Welcome to the 3rd installment of the OPT Mythbusting series!

If you haven’t read the first two posts on F-1 OPT Mythbusting, please take a few moments to read them – it will be harder to understand this third post if you haven’t read the first two. You can find them here and here.

For those of you who haven’t applied for OPT yet, here is the application packet.

Today I will bust Myth #5 (OPT will start the day after I graduate) and Myth #6 (During OPT, all jobs must be paid). Because Myths #3 and #4 are closely related to #5 and #6, I kind of already started busting these two myths in the last post. I will go into greater detail with this post.

OPT Myth #5
OPT will start the day after I graduate.

Truth: Only if you want it to! Most students select an OPT start date several weeks after completion of studies.

First, let me explain an important difference between completion of studies and graduation. F-1 visa regulations refer to the “completion of studies” as the end of a student’s degree program. While the completion of studies date is often the same date as formal graduation at MSU, sometimes it is different. There are some cases where students participate in graduation either before or after completing all requirements to earn their degree. For example, some students who finish a degree by turning in a thesis or dissertation have different dates for completion of studies and formal MSU graduation. If this applies to you, then as you read this post, please think about your completion of studies date instead of the graduation date.

OPT rules allow a student to choose an OPT start date anywhere between 1 and 60 days after their completion of studies date. Here are some examples:

As you look at the chart above, keep in mind that you can choose the earliest OPT start date, the latest OPT start date, or any date in between. Also, recall that you can submit your OPT application only during the OPT application window, which extends from 90 days prior to your completion of studies until 60 days after your completion of studies.

So, how do you choose an OPT start date?

Two factors play key roles in the choice:

Date of likely approval and desired date of employment.

If you apply for OPT early (60-90 days before completion of studies), which OISS recommends, you will have your choice of any OPT date within the 60-day range after completion of studies because your OPT will probably be approved well before any start date you choose.  Pick your OPT start date based on either the date you would prefer to start working OR the date you expect to start work, if you already have a job offer.

If you apply for OPT later (fewer than 60 days before completion of studies), then your choice gets more complicated. Of course you should consider the date on which you want or need to start working, however you must also consider when your OPT is likely to be approved.

For example, if you are completing your studies on May 4, 2012 and applying for OPT on April 15, 2012, it is unrealistic to select May 5, 2012 as your OPT start date. There is no way that USCIS will approve your OPT application in 3 weeks. If you pick May 5, 2012 and your application isn’t approved until June 5, 2012, you might lose one whole month of OPT work authorization.

If you apply late and want to start working soon, ask your OISS advisor to recommend a realistic start date. We will use our years of experience to help you select an OPT start date that will fall after the date USCIS is likely to approve your OPT, which will probably be at least 45-60 days into the future. Using a realistic start date recommended by an OISS advisor gives you the best chance of enjoying the full length of your OPT starting at the earliest possible date, if an early start date is what you want.

If you apply really late (on or after your completion of studies date), then the latest possible OPT start date is your most realistic option.

OK! On to the next…

OPT Myth #6
During OPT, all jobs must be paid.

Truth: NO! Unpaid jobs can count as “employment” for OPT.

This Myth is very closely related to Myth #4 about the 90-day unemployment limitation. It is important that you read my bust of Myth #4 here before you read the rest of this post.

I have already written a little about what is actually required to be considered “employed” on OPT: 20 hours per week of work in your field of study. It does not have to be full-time. It does not have to be paid.

Let’s break down that last sentence in bold, piece by piece, and see how OPT employment requirements apply to real life.

20 hours per week…
This is a per-week measure. To meet this requirement, you must work at least 20 hours in each and every week. Therefore, if you work 25 hours the first week and 15 hours the second week, you can’t average it to count as 20 for both weeks. The first week would be considered “employed” and the second week would be considered “unemployed”, i.e. 7 days of unemployment towards your limit of 90 days.

…of work…
While employment is usually paid, under OPT guidelines, unpaid or volunteer work also counts as “employment” as long as all other requirements are met. Also, more types of work than the traditional employer-employee arrangement will count as employment. Here is a complete list of the types of work that count as employment for OPT:

  • Paid employment
  • Unpaid or volunteer employment (permitted if no labor laws are violated)
  • Multiple concurrent employers (paid or unpaid)
  • Short-term multiple employers (typical for performing musicians/artists)
  • “Work for hire” or contract employment (also called “1099 employment”)
  • Self-employment (own your own business)
  • Agency employment (one company hires you then places you for work with a second company)

…in your field of study.
Any and all jobs you take during OPT must be within your field of study. The language used by SEVP for this requirement is “directly related to his or her degree program.”

Many students have questions about this. Who decides what kind of work is “directly related”? Who is checking? How do I prove it? In some cases, the connection is rather clear. A nursing major is hired as a nurse. An engineering major is hired as an engineer. However, there are other areas where the connection between major and job is not so obvious to someone who is not an expert in your field. In these cases, we recommend that you get a letter describing the connection written by either your employer or your MSU academic advisor. Nobody will ask to see the letter right now, but keep it stored in your records – you may be asked to provide documentation that your OPT employment was in your field of study during future visa-related applications.

Also, keep in mind that the work you do should also be at an appropriate level for the degree you just earned. For example, a job as a waiter/waitress in a restaurant is technically in the field of hospitality business, but someone who earns a bachelor’s degree from MSU’s School of Hospitality Business should not take a waiter/waitress job during OPT because the job is too basic for someone with a college degree.

There you have it! As long as the work you do during OPT meets the requirements listed above, you are not acquiring days of unemployment towards the 90-day limit.

Brooke Stokdyk is the Senior International Student and Scholar Advisor at OISS. She handles F & J visa +regulations, documentation (SSN, driver’s license, I-94, etc) and health insurance. Brooke enjoys making people smile, all things from the Hoosier state, and warm hugs from her husband and two small kids.

One more post left! See you next week.