As an international student in the united states, I am legally allowed to work for 12 months, extendable to 29months for STEM fields, after graduating with my PhD (or masters degree for that matter) without having to change my visa/student status.

Now, I am looking for post doc opportunities in the US at several univerities but unfortunately none of the PI's respond to any queries OR application material that I send them for opportunities advertised on their websites.

I am seriously considering working voluntarily, without pay for my current advisor after I graduate in Dec 2012 with my PhD in Mechanical Engineering.

  1. I am legally allowed voluntarily as part of the optional practical training period available to me after graduation.
  2. I intend on doing my post doc / work pro-bono in the US because, lets face it, my home country doesn't really do much research and the pay grades are about $140 a month for fresh PhD graduates whilst I earn several times more as a grad student here in the US.
  3. Visa regulations make it horrendously difficult to move to an other country for post doc opportunities and it is easier for me to continue in the US as I am alreadly legally here.
  4. I am planning on writing a couple of proposals with my advisor so that I may grow my own post doc
  5. It is an absolute pleasure working for my advisor and I wouldn't mind doing it for free for the mental stimulation that it provides (although I wouldn't want to work for free forever teeheehee :P)

How should I approach this situation? I am planning on requesting him to retain me on a pro-bono thingy as I genuinely like the direction my research has taken since I signed up with him 3 years ago!

Has anyone else encountered such a quandary?

  • What does your advisor suggest?
    – JeffE
    Apr 20, 2012 at 9:47
  • @JeffE My advisor is a very supportive but he is a little absent-minded at times when it comes to understanding the tribulations of international students.He hasn't had too many intl. students, he tends to overestimate the time that international students have. This leads to the student generally starting his job search a little late (It is recommended for international students to start their job search at least 4-6 months before graduation. This way once I graduate I either have a job lined up or at least I am not starting from scratch in the 90 days of unemployment that I am eligigle for)
    – dearN
    Apr 20, 2012 at 12:10
  • 1
    4-6 months? I generally recommend PhD students start their job search about 5-6 years before graduation.
    – JeffE
    Apr 21, 2012 at 16:59
  • @JeffE 5-6 years. Ok... As a foreigner that is quite impractical for me. I wouldn't even know where to start. Plus, I was unsupported and scrounging around. So... not really. That advice would probably work for domestic students but not really international students at my university at least.
    – dearN
    Apr 21, 2012 at 17:23
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    The mechanics of the job search may only take 6 months, but getting a feel for your likely job market(s), establishing your reputation, making contacts with potential employers and/or letter-writers, and doing kick-ass research can never start too early. (And this is completely independent of differences between domestic and international students.)
    – JeffE
    Apr 21, 2012 at 18:50

2 Answers 2


I think it really depends on how long you plan to work without salary. If you apply for some grants in the next months, and you'll get the answers for instance in February 2012, I guess it's ok to work without salary for a couple of months, but only because you're expecting something specific. But I wouldn't recommend being in such a situation if there are no concrete expectation, because, in addition to the fact that you might need money to live, it can also be psychologically difficult, for both your advisor and yourself (maybe it's just me, but I would feel bad asking someone to do some work without any salary, even if this person is willing to).

You say that visa regulations make it difficult to move from one country to another, I don't know which country you come from, but having a PhD usually makes the process quite easier, especially coming from the US. You still have more than 6 months to find a postdoc, you would be better off with trying to get a job somewhere, meet new people, do something different and in the mean time, work with your current advisor on a proposal that would allow you to come back with some funding. An important aspect of a postdoc is to demonstrate your ability to cut the apron strings with your advisor, and to show that you can work with other people.

  • Thanks for your answer. I am an Indian student and I have checked with several universities in the EU, Canada etc and it is virtually impossible for me to get into those universities as they would prefer to take domestic students who don't need a visa. Obviously,I'll try to get a proposal written so that I have a post doc in 2013. And yes, I am trying real hard to land post doc jobs.. "Cuting the apron strings with your advisor"... mind if I use that? :)
    – dearN
    Apr 19, 2012 at 13:22
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    No problem :) I know it's quite a normal feeling to want to stay in a known and good place, I just want to point out that the ability to move and change is quite valued in an application (about the expression, I translated it from French, I don't know how often it is used in English :)). About the visa issue, clearly, it will be harder but not impossible, provided that there is enough time to take care of the paperwork, maybe you were not lucky with your previous attempts!
    – user102
    Apr 19, 2012 at 13:35

Why not just bring up the idea of staying in your current lab with your advisor? Without mentioning money straight off the bat?

If your advisor claims it's not possible to keep you around due to funding, then you can mention that you would be willing to do it without payment. And if you are willing to do it for free — and if you're already trained and have a good relationship — I can't imagine she/he would say no.

On the other hand, keep pursuing other options. If you work out something else, neither your advisor nor anyone else is going have hard feelings (or any sense of shock or surprise) if you leave for gainful employment.

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