MentorDoctor: Research Regardless of Citizenship

Luis Echegoyen, Ph.D.
Chair and Professor
Department of


Dear MentorDoctor,

I'm currently a sophomore pursuing a Bachelor of Science in biology. I really want to do research, but unfortunately, there are not many research opportunities for international students. What resources are available for students who weren't born in the U.S.?

Sincerely,Looking For More Information

Luis Echegoyen: Funding for research opportunities such as the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) is mainly restricted to U.S. citizens; however, most research grants given to individual faculty members allow them the flexibility to hire individuals regardless of citizenship. At my institution (Clemson University), we use both types of funds for our summer research programs for undergraduates, which allow us to host both U.S. citizens and non-citizens. Find an area of research you are interested in and make contact with research-active faculty members working in that area. Since they have more flexibility with their own research funds than programmatic grants, you should be able to participate in a research project--and get paid for it. Good luck.

Isabella Finkelstein: You have a challenge that many of my students have. Although there are few research opportunities for international students, they do exist. Finding the right one requires an investment of your time.

  • Some summer research opportunities are funded by private foundations and will accept international students.

  • In a few instances, states fund research programs that will admit international students.

  • Some summer research programs have a combination of funding. In some instances an international student can be funded by private funds.

  • You should be proactive and get in touch with Program Directors from various agencies and inquire if funds are available. If your advisor knows a few program directors personally, he or she could call and inquire about opportunities for international students. Don't be discouraged. You?ll find what you are looking for.

    James Stith: You did not indicate where you were in school, so I will keep the comments general. I assume that you are a student at an institution within the U.S., therefore your nationality should not have an impact on your ability to secure an undergraduate research experience at your parent institution.

    If you would like to remain at your institution and there are faculty members who are active in research, you should find out as much as you can about what they are doing and then approach them about working with them. Doing your homework about the nature and scope of the work prior to the discussions will show that you have initiative and will make a positive impression on the researcher. Your academic advisor and graduate students in your department should be able to help you with this.

    Additionally, if there is a student club in your department, join it. These clubs often have seminars and other sessions where discussions are held about the science beyond the classroom. You should also look on the web for academic institutions that offer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). Although all NSF funded REUs require participants to be citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. "or its possessions," you may be able to do research at these institutions with alternative sources of support. Also consider an internship at various industrial sites, although it is likely that you may run into some citizenship problems. Finally, I would suggest that you contact the professional society in your area of research interest. They may have additional resources and may be able to provide more information through on-line mentoring programs. Good luck.

    The GrantDoctor: Though--very controversially--some restrictions on access to research equipment by foreign nationals are being considered by our government, currently there are very few restrictions on research by foreign nationals in the U.S. So the premise of your question is false. If you wish to do research, you can. The existing restrictions are on getting paid to do research using training funds from the U.S. federal government, which is a very different thing.

    A few very special undergraduates rapidly make themselves very useful in the lab. Others are "projects," requiring a great deal of care and feeding. But generally, at the undergraduate level research is an educational activity, undertaken for the benefit of the student; hence, payment is not to be expected. Indeed, the undergraduate-research model I'm most familiar with involves students doing undergraduate theses for credit. Not only must you work without pay; you must pay (tuition) for the privilege of working, just as you do for your other courses. At many institutions, an undergraduate thesis is a requirement for graduation, though some allow a "library thesis" to be substituted for real lab work and others have no research requirement at all.

    Summer research is a different matter, since many students have financial aid packages that require them to earn money during the summer. For foreign nationals, training-related funding from federal agencies isn't an option; NSF REUs, for instance, can only be used to support U.S. citizens and permanent residents. But this is only a tiny fraction of the federal research budget; indeed, technically speaking, it isn't even a part of the research budget. Pretty much all the rest of the money used to support research--including federal money paid out as research grants-- can be used to support foreign nationals, during both the summer and the school year. But this money is intended for actual research, not research training. So, if you want to get paid from this pot you'll need to work hard to make yourself genuinely useful in the lab, as quickly as possible--a good thing for all concerned, especially you.

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