[Note: This article was originally written and published by me in Times of India. I am pasting below the slightly longer version of the article here.]
November 8th, 2016
I sneaked a peak at my mobile phone during the end-semester lab examination to look at the election results. It was clearly edging towards Donald Trump who was ahead with 265 electoral votes while his opponent lagged behind with just 210. Fear struck me. I imagined a future where I would be graduating from Columbia University with no job due to the stringent immigration laws that Trump would go on to impose.
My fear of being jobless was warranted, however, the reason for the fear was not. Little did I know then that the real ordeal were not alleged laws and legislation, it was something entirely different.
The Immigration Situation — With Facts
United States has been, and is, one of the top destination choices for graduate school for all international students, vowing to its quality education, top-notch infrastructure and arguably open labor market. It hosted about 1.1 million students, out of the 4.6 million worldwide, in 2017 with United Kingdom and China bagging second and third place.
While the U.S. is a major importer, India is a major exporter. As of August 2017, over half a million Indians were studying abroad, with over 50% in North America.
For these students, the coveted visa category is the H-1B as it permits their stay in the U.S. for a period of six years while employed, and in turn extends it indefinitely once they file an application for a green card. Over the past 16 years, the supply of the mere 85,000 visas have been exhausted every single year. In fact, since 2014, the supply became exhausted within five days of accepting applications.
The Good News and The Bad News
The good news came as a new ruling by Trump in 2018 that tipped the scale towards students who posses a Master’s degree. From 2019, the order of filing will be reversed. Everyone, including Master’s students, will first be considered in the 65,000 visa category. The Master’s students who remain unpicked will get an exclusive second chance for 20,000 more visas. With a little mathematical insight, this increases the probability of selection from 51% to 55% for Master’s students.
What’s the bad news? Trump’s incessant push to ‘Hire Americans’ has increased the number of visa denials and Request to Evidence notices, which prolong the process and cost more money for employers. In spite of the above, 190,098 visas were filed in 2018 — a strong message that foreign talent is exceedingly valued by American employers, and rightly so.
The Real Elephant in The Room — or Country
Have you ever tried to decode the magician’s biggest secret? It is misdirection. While we are enthralled by the doves bursting from a hat, the magician has unclasped the safety lock to the door below. When we hear the phrase ‘lack of jobs’ in the U.S., we are tempted to blame the immigration restrictions due to its conspicuous nature. Dig a little deeper and you uncover more layers of symptoms.
While Indian Universities tend to have placement committees responsible for roping in companies and recruiting students, Universities in the U.S. are yet to recognize the term ‘placement’. Unlike the mass recruitment that happens in India, securing a job in the U.S. involves a few domino cards to fall at once — networking with employees, attending career fairs, securing an internship and acquiring specialized skills.
There is not just a tremendous cultural shift, but a psychological shift as well in acclimating to the new environment. Add on to this the myriad of responsibilities that comes with the independence. ‘Learning to drive, cook, manage finances, take care of household unaided, exercise in short time frames to stay fit, and being more fashionable are things I would have learnt if I could go back in time,’ says Akshay, a recent Master’s graduate from Cornell University.
Research shows a clear need for Universities to better understand the barriers (international) students face to enforce more effective transition programs. Some of the pressing problems faced by students surveyed in the research include cultural misunderstanding, financial and social support, and inclusion in the local community. Dozens of papers have found stress and lack of social support to lead to psychological symptoms for international students.
The Answer Lies in The Question
In a job market that is filled with noise, standing out is the greatest ordeal. “90% of the job search process is well understood by International Students. There are subtleties that can go unnoticed and it is the remaining 10% that students need to focus on. For example, strong candidates that get hired understand the job responsibilities of the positions they’re applying for beyond what is written in the job description. They know the good and the bad that is comes with the job they want. Life is not perfect at Google or Microsoft. International students often find it strange that by speaking directly about an employer’s challenges during a job interview — and providing solutions to these challenges — may make them more competitive candidates in the eyes of employers they target,” says Marcelo Barros, founder of The International Advantage, which offers job search workshops.
However, when asked if he would pay for a career coaching firm, Srivatsan, a graduate from Columbia University said, ‘No, I would not. I failed 30 times to get a job. But every failure taught me a lesson. Self-improvement and self-realization are the best ways to improve and succeed. Never allow someone’s instincts to determine your career. Believe in your abilities and instincts, it will take you in the right direction.’
Debating on whether or not you need to go for career coaching is an entirely comprehensive topic in itself, and it involves nuances specific to your situation. But seeing as how a financial burden is placed atop most students who study abroad, the more important question to ask is what one do to better prepare themselves even before reaching the U.S.
In my opinion, I would say the answer lies in the question. One can be better prepared in more ways than imaginable, and people have written books on this topic (and I briefly spoke about this in my internship video here). However, the first step is to understand the need to be prepared. This will subconsciously propel one to work towards the goal, whether it be by spending hours researching, reaching out to alumni, undertaking courses or scrutinizing the U.S. landscape. At the end of the day, you have the choice of blaming the intractable policies, or start asking questions and taking hold of the reins before it is too late.
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