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Fate of a foreign postdoc

PostPosted: Fri Dec 03, 2004 6:17 pm
by Sarah Frias-Torres
I have dedicated my life to the conservation of marine life. I have crossed an entire ocean from my native Spain to pursue my passion of a research career in Marine Biology. Like an uprooted tree, I have tried my best to assimilate the culture and work environment in the US. I am on my second postdoc fellowship at a government lab. Although the working environment is excellent, I have serious doubts of life after the postdoc. Frankly, the miniature pay and the lack of adequate health insurance or retirement plans does not encourage me to apply for a third postdoc (which seems to be the norm these days). Research funding is drying out in the US, as the recent cuts in NSF budget show.

I am looking for all possibilities in the US (academia, industry) and even the dreadful multi-postdoc venue. Foreign scientists are not welcome anymore, as the process of getting work visas is getting more complicated or even abusive (now at a price of $3,000 per H1 visa). In addition to all the pressures young scientists have, foreigners are faced with deportation if we do not secure a job once our student or exchange visas expire.

After 16 years of full dedication to science (5 for the BSc, 2 for MSc, 6 for PhD, 3 for postdoc), I'm faced with two choices: 1) get any science job available in the US (even below my training), 2) abandon science all together and return to Spain.
The time I have spent underwater, and the amazing creatures I have encountered demand that I use up to the last drop of energy in my blood to fight such meager fate. I do care about what I do, but it seems that nobody in a position of power cares about young scientists or about the marine environment.

Are there any suggestions?

P.S. a third possibility is to retire to some Caribbean island and open a spanish shack cooking paella and making sangria.

Fate of a foreign postdoc

PostPosted: Fri Dec 03, 2004 6:41 pm
by Dave Jensen
Hi Sarah,

That third possibility sounds like the most fun of all. Man, would I love to be doing that right now myself.

I recently came back from Spain and heard very similar complaints in my seminars in both Madrid and Barcelona. Spanish scientists were complaining about the fact that no one in Spain needs or cares about them, and that they have to go elsewhere -- to other parts of Europe or the States -- in order to secure a future in their field. While these weren't Marine Biologists, I can tell you that there certainly a lot of similar comments to yours about Euro countries and Spain itself.

That's why I'd like to suggest that the big bad USA isn't really all that different, and that your concerns may have been just as real in other countries, in other societies. Biologists in general have a hard time getting recognized for what they do. Marine Biologists, in particular, seem to be near the bottom of the "most appreciated scientists" list. Most of the time, the response from the public is "wow, that's neat science, what will you do, work at the Baltimore acquarium?"

Yes, the world doesn't treat scientists right. I agree. But I think we're in danger of getting into a big "pity party" here on this forum, and we can't allow that to happen. I hope that you get some solid advice from others here about how to focus your career in the States, because I am certain that we can use your talents here and that our country would be better off with you as opposed to deporting you. Please don't develop the feeling that you are being treated unfairly here, however. The world is an ugly place right now, and all the rules have changed about residency and visas in most countries -- particularly in the USA.

Dave Jensen, Moderator

Fate of a foreign postdoc

PostPosted: Fri Dec 03, 2004 10:46 pm
by Shehan9762
Hi Sarah,

If you start your career in the Caraibeans, please hire me! I m in.

I am in a similar situation as you and from time to time I curse the luck of certain people who didnt do as many studies and earn loads of money (i.e. plumbers, bankers, businessmen...) I have nothing against them but the society doesnt seem to be thankful to the things that we can offer.

I am working in a department in a medium size university and in the division I am in, there are 30 foreign post docs and 1 american post doc. Some of us applied for jobs and guess who got interviews (phone and onsite interviews) right away? None of the foreign post doc got any interviews. The thing that shocked me the most was that among my friends there was a guy who had a Ph D, 5 years of industrial experience, 3 patents and numerous publications and didnt even get an interview for a company. But I guess that for the moment, for those who didnt have a green card, its almost impossible to get anything since the H1B work visa quota has been used up. So I guess that you need to be patient and wait for next september.
And also, I m not even sure that you ll be able to get the jobs that you consider yourself as \"overqualified\" since the job market isnt great.

Fate of a foreign postdoc

PostPosted: Sat Dec 04, 2004 5:12 pm
by Paul
Hi Sarah,

Scheesh...I know the feelings you are going through right now.

I was a post doc for 4 years in my lab and was feeling pretty much exactly what you described. My advice would be to look around...anywhere! The USA is in a really bad way right now for foreign post docs and, in my opinion, they will suffer badly in the long run. Very good scientists are leaving due to the pressures of visas, poor pay and little, if any, benefits. Meanwhile, those with an american passport or green card are often being chosen with that being a major factor. I'm not sure if its an employer problem (don't want to deal with the difficulties and costs of applying for visas etc) or a government problem (restricting research funds for US citizens only).

For me, I started looking around but was actually keen to stay in my current lab to finish off a couple of exciting projects. I went for interviews and was open and honest with my mentor about the fact and told him of offers I received. In the end, I had a good offer on the table and was thinking about taking it when my mentor finally came through and offered for me to stay but with a promotion to instructor. Personally, I think some institutes abuse the instructor position since it is cheaper than an assistant professor but, the facts are, I got a 30% pay increase and they now make pension payments because I am "staff".

I do the same job though...:)

Maybe you could work things in a similar way. If your institute wants to keep you, they will try. If they don't, you already have some opportunities opening elsewhere. At least the power is shifted towards your hands. Definately helped me be less disillusioned.

Fate of a foreign postdoc

PostPosted: Sat Dec 04, 2004 6:17 pm
by Dave Jensen
Paul, I believe it is an employer issue, but it hasn't changed all that much. For the last twenty years, I've noticed that only about 15-20% of employers will go through the hiring process for non-Green Card holders. Its expensive, but it always has been. I don't really see it having changed all that much. Companies who can afford to hire foreign scientists will still go through the hoops to do so.


Fate of a foreign postdoc

PostPosted: Tue Dec 07, 2004 2:19 pm
by Drew Parrish
Is the green card process really such a big deal for companies? It doesn't seem to be that way for academic institutions - I saw two new assistant professors hired at my past institution last year who were both foreign (German and Chinese). And a good friend (English) had offers of tenure-track positions from four different schools. No offense to him, but it's not like he was such a stellar candidate that people were going to jump through hoops for him. I just got the impression that nationality wasn't a concern for academic institutions - they were just choosing the best candidate. Is industry that different?

The biggest issue I've heard people discuss about the marketability of foreign postdocs in the US is English fluency. Fair or not, being able to articulate complex scientific ideas in speech and on paper is a necessary skill. I've known too many foreign postdocs that have buried their head in their lab bench (and produced wonderful things) but then fail at networking and the job talk because the listeners have to struggle to understand them.

Fate of a foreign postdoc

PostPosted: Fri Dec 10, 2004 1:52 pm
by Martin
i dont think english fluency is the major factor. Im English, Cambridge Educated, and looking for a job in the US. Out of the 50 applications I only have been offered one on site interview. I think the Governments reduction of H1 visas is a huge thing. It only leaves open a green card application and an O visa (rare) companies pysically cannot employ forgieners with out huge hoops and jumps to go through. Its easy to higher a US born individual even if less highly quialifies.

im in the same situation as the original poster. If i dont get a job by feb im going to be forced to leave. it is an extemely alienating feeling. to know that you REALLY are not welcome.


Fate of a foreign postdoc

PostPosted: Fri Dec 10, 2004 4:34 pm
by Kim
But would you also agree that a country must also "control" the flow the immigration so that foreigners would not compete with the Americans for jobs? A government also has the responsibilities to protect its citizen. Can you understand this? Despite all the obstacles, the US still has one of the most liberal immigration policies in the world. More liberal than the UK.

If we do not control immigration, there will be backlash against immigration. Very soon, there will be no immigration in the US to speak of.

Fate of a foreign postdoc

PostPosted: Fri Dec 10, 2004 9:02 pm
by Brian
I'm also a foreigner and I feel that I should speak up. On this issue, I have to side with Kim and Dave. While this country has gotten tougher in its immigration policies, it is unfair to generalize that we are no longer welcome here. It is always easy to point the finger when things don't go our way. Yes, getting a job here has become a complex issue but that doesn't mean companies are shutting out everyone who is deemed foreign. I know of foreigners who are getting interviews (and jobs). I think it's an issue of language, marketability, and corporate/institutional fit. If we do not fit into the institutional or corporate culture (or share the same goals and values) then we aren't the best candidate.
Blaming the H1 restrictions isn't going to solve our problems. Besides, since we're already here (assuming H1) then the H-1 cap doesn't apply to us anyways (nor does it apply to educational institutions hiring foreigners). Unless of course the person's on J-1 and wants to switch to H-1, well, that can be a little troublesome I've heard.
So instead of having self-pity, I say we need to refocus and reevaluate ourselves in the current difficult job market. Our energy should be better spent at marketing ourselves and improving our network. I always remind myself of two things: No one owes us a job (yes, even with PhDs), and Ask not what the company can do for us, but what we can do for the company.

Fate of a foreign postdoc

PostPosted: Sat Dec 11, 2004 11:22 am
by Shehan9762
Hi all,

I just wanted to add a few things on what Brian said. I totally agree with what Brian and Kim about immigration. I ve been to a few countries in my life and USA seems to be the one that offers the most opportunities for qualified scientists like us. From what I noticed as a foreigner, the US society is more based on merit and hardwork than anywhere else.
A few people on this forum mentionned that point already (Dave Jensen and others...)

To switch from J-1 to H-1 isnt so difficult. It just means a bit of paperwork from your advisor and some money (1000USD for premium processing and 183 USD for normal processing...).

I m happy to hear that your foreign friends are getting interviews. (By the way how did they manage to do so?)

Another thing is : English fluency. I dont really think that this is the problem. I have some English friends (experienced or less experienced) that cant even get the first interview... I think its all about networking... [See previous posts]

Martin said : "im in the same situation as the original poster. If i dont get a job by feb im going to be forced to leave. it is an extemely alienating feeling. to know that you REALLY are not welcome. "

Well, Martin, dont forget that in the UK, it would be exactly the same thing for foreigners. Imagine yourself as a foreign scientist (not from the European Union) that would like to work in the UK. You will see that getting a job is as difficult as in the US, if not more.