The NIH, one of the world’s foremost medical research centers, is an agency of the US government, but it is also a very international workplace. According to the Division of International Services (DIS) at the NIH, approximately 2,000 scientists from other nations conduct research in the basic and clinical science laboratories on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, and in several other locations around the country.
Having worked in laboratories alongside scientists from many different countries around the world, I certainly was not surprised by the diverse composition of the workforce at the NIH. However, I was curious about the immigration and visa issues faced by foreign scientists at the NIH.
This week, I discussed these issues with Dr. Michael Cook, a foreign scientist who has held postdoctoral positions and who recently successfully completed a tenure-track research position in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics (DCEG) at the NCI. I thought that Dr. Cook was an excellent example to demonstrate how talented foreign scientists can be hired to perform research in the US government.
Dr. Cook said that he wanted to do his postdoc fellowship abroad and was attracted to doing cancer research with the leaders and experts at the NCI. He started working in DCEG as a Visiting Fellow, the most common position that foreign postdocs hold at the NIH. As a Visiting Fellow, he held a J-1 visa, which is a research scholar and trainee visa that usually includes a necessary return to the home country for at least two years after its expiration. In some cases, however, a waiver from the fellow’s country of origin can be obtained so that the foreign scientist does not have to return home after the J-1 visa has expired.
When Dr. Cook was promoted from Visiting Fellow to Research Fellow, a position in the US government that is considered a full-time equivalent (FTE) position or a regular employee, he then acquired an H-1B visa. This visa allowed him to work not only as a trainee in the US, but as an actual employee. Dr. Cook cited the Division of International Services (DIS) at NIH as a resource for his immigration and visa issues.
While Dr. Cook currently remains on his H-1B visa in his tenure-track research position, he anticipates eventually applying for a Green Card, which allows for permanent residence in the US. In preparation for his application, Dr. Cook is keeping detailed records of his professional achievements, including awards, peer-reviewed publications, and invited scientific presentations. The DIS also helps NIH employees through this application process.
It is possible for foreign scientists like Dr. Cook to be hired as research employees in the US government. From my limited experience now as a postdoc at the NCI, I venture to guess that hiring policies aim to recruit and retain the most talented scientists, no matter their home country.
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.