During my first meeting with the planning committee for the 2011 NIH Career Symposium, I learned that more than 60% of the postdoc fellows at the NIH are non-US citizens or residents. Briefly judging from the accents heard around the room that day, I estimated that possibly 75% of the planning committee was foreign.
This revelation came about when we discussed planning a panel on careers in the US government, a topic in which I was very interested. The NIH was a big place, but there were a lot of other acronyms to explore: EPA, FDA, CDC, DOD, DHS, etc. I was wondering whether any of these agencies hired scientists like us.
However, someone on the committee commented, “You usually have to be a citizen to apply for those US government jobs, so most of us don’t even qualify. I don’t think a panel like that would be useful for many people.”
I hadn’t been fully aware of the foreign vs. US composition of the postdoc fellow population at NIH.
According to Harrison HH et al. in The FASEB Journal in 2005, foreign postdoc fellows on temporary visas are the fastest growing segment of the biomedical postdoc population. In 2002, foreign postdocs outnumbered US postdocs by 23%.
I recently asked a foreign postdoc colleague whether she had observed any differences between the research opportunities that she had and the research opportunities that I had as a US citizen. She responded that there were no major differences on an everyday basis. The only difference was our fellowship funding sources. My fellowship was funded through a mechanism that applied to only US citizens or permanent residents, whereas her fellowship did not have that requirement. In addition, there are some research grants for which my foreign colleague may not apply because they are for US citizens or permanent residents only.
Back to the symposium planning committee, based on the self-selected committee members in the room, I realized that we needed to cater to the large foreign postdoc population that would be in attendance at the NIH Career Symposium. We may need to provide relevant information such as:
· Various visas to work in the US – how and when to apply?
· How to get a green card?
· When and how to find a good immigration lawyer?
· When and if to discuss the need for a work visa during a job interview?
I am excited to have brilliant colleagues from all over the world, although my observations these last few weeks have elicited a few questions that I hope to explore in the future: Why are US postdocs outnumbered by foreign postdocs when the majority of biomedical doctoral degrees in the US are earned by US students? What attracts foreign postdocs to work in the US? Are there hiring mechanisms for foreigners to work in the US government?
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Government.
Wenny Lin, PhD, MPH, is a fellow in the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the National Cancer Institute. Prior to joining the Nutritional Epidemiology Branch in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics, Wenny earned her MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2009 and her PhD in Cell & Molecular Biology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008.