How to Get a Scientific Research Job in the US (If You Are Coming from Elsewhere)
Growing up in Australia, I remember a common phrase: ‘only in America’. Sometimes this was in reference to bizarre cultural events or phenomena but it was generally accepted that the USA was an extraordinary place, where everything was bigger, brighter, and more outrageous. America has fostered a culture of big ideas and innovation, partly because starting a business is relatively straightforward and an unsuccessful business venture is not necessarily seen as a failure. Life sciences and biotech in America can also take advantage of fast delivery times and increased reagent availability, as many companies producing research products are headquartered in or have a significant presence in the USA.
Based on 2017 statistics, there are 1.4 million employees in life sciences in the USA and more than 2500 biotech companies. Of these 2500 companies, some will be small startups with only a handful of employees while the ‘pharma giants’, such as Pfizer and Merck, employ tens of thousands of people. Add to this the number of prestigious universities and other non-profit institutions conducting research and it’s clear that there’s plenty of potential opportunities for job-hunting scientists in the USA. However, you may be wondering how a non-US citizen can go about finding employment, especially if you’re located in a far-off country.
You’ll hear it 100 times during any job search – network, network, network.
First, make sure that your LinkedIn profile is up to date, accurate, and showcases your skills and experience. No spelling errors, a professional-looking photo, and a short summary about yourself will show that you’re serious about finding a good position. LinkedIn acts as your online resume and allows you to present your best professional face to potential recruiters. Unlike Facebook, it’s perfectly acceptable to connect with people you don’t know personally if their experience is relevant to your own.
Secondly, monitor news in your scientific field. Which academic lab has funding, who raised startup capital, which company has just decided to focus on a drug or product highly relevant to your expertise? A physical presence in the USA could be helpful if you are able to line up contacts to visit while you’re there, but without any job leads it’s a long and probably expensive trip to simply go door knocking.
Online job postings are helpful but don’t be discouraged if you apply and hear nothing back. If you see jobs that don’t quite match your skills but are in your area of interest, try contacting the advertiser to see if they have any other potential positions. This is particularly true for industry jobs, where a company may be hiring multiple people to develop an existing team or project. If the job has been posted by a recruitment agency, the recruiter may be involved in hiring for other companies with similar positions.
If you’re able to connect with a potential employer and secure a job interview, that’s great! If you’re not already in the US, a phone interview is the most common first step. Make sure you are well prepared by taking the time to research the company or institution and the kind of work they do. Always think of several (intelligent) questions to ask your interviewer, as many of your questions will be answered during the interview. If you are being asked to use an app you’re not familiar with (Zoom, Skype, BlueJeans, etc.), make sure you install it on your computer ahead of time and know how to use it.
I’ve recently had an insight into the recruiting process at a small-to-medium size biotech company. If you get an interview, the company or lab is probably already satisfied that you can perform the techniques required for the position (unless you lied on your resume – please do not lie on your resume). The most important considerations are teamwork, integrity, a great attitude and being able to adapt. You may well be asked ‘situational’ questions and it’s great to practice these for any stage of your job search. Don’t just present your skills and experience like a shopping list, give examples: when did you demonstrate teamwork? In what situation did you demonstrate grace under pressure? Don’t be afraid to sell yourself, and practice until you’re able to fluently describe yourself both on paper and in person as a fantastic potential member of a team, not a pipetting machine.
If you are offered a position in the USA, congratulations! However, there are a few more things you need to consider before going ahead.
It’s OK to negotiate when you receive your offer letter. If your new position is in industry, it’s almost expected. An academic salary may be dictated by grant funding or University regulations but that doesn’t mean negotiating is out of the question.
For an industry job, check Glassdoor or other resources to see the average salary for similar positions. Keep in mind that the salaries also reflect the high cost of living in areas such as Boston or San Francisco!
You may be offered a relocation bonus if you’re coming from far away. If you’re not offered relocation expenses, ask if this is possible to help cover the costs of moving to a new country.
When investigating job opportunities or attending interviews, it is acceptable to enter the USA on a visitor visa or ESTA waiver program. However, make sure you have booked your travel to leave the USA and have this information ready if it’s requested when you arrive. Don’t book a one-way ticket into the US unless you have proof (i.e., a visa) of ongoing employment. You may not start work until you exit the USA and obtain a visa and you can’t transition from visitor status to a work visa while inside the USA. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) takes these laws extremely seriously – never perform any work, paid or otherwise, unless you have the appropriate visa.
If you’re not a US citizen, you’ll need a work visa. Generally speaking, you need at least a Bachelor’s degree in the relevant field to qualify for a work visa in a scientific setting. Relevant field means directly related to the job you’re applying for – a degree in Business is not sufficient for a position in Neuroscience. Most life sciences institutions or companies, except for small startups, will be experienced in this process and most have their own lawyers to deal with visa applications. Even so, it’s a good idea to have some background information on the visa process.
Keep in mind that the visa process will take some time. A company or university can sometimes apply for premium processing when petitioning the US government for your visa, which will expedite your visa application for an additional fee. However, completing paperwork, scheduling interviews at the US consulate in your home country, and waiting for your completed passport may take weeks or even months.
You need to bring plenty of enthusiasm and flexibility to the table when dealing with recruiters or potential employers. Hiring a foreign national means extra expense and paperwork. Depending on the visa, there may be significant costs to the university or company. Keep in mind that it is illegal for your potential employer to ask you to pay visa filing fees! Both you and your employer will be in breach of the law if you do this, so never deal with any employer that asks you to cover filing fees in any way or implies that your salary will be reduced to compensate. I have been audited by Homeland Security while working as a postdoc and this is the first question I was asked.
It’s also a good idea to consider where in the USA you would be living. The biggest and busiest areas in life science industry are Cambridge, Massachusetts, the California Bay Area, and Seattle. Smaller but still important areas include San Diego, Los Angeles, and various major cities in Texas. Keep in mind that these are some of the most expensive cities to live in the world. As much as postdocs often survive on small stipends, foreign nationals are required to prove that they will have enough money to live on during their stay. If you apply for a visa with an offer for a job that pays very poorly and no existing savings or funds, USCIS may not be convinced that you can support yourself. If you are bringing family with you (husband or wife, US immigration does not recognize unmarried partners), they may be able to work in the USA but obtaining work authorization can take many months.
To conclude, the USA offers fantastic opportunities for scientific job-seekers and living on the other side of the world is not necessarily a barrier to securing a job. Keep in mind some important points:
- Learn how to sell yourself. In general, Americans are very happy to hear about your accomplishments and it’s not seen as poor taste unless you overinflate your abilities or bend the truth!
- Many jobs are never advertised – don’t be afraid to politely approach recruiters, companies or institutions if you feel there could be opportunities
- Without US citizenship, you will require a work visa. Be aware that this process may take time, and never break the rules
With determination and a little bit of luck, you might just find your dream job stateside.
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