What’s the best US visa for PhD holders who are non-US citizens but want to work in the US?

For most international PhD students, there might not be family to depend on if you don’t land a job right after graduation. Thus finding work is crucial. But to find work, you need the right work visa – something that can literally be the reason why despite your qualifications, an organization may not offer you a role.

Needless to say, this can cause a lot of anxiety for an international PhD.

How do I know? Because, once upon a time, this was my story!

So if you’re drawing close to the end of your studies and are feeling some anxiety over this, trust me, you’re not alone.

I’ve talked about how I successfully adjusted my status from being an F1 international student to becoming a permanent resident. I did this through the Employment Based National Interest Waiver program for advanced degree holders.

There are however, other visa options you can explore as an international PhD student.

We’ll cover five of the best work visa options for international PhDs in this post. I’ll also touch on which work visa may be best depending on your long-term goals.

Want to watch this as a video? Click on the play button below.

Looking for the best US visa for PhD holders? Consider these five below.

Optional Practical Training for F1 international students

As an international student, you get twelve months of optional practical training (OPT) for each level of education you complete after graduation. If you are a student in STEM, you can apply to extend your OPT by 24 months after the original twelve. This provides you with a total of three years within which you can work legally.

I think this is a such a great opportunity especially if you want to gain some work experience in the US after school.

O-1 Visa for Individuals with Extraordinary Ability

According to the USCIS website, the O-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa for individuals who possess extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, business, education, athletics or in the film industry. These achievements should have been recognized nationally or internationally.

The USCIS approves the O-1 visa for three years and then you can renew it each year after that for as long as you need to. The drawback however is that because the O-1 is a non-immigrant visa, you are not considered a permanent resident of the US. Thus, you may not necessarily be on the path to citizenship. If this is not your long-term goal, this could be an excellent visa type for you. However, if it is your plan to later on become a citizen of the US, I recommend another visa type like the EB1 or EB2/NIW visa which I’ll touch on later.


The H1-B visa is another non-immigrant visa category that applies to individuals working in specialty occupations in the United States. Each year, the H1-B program has a cap of 65,000 visas. Of course, more people than that apply to the program. Thus there is a “lottery” system where the government randomly picks the recipients of these visas. An additional 20,000 H1-B visas are reserved for individuals with a master’s degree or higher from a US institution. This is exempt from the cap.

If you work at an accredited higher education institution or non-profit research or government organization, you can apply for an H1-B as well and be exempt from the H1-B cap.

The drawback to this visa type is that you need an US employer to get it and maintain it.

If you lose your job while on an H1-B, usually, this also means you lose your visa status or else you would need to find an employer willing to “transfer” your visa.

This happened to a colleague of mine once, and it was a very stressful time for him and his family.

Employment-Based (EB) Visa Categories

The “EB” visa categories are in my estimation, the best if you intend on becoming a permanent resident in the US.

The other great thing about this category is that you don’t necessarily need an employer to file one on your behalf. You can self-petition for this visa category within or from outside the United States as long as you satisfy the requirements.

As an international PhD, you can either file under the EB1-Extraordinary Ability category or under the EB2-National Interest Waiver category.

Both of these have immigrant intent. Once you file it successfully and the government approves your case, you become a permanent resident of the US.

The EB1 visa is similar to the O-1 visa in that you have to prove to the government that you have extraordinary ability in your field that has merited national or international acclaim.

The EB2 visa category will require that you prove that your work – usually your research – is of national importance.

In my opinion, this is the most suitable US visa for PhD holders who plan on saying in the US long-term.

J-1 Visa

So far, most of the visa types I’ve mentioned fit very well if you received a PhD in the United States.

If you received your PhD from a country outside the US and you plan on doing academic research, a visa option you may consider is the J-1 visa.

The USCIS considers this visa type, an “exchange visitor” program for the purpose of international scholars and experts to exchange knowledge with colleagues in the United States.

If you need to adjust your status to another visa type while on the J-1 visa, it is likely that you might have to return your home country to do so.

The best US visa for PhD holders: it’s different for everyone

Choosing the best US visa as a PhD holder depends on your goals and your situation.

I’ve known international students who have immediately left the US after graduation.

Some have stayed and worked for a while and then either relocated home or to another country.

For some, the goal might be to work and live in the US permanently.

There is a visa path for each one of these options. So I encourage you to ask yourself some deep questions on what your long-term goals are as you select a visa path.

For more information on each of the visa types, visit the links below.

  • Employment-Based Categories (EB1 and EB2)

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