At the Office for International Students and Scholars (OISS) we are often asked for advice on how to get an internship or job in the U.S. Students are very interested in knowing if others have been successful and, if so, how did they do it? Because of this ongoing interest, we will be posting regular Success Story blogs that are written by current or former international students who have had success with finding an internship or long-term employment. We know that peer-to-peer education is particularly useful and we hope it will inspire you! Do you have a success story? Please email oiss@msu.edu to be featured on our blog!

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Navigating the U.S. Academic Job Market as an International Student

If you are approaching the end of graduate studies at MSU and thinking about an academic career in the U.S., you are probably already familiar with the many blogs, forums, and advice columns that are available online for navigating the job market. My intention here is not to inundate you with more advice, but to share with you some personal lessons I learnt about surviving the job market as an international scholar. While some of these may not be applicable to you depending on your specific field of study, here’s what I learnt as a Sociologist.

Mentors matter: The absolute best thing that happened to me during my job search is having mentors who understood my unique circumstances as an international student, who were critical when needed, and who encouraged me to aim high. Throughout the process my mentors tirelessly shared their experiences with me, discussed my strengths and weaknesses, provided feedback on my application packets, arranged mock job talks for me, and even wrote “customized” recommendation letters to each institution I applied for jobs!

Support network matters: The second best thing that happened to me during the job search is having a close friend (an international scholar himself) who was also going through the same process at the time. We proofread each other’s application materials, provided critical feedback, passed along position announcements, celebrated small successes (such as occasional call backs, most of which never mounted to anything) and most importantly, picked up the pieces when those rejection letters started to arrive… We constantly updated each other on the number of job applications sent, indirectly encouraging the other person to “catch up.” After all, it did seem like a numbers game at the time. (I applied for 35 jobs, got 3 callbacks, 2 phone interviews, 1 on-campus campus interview, and a job offer).

Timeline matters: Needless to say, as international students we only have a limited time after graduation (OPT duration) to remain in the U.S. So if you would like to work in the U.S., the strict timeline adds quite a bit of extra pressure. My way of dealing with this was by being proactive, getting a clear sense of the timeline (the OISS advisors are immensely helpful in this regard), and by starting my job search early. I don’t deny that this timeline is stressful, but the good thing is we already have a clear idea of it, to the exact date! (If you don’t believe me, just check the EAD card…), so if you plan early enough, the task isn’t insurmountable.

Information matters: Yes, there’s a lot of information out there and it’s easy to get lost in it or get overwhelmed by it all. But knowing as much as you can about the job market and about others’ experiences can help. My bus ride to school and back was almost always dedicated to reading about the do’s and don’ts of the academic job search (my smart phone was a blessing!). And yes, please go to those job talks! I learnt so much by being involved in job searches in my department as a graduate student. It prepares you for what lies ahead.

Options matter: Many job searches do end well. As hard and as excruciating the academic job search sounds, my colleagues who graduated with me have all found gainful employment. But, once again, as international students we need to be more cognizant of the timeline and think realistically about all available options. Some questions to ponder are, what happens if the academic job search fails? How flexible are you in terms of tenure stream vs non tenure stream positions? What are your other options (in U.S. or in your home country)? What happens if you are unable to get a job in the U.S.? Are you sufficiently aware of the job prospects in your home country? (Graduate school does take most your time and energy, so I for one lost my professional connections in Sri Lanka and was pretty unfamiliar with the job prospects in my own country by the time I graduated). So, if I were to do this again, I would definitely keep more of my options open.

While wishing you success in your own job search, I will leave you with this quote by Eric Roth: “Life can only be understood looking backwards. It must be lived forward.” Happy job hunting y’all!

Dilshani

Dilshani Sarathchandra is from Sri Lanka. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Michigan State University in 2013 and will be joining University of Idaho as an Assistant Professor this Fall. She works in the interdisciplinary field of Science and Technology Studies. Her current research examines the nature of expertise and decision-making in science, with a focus on U.S. Land Grant Universities.