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I was wondering if it is possible to do an unpaid post-doc in the united states (Boston, MIT) for one year, especially in regards to the needed visa (I am german). I am unsure if I would be eligible for a visa when my plan is to cover all the expenses during that year with my own saved-up money.

I already looked at all the regulations of J-1 visa but I couldn't find anything regarding the possibility of getting a visa without being paid. It seems like I need to be paid for H-1B though, so this won't help me.

Thank you in advance for any information or experiences you can share :)

Cheers!

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  • I have been on J-1 visa without being paid by the institution in the US. I was paid by my university in Europe and I am quite sure that for visa purposes, the salary served as "proof of funds" for which you would have your savings. Apr 3, 2021 at 17:51
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    Is an unpaid postdoc even possible? Legal?
    – Buffy
    Apr 3, 2021 at 18:13
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    Postdocs are pretty much employees except they aren't always and that's why a lot of stipends don't get reported on W-2s. I'm sure a university could structure an unpaid position and handle immigration but I'm also pretty sure that it's enough work that nobody would want to bother. Any candidate good enough to put that effort in is good enough to just pay like a normal postdoc.
    – user133933
    Apr 3, 2021 at 20:16
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    @BryanKrause Are you sure that people who get a foreign stipend count as employees?
    – user151413
    Apr 3, 2021 at 23:00
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    @user2316602 The host institution's international office might be a better starting point than the US embassy. I'm pretty sure they have to support your visa application, even if they don't pay you.
    – user151413
    Apr 3, 2021 at 23:01

2 Answers 2

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I don’t know about the visa, but even aside from that there are legal, ethical and reputation issues with your idea. Considering all of those, I’m 99% certain that neither MIT nor any other reputable university will give even passing consideration to the idea of an unpaid postdoc.

On the legal side, there is this thing called minimum wage that forces organizations to pay their employees. The exceptions are volunteers and unpaid internships, and there are rules governing who can count as either of those, to avoid organizations using those categories as loopholes to exploit workers. I don’t know enough about this topic to be able to say for certain that a postdoc couldn’t be categorized as an unpaid intern, but I suspect that at the very least, the idea would be unusual and eyebrow-raising enough to deter anyone from wanting to even test whether this is possible.

On the ethical side, postdocs are already a somewhat vulnerable population that are paid less than their qualifications make them “worth” on the free market (outside of academia). This raises real issues about the potential for exploitation. There are reasonable arguments why this pay structure makes sense, but employing unpaid postdocs absolutely does not make sense, and would undermine the ability of people who can’t afford to take such unpaid positions from being competitive in the academic jobs market. The last thing a university would want is to open itself to accusations of such exploitative behavior.

On the reputation side, a university like MIT can afford to hire the best postdocs in the world, and its reputation is much more valuable to it than the cost of employing a postdoc. If you are good enough to want them to work for you, they will offer to pay you like any postdoc, to avoid anyone getting the impression that they are settling for subpar talent in order to save money, if for no other reason - even setting aside the legal and ethical issues I mentioned above.

Bottom line: an unpaid postdoc at a good university almost certainly isn’t going to be an option for you, sorry.

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  • Can you support your claim that postdocs are necessarily employees? There's lots of international stipends one can get to work as a postdoc in the US - in that case, one is likely not employed (and certainly not paid a salary) by the US host.
    – user151413
    Apr 3, 2021 at 23:02
  • @user151413 I made no such claim, and in any case I think “employee” is too vague a word when discussing legal matters such as the current one. I am confident in my prediction that an unpaid postdoc is not a realistic option for OP, but as far as the legal question is concerned, I cannot rule out that it might be technically legal to have such a position.
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 3, 2021 at 23:11
  • Sorry, I interpreted your "minimum wage that forces organizations to pay their employees" as implying an employment contract. But to be honest, I'm not sure what the status of foreign grant holders is. Certainly, (foreign) grants are taxable in the US, which is quite different from how this is handled in many other countries.
    – user151413
    Apr 4, 2021 at 21:22
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No, you cannot. The two visa categories you mention (which are indeed the typical "postdoc" visas) explicitly do not allow what you have in mind.

J1 visas are for for exchange visitors who are funded either through scholarships/fellowships or their host institution. They explicitly do not allow for self-funded postdocs.

Similarly, a H1B Visa is for skilled workers, and one (crude) way to prove that the work you do is sufficiently skilled is through a minimum salary of +$60,000 (or thereabouts).

If you are academically competitive, try to obtain a fellowship. E.g. the DAAD has some great opportunities to support your endeavours. If you're not academically competitive no lab/group at MIT would be interested in you even for free. (In fact, many of the postdocs in the top labs at those top institutions do in fact work "for free" as far as their host institution is concerned. Because they come with their own fellowships from their home countries.)

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  • How is scholarship distinguished from self-funded? (I mean, in neither case you are employed.)
    – user151413
    Apr 3, 2021 at 23:03
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    This Department of Labor document seems to support what you said about a $60,000 minimum salary.
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 3, 2021 at 23:13

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