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Foreign faculty face challenges

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Many foreign-born scientists have made the United States their home because the country provides some of the best training and career opportunities worldwide. But life as a foreign scientist is not without its challenges.

Shortly after joining William Earnshaw's lab at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1991, Russian-born Yuri Lazebnik attended a seminar. Although he did not know the speaker, he could tell from everyone's anticipation of the talk that he was a famous scientist. As the seminar started, Lazebnik discovered the speaker had a heavy foreign accent. "I looked at everyone around me and realized at that moment that if you have something to say and can be understood, it does not matter where you come from," he recalls.

Lazebnik, now a professor at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York, is one of many foreign-born scientists who emigrated to the United States for their postdoctoral training and decided to stay in the country. The proportion of postdoctoral scholars on temporary visas increased from 37.4 percent in 1982 to 58.8 percent in 2002, outnumbering U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Although many foreign postdocs return to their home countries to land academic positions, many others choose to remain. A survey by the scientific society Sigma Xi (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina) found that the United States was the most attractive place to settle for postdoctoral scholars of all nationalities, regardless of where they earned their Ph.D.s. And the fondness is mutual. A recent report on foreign scholars published by the National Academies of Science (NAS) concluded that, in order to maintain its dominance in science and technology, the United States should continue to recruit the best and brightest international students.

But this does not mean that being a foreign-born scientist in the United States is without challenges. Some of the difficulties are obvious. Immigration red tape, especially in the post 9/11 climate, makes it more difficult for foreign postdocs to find permanent employment in the United States and to travel internationally. Other challenges are not as clearly defined. The Sigma Xi survey found that although international and domestic academic postdoctoral scholars expressed similar satisfaction with their training experience, temporary residents had more limited access to funding sources and to employment opportunities. In addition, the stipends of temporary residents were about 7 percent less than those of citizens. Other studies show that the length of postdoctoral appointments tends to be slightly longer for noncitizens, "maybe because they do not navigate the system as well," says Chiara Gamberi, vice chair of the International Committee of the National Postdoctoral Association. "We don't have enough data to know what the effects are." Without a doubt, language barriers, cultural differences, and distance from family and loved ones make the lives of foreigners, in any type of work, more challenging.

Immigration woes

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government introduced a number of new policies and procedures aimed at increasing security in its visa processing system. As a result, almost all visa applicants have to appear for a personal interview at the nearest U.S. consulate, sometimes waiting up to four months to get an appointment. Sometimes applications undergo a second review by the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. A security review process known as Visas Mantis, required for applicants with a background in one of the sensitive technologies on the Technology Alert List, is behind most of the delays experienced by foreign scientists. Visas Mantis is not a new procedure, but the number of applications being reviewed increased from about a thousand in the year 2000 to 20,000 in 2003 ( Science 312:657, 2006).
The process is a source of frustration to many foreign scientists visiting the United States. Last year, Indian chemist Goverdhan Mehta, who serves as president of the International Council for Science, canceled a trip to the University of Florida when his visa application was found in need of further scrutiny. The scientist told the Indian press that he found the review process humiliating and unnecessary.

Although the Mehta case caused a stir in the international scientific community, most visa problems go unheard, and it is impossible to know how many scientists are simply refusing to travel to the United States. Delays in obtaining a visa approval can have particularly damaging consequences for scientists who are working in the United States. "We know of cases where they have gone home for an emergency and cannot get back because of visa problems," says Wendy White, director of the Board on International Scientific Organizations at NAS. "They are separated from their families, cannot pay their bills, and sometimes lose their jobs." White oversees NAS's International Visitors Office (, set up to help scientists who have been waiting for visa approval for more than three weeks. The office alerts the Department of State of such cases in an effort to expedite the review process.

Fortunately, such problems are getting, by all accounts, less frequent. The number of cases the International Visitors Office at NAS dealt with in 2006 was down to 204 compared to 856 in 2003. And in 2005, the Department of State announced that it increased staffing and streamlined systems to reduce the average time for obtaining Visas Mantis clearance to less than 14 days. "The perception that the U.S. does not welcome foreign students is diminishing," says Amy Scott, senior federal relations officer at the Association of American Universities. "I think we are getting back to being seen as a welcoming nation both for students and in terms of faculty opportunities."

But White says more should be done to avoid long delays for visa applications. "We understand the need for security, but perhaps people who have successfully completed the clearance process could be given a special status so that they do not have to undergo these interviews each time they need or want to travel to the United States," she suggests.

Cut off from funding

At the moment, tenured faculty positions in the United States are hard to come by, regardless of citizenship. This is in part due to the fact that, as National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni recently pointed out, the number of scientists in the United States has dramatically increased over the past decade ( Science, 314:1088, 2006). But although foreign postdocs now outnumber home grown ones, a report by the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology (FASEB) concluded that "there is no evidence that they are taking permanent jobs away from U.S. citizens" ( Garrison et al. FASEB J. 19:1938, 2005). In fact there are hints that foreign postdocs may have a harder time landing permanent faculty positions than their U.S.-born colleagues.

For one thing, most federal funding sources for postdoctoral training are strictly reserved for U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents. This not only translates to lower salaries, on average, for foreign postdocs, but also renders them less competitive. The NAS report, Addressing the Nation's Changing Need for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists (2000), found that postdoctoral participants in the National Research Service Award program, from which foreign scientists are barred, completed their postdoctoral training faster and went on to more successful research careers. In particular, former NRSA fellows were more likely to be successful in competing for NIH grants as independent investigators.

Scientists on temporary visas don't have access to some government jobs, such as principal investigator at the NIH. While there is no evidence that foreign applicants would be less desirable to a university's faculty hiring committee, "it is more complicated to hire foreign faculty because of the paperwork," says Gamberi. Indeed, in industry, foreigner-born postdocs have to go the extra mile to land a position. For the past five years, Joel Shulman, adjunct professor of chemistry at the University of Cincinnati and former manager of doctoral recruiting and external relations at Procter & Gamble, has been running a workshop at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society for foreign nationals who want to remain to work in the United States ( "To hire you on a permanent basis, employers have to sponsor you for a green card. If they see no route for getting a green card, they will not hire you," explains Shulman. "A lot of companies are afraid of the time and effort."

He advises students to "develop a skill set that is desirable to a company and not held by all others." Only about half of graduates in chemistry do a postdoc, but the additional training is almost mandatory for foreign nationals. During the postdoctoral term, a scientist can acquire additional skills and his or her publications have time to accrue citations, one of the criteria for obtaining a green card via the "outstanding researcher" application route. "You have to somehow lower the activation barrier," says Shulman.

Learning the talk . . . 

When Xinyan Huang left China to pursue graduate studies at the University of Toledo, Ohio, spoken language was a major obstacle. Although she practiced long hours to prepare for her graduate school interview and was able to introduce herself to her committee, she did not understand many of the questions they asked.

Like Huang, most foreign scientists in the United States come from China and, for most of them, language is often an issue. So much so that Jim Samet and Chinese-speaking colleagues at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided to write a guide, The Illustrated Chinese-English Guide for Biomedical Scientists, to "help build confidence in the use of scientific English," says John Inglis, director of Cold Spring Harbor Press, publisher of the book. The guide provides lists of terms that are common in science laboratories translated in both simplified and complex English. The accompanying "talking" website ( gives the correct pronunciation of these terms.

Language problems can of course be overcome with time and practice. Huang, who has been a postdoctoral fellow in Richard Neubig's lab at the University of Michigan since 2002, says she no longer finds it difficult to be understood, but writing grants and manuscripts is still a challenge. Having completed nearly five years of postdoctoral training, Huang has thought of moving back to China. "Recently a colleague returned [to China] and obtained a good startup position. If I went back I would have a good opportunity," says Huang. "But my passion for science and doing cutting-edge work keeps me here." Huang is optimistic that she will be able to obtain a position as an independent investigator in the United States, although she is not quite ready to take the plunge. "At least for now, my plan is to publish more papers, get a career transitional award, and look for a faculty position soon," she says.

. . . and walking the walk

Seattle-based author Kathy Barker, whose books At the Bench and At the Helm provide practical advice for working in and running a scientific lab, often receives questions from foreign-language scientists. "A lot of the things that I write about in At the Bench that are pretty common sense to U.S. scientists are not common sense to [foreign-born ones]. For example they don't know that they can talk to their department chair or that they can call the grant officer at NIH," says Barker. "The non-English speakers especially have trouble understanding the institutional goings-on."

Many foreign scientists seek out support groups of other foreign-born scientists who can help them navigate the system." I know about 40 Chinese colleagues in the U.S. and we call each other to exchange information," says Huang. "The challenge foreign scientists have is to find a support network. But nowadays, thanks to the Internet, a lot of connections are done before they even get in the country," says Calendario Zapata, director for the Division of International Services at NIH. Although his office's primary role is to provide foreign scientists employed at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, help with their immigration papers, it provides other types of information, from filing income taxes to finding local child care.

The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) ( has put together a guide to help newcomers. "The impetus for the project was a workshop at one of the NPA's annual meetings where postdocs brought up many common and practical questions," says Gamberi, who is now a staff scientist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. One of the main resources in the guide is information about different types of visas. Obtaining permanent residence in the United States requires a lengthy process. Thus, most foreign scientists coming to the United States initially apply for temporary visas. Once they are in the country, they can often apply for a more permanent status. The most common types of visas sought by scientists are: F-1, usually for undergraduate and graduate students at universities; H1-B, for temporary workers in specialty occupations; and J-1, for exchange visitors. Although most institutions provide help with obtaining a visa, they don't always point out the advantages of one visa type over the other. "One can be more restricted than the other depending on your career path," explains Gamberi.

Foreign scientists not only have to learn how to navigate the U.S. system to advance in their careers, but also adjust to all the practical aspects of daily life in the United States. "Benefits have to be discussed in the U.S. In Europe you just have them," says Gamberi. Other things that a foreigner has to learn are how to obtain a credit card and to build up a credit history. Indeed the biggest challenges for Lazebnik were things like obtaining a checkbook. "I had never seen a checkbook before coming to America. In Russia we just used cash at that time," he recalls. His supervisor assigned another postdoc in the lab with the task of taking Lazebnik to look for apartments, find a bank, and just explain how things worked. That was a huge help to Lazebnik, and he still remains grateful to the former labmate, Alastair MacKay, and within a month he was more or less settled.

For years the United States has attracted the best scientists from around the world. While many return to their countries of origin to share their acquired experience and knowledge, some have made the United States their permanent home despite the challenges facing them and have built successful careers. Continuing to lure top international scientists to the United States will benefit research both locally and worldwide, to the overall benefit of the global scientific endeavor.

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