially challenging for international students looking for work while studying in the United States.

Work opportunities are available for students with F-1 and J-1 visas, but they come with a thicket of rules and regulations that has to be negotiated with care. The good news is that U.S. colleges and universities have international student centers whose advisers are experienced and eager to help students deal with the complexities of balancing school and work. The school’s career office can also help with workshops on interview techniques and résumé writing.


Work-study basics
The first step is an obvious one—plan.

“There is an explosion of information online, some good and some questionable, so pay close attention to what the international student office sends you,” says Elizabeth Barnum, director of International Student and Scholar Services at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “It’s also important to contact the international student adviser before arriving with any questions.”

The basic rule for working in the United States on a student visa is that employment must be related to the student’s field of study.
For students with F-1 visas, the principal avenues for work are Optional Practical Training (OPT), which can take place during one’s studies or after graduation. Curricular Practical Training (CPT), on the other hand, is a job or internship that must be integral to a student’s coursework.
The starting point is always the student center. “We provide walk-in advising for international students and I would say that about half come in with employment questions,” says Callie Fleming, an international student services coordinator at the University of Missouri’s International Center. “We go over the regulations and how they can work at the job they may have been offered.”


Work and practical training
One big exception applies to the study-related rule—on-campus jobs.

As a full-time student, you are generally eligible to work up to 20 hours a week during the school year and full-time, or 40 hours a week, during holidays and summer breaks. But keep in mind that paying campus jobs—at bookstores or food-service outlets, for example—are often highly sought after and may be limited in availability.

OPT permits international students 12 months of employment related to their studies. “Students typically save their OPT time for after graduation, since summer or part-time work counts against the total,” says Barnum. “But for students planning on returning home immediately after they graduate, part-time OPT is an option.”

Each degree program adds another potential year of OPT. Students can work for a year after earning a bachelor’s degree and another year following a master’s degree. Students in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) can often add 17 additional months of OPT employment—a total of 29 months.

CPT must be closely tied to the student’s classwork. Typically, the international student office will authorize CPT and specify the dates and location that a student can work, unlike OPT through which a student or graduate can work anywhere in the country.

“Our responsibility is to ensure that CPT is integral to the student’s courses, with grades and college credit,” says Barnum.

Students with J-1 visas, for academic exchange such as the Fulbright program, have similar work opportunities, which are managed by their administering organization. Some sponsored programs even require work sessions, or “experiential learning,” as part of the program, says Mihaela Britt, assistant director of international student and scholar services at the University of Missouri.

In general, J-1 students are eligible for up to 18 months of practical training integral to their field of study following graduation. Certain types of postdoctoral research may qualify for as long as 36 months of employment.


Finding work
U.S. companies are the tougher side of the work equation because they must be willing to hire students with F-1 or J-1 visas in OPT status—or to sponsor them for an H-1B non-immigrant work visa. Some companies may be unwilling to tackle the extra steps and paperwork necessary, although others may simply be unfamiliar with how the process works.

But student status cuts both ways and student centers keep lists of companies willing and eager to hire qualified graduates. “We maintain partnerships with regional industry and multinational firms like Caterpillar—firms that value the language and cultural skillset that international students provide,” says David Currey, University of Missouri’s director of international student and scholar services.

One obvious tip is that students should look for U.S. companies that have operations in their home country.

For their part, international students must use the most valuable job-search tool of all:  networking as widely as possible—formally and informally, in person, online and through social media.

The same rule for an international student’s overall education experience can apply to the job hunt, says Britt from the University of Missouri. “You can choose to stay in your cultural comfort zone, or go out and take risks. It’s not easy, but the rewards can be greater.”


Howard Cincotta is a freelance writer living in Virginia.