Preparing to work or study in the US, for international scientists

Fangwei Gu

The US remains a major destination for plant scientists who wish to expand their horizons and improve their English language skills, but the path through the immigration system may seem daunting. Fangwei Gu is a PhD student at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; I asked him to share his experiences of gaining admission to a US university. We are simultaneously publishing this article in Chinese (link).

How  many plant biologists that were not born in US do we have working in US labs? If you examine the list of speakers from the recent ASPB 2014 meeting you will see scientists originating from China, India, Japan, Korea, Germany and so on who are working in the US as PhD students and postdocs.

I am one of them. And while there are more opportunities for foreign scientists in the US compared to twenty years ago, one still needs to prepare for years in order to grab the opportunity. I started my plan in 2007 and got admitted as a graduate student in 2009. For an applicant whose native language is not English, a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) test is required. Additionally, a GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) score is also necessary for the application. When I was applying, only two GRE test dates were available every year in China, as compared to thirty in 2014. Register early to be sure to get a place.Anonymous_globe_of_flags_1

While waiting for my test scores, I started my search online for programs. I knew I wanted to study plant development and I started with a ‘College Ranking’ list from US News. I checked the department of biology page from these universities and searched using ‘plant development’ as a key word. Then I wrote to the professors that I wanted to work with and asked whether they had any intention/funding to have a new graduate student. Finally I narrowed my list to seven US universities (although a list of ten to twenty is common).

After I had my list and scores I started the application procedure, which was partly done online. I submitted my CV, my personal statement to explain why I applied to this certain department, the contact info for three recommenders and my test scores. Then I sent my undergraduate transcripts, copy of my diploma and other required documents by mail.

These were merely the initial steps, the purpose of which was to win the opportunity to be considered for an interview. Unlike domestic students who can visit the campus for the interviews, most interviews for international applicants occur via Skype or telephone. I was fortunate to have my interview face to face with two professors in Beijing. They interviewed around 50 students from China, I and other five were admitted.

Admitted students can expect to receive the admission letter and I-20 (the immigration document for students) several weeks or months after the interview. Most foreign students need a F1 visa in order to enter the US. The immigration application process is less complicated than applying to a university, but it can still be painful. You can learn more about the immigration process here; SEVIS is the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. One needs to fill in a DS-160 form online and contact the local US embassy or consulate to schedule an interview, during which the visa applicant will be asked the major and the future study plans. Since the F1 is a non-immigrant visa, the application could be denied if the applicant reveals any intention to stay in US after graduation. The length of the process to issue the visa varies; it took me 5 weeks to receive the visa.

The case for a post-doc is slightly different compared to a graduate student. They are recruited by PIs rather than departments. Therefore they don’t need to submit the application to the department (which means TOEFL and GRE tests are not required). In order to get the position, the applicant needs to directly contact the potential supervisor with the CV and research plan. A candidate will be interviewed through Skype or telephone (this is where the English ability being tested) before the supervisor sends out the offer letter. A post-doc needs a J1 VISA (see also or a H1B VISA. More information about the two types of visa can be obtained from the National Postdocs Association.

And then congratulations! Welcome to America!

Other facts:

  1. The education/living fee for student is around $50,000 per year. If a student is coming to US without financial support from the university, he/she needs to provide the documents to prove he/she can afford the trip. A bank statement is typically required. (Meanwhile, the average family income in China in 2012 is $2,100).
  2. The fee for TOEFL, GRE, and visa application is about $100 – $150 for each.
  3. The application fee for international students can be higher compared to domestic students, at around $70 for each university. Also the application deadline may be earlier than for domestic students.

Fangwei Gu expects to complete his PhD studies in Erik Nielsen’s lab in 2015. In his spare time he writes for, the most influential non-governmental organization for science communication to the public in China, and was recognized as one of the ‘Top 20 amazing writers’ from, which is a popular science site similar to Scientific American.

Have you travelled to the US to work or study? Do you have any tips for those who want to follow in your footsteps? Please share any suggestions below!


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