Insights and Advice for International Students
I first came to the U.S. as an undergraduate student in 2014. I have now spent nearly ten years in this country. In these ten years, I have met many fellow international scholars with whom I have shared similar struggles and experiences. Much like open-science and international collaboration initiatives, I believe that there is no better way to help each other than by sharing our experiences so that others who are going through similar hardships have an informed understanding of what the hurdles that an international student might face in the U.S., and what are some steps that can be taken to prevent them.
This is a topic that I could go on about for hours, something that those who know me can easily attest to. However, below I will try to be succinct, and focus on what were for me, the three biggest obstacles: (1) grants and funding, (2) the immigration process, and (3) cultural shock.
Grants and Funding
International students are ineligible for most federal research grants. To the best of my knowledge, the only federal research grant I was able to apply was the NIH K-99 award, which is for postdocs focusing on health-related research. This immediately puts you at a disadvantage for several reasons. First, by default, you must teach during graduate school to make ends meet. For those interested in a teaching-oriented role, this is of course a blessing. However, for those international students interested in a research-oriented position in or outside of academia, this becomes a hurdle, as you need to find time for research. Second, you have less to show in terms of funding, as for most of the other grants you will be eligible to apply for, as the PI will be considerably smaller.
This is undoubtedly an uphill battle, but don't despair, as there are solutions. As with other issues I will address below, the key is to be proactive and thorough. There are four main avenues to receive funding.
Depending on your institution, you might have access to a funding pool, which might range in competitiveness. If available, these grants/funding opportunities should be on your radar. Ask your department chair or the grants office about these opportunities at your institution. They tend to be annual and usually have the same repeating deadline. Put them in your calendar and be persistent; eventually, you will land a grant. Even if you don't, writing a grant can greatly inform your thinking and future studies by helping you put your thoughts on paper (or in this day and age, on a keyboard).
Small Grants From Professional Societies
Funding from professional organizations will probably become your bread and butter for grants. These grants typically tend to have requirements about being in a specific career stage and/or having received the grant in the first place. As with institutional funding, these grants tend to be annual, with the same deadlines each year. Aside from opportunities offered by SPSP (i.e., Outstanding Research Award, Small Grants Program, Jenessa Shapiro Graduate Research Award), APA has a plethora of divisions, each with its own set of grants. Further, the Association for Psychological Science (APS) has its own small grants program. Being on Listervs and on social media (X/Bluesky) can also help with being aware of other unique opportunities that are not annual. Although I only listed a few groups, there are many professional organizations and societies in and outside of the United States that offer such funding opportunities, so ask around to find more.
Funding From Your Home Country
Depending on your country of citizenship, you might be eligible for funding opportunities from private foundations or federal pools of funding. It's always a smart decision to investigate what these might be and enroll in their newsletters in case a relevant opportunity pops up.
Federal Grants and Funding From Private Foundations
Although chances are you will not be able to apply for these yourself, your PI would most likely be eligible to apply. As long as you have a good idea, and you can convince your PI that your idea is rock solid, then they could be the PI on the grant. Even if you don't get that honor, should your team receive the funding, this will elevate your research, as well as potentially allow you to focus solely on your research without having to juggle teaching and research at the same time.
No Funding, No Problem Finally, there are ways to work around the lack of funding. Initiatives like the Collaborative Replication and Education Project (CREP) and the Psychological Science Accelerator (PSA) allow someone to be part of a larger data collection effort without a high cost. The Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS) is another wonderful initiative where you can apply as many times as you want (with different proposals), and if you get funded, they will conduct your research for you with a representative sample of Americans. These databases include the Cooperative Election Study (CES), American National Election Studies (ANES), General Social Survey (GSS), The European Social Survey (ESS), the World Values Survey (WVS), the different Barometers (e.g., Eurobarometer, Afrobarometer, etc.). There are plenty of databases like these that range in specificity. For instance, for those who research close relationships and love, the Love Consortium is a great resource, and for those who research gratitude, the Global Gratitude Dataverse is a great tool. More broadly, many of the Many Labs' initiatives also post their data after the first main paper resulting from the project has been published. These data are also usually published as a paper in Scientific Data, so keep an eye out! Ultimately, even national indexes themselves could serve as data depending on your research question. So, in short, data is available if one knows where to look.
The immigration process is definitely a stressor for most international students, and the process is quite a burden. Depending on your country of citizenship, this burden will vary on its magnitude. Nevertheless, there are certain principles/lessons that I believe apply to most international students. I outline these briefly below.
- Know your dates. When does your passport expire? When does your F1/J1/H1B visa expire? When do you need to update your I20? Set calendar reminders several months ahead so you don't get caught by surprise every time the date comes.
- Keep all your I-20s and download all your I94 forms. You never know when you will need them. While you are at it, keep all your tax return documents in the same folder.
- Find you what office handles international student affairs at your institution and become their best friend. In my experience, nobody will advocate for you, so you must be proactive about your needs and questions. Knowing who the point person is and building rapport with them helps a lot.
- Become familiar with Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT). In short, CPT can occur during your program (i.e., when you are still a student) and can help you gain additional experience (and get paid for it). Your CPT will not affect OPT if CPT is authorized for less than 12 months of full-time work (i.e., more than 20 hours per week). If your full-time CPT duration is 12 months, you will not be able to apply for OPT. However, part-time CPT (20 hours per week or fewer) will not be deducted from OPT. OPT is geared for opportunities following graduation (e.g., internships, postdoctoral positions, etc.). It can last from 1 to 3 years. After your first year, you can apply for an extension if your program is a STEM program.
- As with point #1, know your dates! You will need to apply months in advance for both CPT and OPT, so do your research and be proactive!
- Both CPT and OPT are available at the undergraduate and graduate levels, with each being independent of each other. In general, both opportunities can help extend your stay in the U.S., help you earn more, and build your skills.
- Speak to your consulate/embassy. If you have an immigration question that is unique to your country or a question that your institution authority cannot help you with, call or visit your consulate/embassy. They are equipped to handle most matters
Leaving your country can be a tough decision. It can be even more complex when it's your first time living alone or when it is your first time in another country that speaks a different language. At times, you might feel lonely or like you don't belong. Culture shock can be tough and a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. While there are individual differences in how much people seek and actively enjoy solace, if you are the person who enjoys the company of others, there are ways to address this and try to get over culture shock. First, depending on your relationship with your family, talk to them. Don't be a stranger. Hearing a familiar voice, be it your family or friends, and hearing your mother tongue is always nice. Second, depending on the size of your institution, there are probably groups or student associations where you can meet other people. Whether it is a graduate student association/union or a group for people from your country, reach out. International Program Offices also tend to host social nights where different international students can meet others. Go to departmental events and meet fellow students (especially if free food is involved!). A wide variety of events could help you feel connected to others and build meaningful relationships that can support you through your studies.
Outside of your institution, there are multiple groups you could look out for. Depending on the city where you live, and your own background, there could be religious communities or Facebook groups for people of your nationality. As a Greek person, whenever I solo travel to a large city I have not visited before, I always join a "Greeks in XXX" group beforehand to find people who would like to meet. Enroll in your embassies or consulate (if one is in the city you live in) newsletter to stay up to date for cultural events relevant to your country. Alternatively, some apps allow you to meet friends online (akin to dating apps). Although these opportunities can vary a lot depending on your geographic location, some of them should be available to you, and if you are actively seeking to meet new people and find ways to adapt and thrive to life in the U.S., these tips could be helpful for your academic career and personal life.