Expert Postdoc Advice on How to Prepare for the US Green Card Application

Expert Postdoc Advice on How to Prepare for the US Green Card Application

How to Make a Compelling Case for Permanent Residency in the US

Contributed by Neilia | August 2013 

Image courtesy of Ohio State University School of Medicine


As a foreign postdoc currently applying for permanent residency (aka the green card) in the US, I have become aware of the number of ways potential applicants can build a solid petition for permanent residency. Since this is an expensive process, I find it necessary to share some tips.

I will not delve into details about the immigration process nor will I provide legal advice (because I am no expert). You may find some of that information online or you may consult with a lawyer before you decide to proceed with the application. I encourage you to attend immigration seminars whenever the opportunity presents itself, even if you are still undecided about your intentions to permanently settle in the US.

The purpose of this post is to provide advice on how to make your application attractive to immigration officials. If you are a foreign graduate student with intentions to immigrate, plan your course of action at the very beginning of your study. If you are a newly arrived foreign postdoc, it is not too late to think about ways to shape your green card application. Here is a list of strategies that became obvious to me during my own experience with the application process:

1.    The purpose of skills-based immigration is to benefit US economy in the long run. Therefore, try to identify skills that you think are indispensable or unique. Most of you have them but never really thought of them as important. To help identify these skills, look at job advertisements by pharmaceutical companies. Most of the requirements listed in the advertisement are very specific. If you have the skills listed in the job posts, mention them in your cover letter or letters of recommendation. Furthermore, if you have mastered a skill that very few people in the US possess, market it to the best of your ability. Ask one of your references to emphasize that skill. Highlight the context in which the skill will be invaluable, e.g. in cancer research, research on neurodegenerative disorders etc. Graduate students might spend the next few years trying to develop some of these unique skills.

2.    Pick labs that publish frequently and publish in decent journals. This applies to first year graduate students as well as students looking for their first postdoctoral position. Not all of your publications have to be Nature, Cell or Science papers, but they must be published in journals whose articles are frequently cited. Citations are more important than the type of journals you publish in. If your publications are well cited, you will be able to draft your letters of recommendation with very little “embellishment”. Collaborate with your lab members or other labs as much as possible. The purpose is not only to improve your publication record, but also highlight the fact that you have skills other labs were able to recruit for their benefit. Do not underestimate the value of abstracts and presentations made outside of the university.

3.    Choose labs that work on disease models mainly because it will be easier for you to convey the value of your research to immigration officials. It is easier to convince an official that your research on Alzheimer’s disease or breast cancer will serve the greater good than if you were involved with basic science research that is focused on axon guidance or microtubules. Furthermore, if your research on colon or breast cancer, for example, has been cited by another scientist studying neurological or liver disorders, it will help convince the immigration official that your research has numerous applications and you are therefore indispensable to the science community.

4.    Awards and fellowships are important. Apply for as many as possible. Even one award is better than no award at all. It shows that you are competitive and not just a backbench scientist.

5.    If your research findings are the basis of someone else’s research across the country, market this to the best of your ability. This may become evident through citations of your work. Identify scientists who have directly benefitted from your work and request letters of recommendation from them.

6.    Letters of recommendation are the most important element of your application. Thus, pick your references wisely. There is no fixed number, some lawyers need as few as five while others prefer as many as 10 letters. With the exception of current and former mentors, these letters must come from scientists who do NOT know you personally, but are familiar with your work or area of research. Like most applicants, I initially struggled to arrive at a concrete list of references. In the list below, I aimed to try and simplify this exercise.

  • Try to find references who are accomplished in their field, those who have published well over the years, with awards or titles to their credit, or who have important administrative positions. It is not important for every reference to have each and every one of these traits, but it will make your application quite colorful if one is a dean at a university or department chair and another is a world-renowned or even a nationally recognized expert in your field. On the other hand, do not despair if you are not able to find PIs fitting the above criteria. The goal is to convey to the immigration official that you are a worthy candidate because you have skills to do cutting edge research.

  • Remember names of scientists employed at other institutions who you talked with at conferences, especially those who visited your poster. It is likely they had a personal interest in your data and therefore already know how to help you sell your research.

  • You may also enlist the help of your own PI to recommend the names of their friends at other universities.

  • Alternatively, you may directly contact a certain faculty member at another university and request a letter.

  • You may remember names of seminar speakers that visited your institution and request a letter.

My current list of references consists of:

  • My current PI

  • My former PI

  • A neurologist who was on my thesis committee (I taught a technique to her graduate student, which is highlighted in her letter)

  • An Italian neurologist whose work I cited in my thesis and in my own publication (he also read my paper and offered comments)

  • A neurologist who visited my poster at a conference in 2009

  • Three additional PIs I met at a conference in 2012 and who are familiar with my current research project

  • A couple of seminar speakers that visited my current institution

In each case, I explained to them why their letter would be helpful. I chose some recommenders because they offered clinical opinions on the nature of my work, some because they are familiar with my area of research, and others because they are familiar with my specific research topic. Do not be nervous to approach scientists regarding these letters even though you do not know them. You will be surprised, perhaps humbled by their willingness to help. I only had one person refuse me and only because he was busy switching jobs and moving his lab across the country.

Most PIs have probably written letters for other people and therefore are familiar with the process. If not, explain the immigration process to them. Some lawyers (depending on their fee structure) will write the letters for you. Other lawyers prepare drafts/skeletons to assist PIs with writing these letters.

It is also very common for applicants to write letters themselves that PIs will then print and sign. This is probably the most difficult/stressful part of the process and also the most time consuming. However, it will make all the difference. I have been fortunate in that 5 of my 10 recommenders wrote the letters themselves, but this is very rare. Enlist the help of family and friends to help you make each letter unique and different from the others.

I encourage you to speak to as many people as possible regarding their experiences; there is a lot to learn from individual cases because no two cases are alike. There is a wealth of information online, but ultimately trust the opinion of an immigration lawyer. This is an expensive process so be prepared.

For those who are unable to come up with lawyer’s fees (upwards of $5000) I found this application packet online and an eBook, which has all the basic information. I cannot attest to the content, but I do know a few people who prepared their own applications with success. I have heard that self-prepared applications are subject to a lot more scrutiny than those submitted by a lawyer.

I want to emphasize again that this post was inspired by my own experience with the process, and is meant to motivate potential applicants to think about how to build a strong application.

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