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I'm not a US national, moving to the US from a foreign country to start a new postdoc at a US university. Considering the initial expenses (especially the deposit for the rent, which is three times the monthly rent), it'd help me if I could get part of the salary in advance.

My question is: would this be really a strange request to ask the department about it? Has anyone done it before with a positive result?

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    Don't know about the US but it's definitely possible elsewhere so asking sounds reasonable. Also, you don't risk much by talking to HR about this, worse case they say no and nothing else happens. – Relaxed Dec 20 '15 at 13:19
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    By "postdoc at a US university" do you mean that you will be employed by the university, and hence would ask them for an advance? – Joe Strazzere Dec 20 '15 at 14:31
  • @Joe Strazzere: yes, I'd be employed by the university, and not from an external grant. My salary will come from a grant of one of their faculty. – Science Man Dec 20 '15 at 17:01
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My university would give you a moving allowance that could be used to cover first and last months' rent plus security deposit on an apartment or rental house. You might start with asking what kind of moving allowance or support they offer and whether upfront rental costs like these are covered. This is not considered an advance on salary at my university, but is part of the cost of hiring. The university simply pays it to get good people to come work there.

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  • Thank you! I asked about the reimbursement of the flight expenses, but the answer turned out to be negative. I wonder whether it's so because the source of my salary is the individual grant of a professor there. By 'moving allowance', did you mean flight expense + initial upfront rental costs as you wrote, or only the later? I do wonder in my case (the source of the salary being individual grant and not the univ.,) whether moving allowance is provided in this case? Is it still part of the hiring process, as you wrote, in this particular case? – Science Man Dec 20 '15 at 17:04
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    @ScienceMan, I meant a whole host of things. Shipping your stuff, flights, etc. The list of allowable expenses will vary by university. We also pay to bring people in and put them up in hotels for interviews. I'd be disappointed if they did not do that. Kinda shabby. It shouldn't depend on the source of funds in my experience, though US federal grant dollars probably can't be spent on non-salary stuff for personnel. In the end, they should be able to pay it out of overhead. That's what we do. – Bill Barth Dec 20 '15 at 18:57
  • @BillBarth Not strictly relevant but my experience in the UK is that British universities will pay interview expenses for everybody but only pay relocation expenses for permanent staff (i.e., not for postdocs). – David Richerby Dec 21 '15 at 1:19
  • @BillBarth: thanks. From what you wrote, it'd be somewhat strange if the university in question (a top-tier and very well-known university) doesn't pay any moving allowance at all. However, from David Richerby's comment, it could be the case, like the UK universities. – Science Man Dec 21 '15 at 21:49
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I doubt you'll be successful with this request, but it can't hurt to ask.

Once you are in the U.S., grab your proof of employment letter and head straight to the nearest credit union. (That's a bank that serves its member-clients instead of trying to squeeze as much profit as possible from its customers.) With that proof of employment, they will give you a loan with a pretty good interest rate. Within six months you will have it paid off, and you will have started to build up a credit rating, which will stand you in very good stead if you ever want to buy a house in the U.S.

If you don't have cash reserves to help you get set up when you arrive in the U.S., ask the department to ask around if there's anyone who can put you up for a week after you arrive. That will allow you to get that bank loan and also visit the possible housing situations you are considering, in person.

If nothing turns up through the department, you might give couchsurfing.com a try.

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  • Thank you for your answer. I might both ask the department about any available moving costs, and also consider the option of getting loan from a credit union. A quick related question but not relevant to this site: I did my doctorate in the US, and I had a debit card all the time and also for a while a credit card from that bank. I deactivated the credit card while leaving the US. Does the above automatically mean I have a non-zero credit history? In case of yes, the deposit would not be as high as having no credit history. Hence I ask. Many thanks! – Science Man Dec 21 '15 at 21:26
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    Getting a credit card and paying off the balance promptly each month is a very good way of establishing a positive credit history. Another good way is to get a signature loan and pay it off according to schedule (or faster, either way is fine). By the way I believe there are ways of checking your own credit history. – aparente001 Dec 22 '15 at 6:26
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Yes, this would be perceived as a strange request and will very likely be turned down, and may even be frowned upon by certain people. You have identified a strange blind spot in the U.S. academic employment system -- U.S. universities do not really have a good understanding of some of the issues facing foreign scholars. I also think this ties in to cultural factors such as the strong U.S. belief in self-reliance and personal responsibility, and a negative bias towards people of modest means. Asking one's employer for an advance is generally seen as a somewhat negative thing that only very poor or desperate people would do.

Let me offer a personal anecdote that could add some context. Some years ago I had a similar experience to you when I arrived in the U.S. as a postdoc. Like you, in my first few weeks I had to spend a nontrivial amount of money on a rent deposit and other necessary expenses, all with no financial assistance from my university. Things got worse when my first paycheck arrived and I discovered that they had entered my salary incorrectly in the system so the amount was lower than I expected. I asked for this to be corrected and was told that it will be and that the change will be reflected in the next paycheck, one month hence. Another upsetting thing was that I was asked by my department to pay $50 as a deposit for my office key, a key to the computer lab and a building entry card. As it happened, I had enough savings so all of this did not pose a great difficulty for me, but I knew this might not be true of all postdocs, and was very annoyed by the principle that I had traveled from halfway around the world to contribute my work and talent to the university and was being treated with such thoughtlessness and lack of consideration, to the extent that instead of them paying me for my efforts we were starting off with the money flowing in the opposite direction!

When I mentioned these complaints to the professor I was working with, he immediately offered to give me a loan (which as I said was not necessary in my case). He then chuckled and recalled with nostalgia how when he was a young postdoc, moving to the U.S. from another country as a postdoc, he found himself short of cash for precisely the same reason. His own research mentor happily gave him a loan to tide him over until he started getting paid. So, he understood the problem very well. However, he did not appear concerned by this approach and thought it was very natural that this cycle of personal loans should continue as a solution to the problem...

I should also add that part of the reason for my annoyance was a completely opposite experiece I had a couple of years before, when I arrived in France to work as a postdoc on a French government grant. On the day of my arrival I was given an envelope with 500 French francs in cash, and had prearranged housing with rent being deducted directly from my paycheck and no deposit necessary. Needless to say I appreciated very much this thoughtful attitude on the part of my French hosts. Life in the U.S. has many wonderful aspects to it, as you'll soon find out, but on this particular issue the comparison to France is not especially flattering.

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  • Thank you for sharing your own experience! I agree with you that in France, where the salary of an assistant professor is quite low even compared to the US postdocs, they still do things to help you (receiving 500 francs upon your arrival) or used to do so; As I write, I've done two one year postdocs at two French universities, but this never happened. However, they've non-trivial unemployment benefits even for non-EU citizens, unlike the US. – Science Man Dec 21 '15 at 21:31
  • @ScienceMan - We've got an apples and oranges comparison going on here. In France, when you rent a flat or a house, the kitchen is completely bare. In the U.S., you find a stove, a refrigerator, and cupboards. – aparente001 Dec 22 '15 at 6:29
  • @aparente001: From my living in three different places in France (including French big cities), my experience regarding the kitchen furnishing has been entirely different. As for the other part, may be a direct comparison isn't possible, I agree. – Science Man Dec 22 '15 at 14:29
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    @ScienceMan - I'm jealous. Those first couple of weeks in France with a ten-month-old and boxes in place of kitchen cupboards and countertop were tough. – aparente001 Dec 23 '15 at 3:34
  • I think my case might be slightly different than yours, although quite common in France, because I rented my place from a landlord, not from a company. The sofa in the living room was bought by the people who used to live there, but yes, the kitchen was equipped with microwave, oven, dishwasher, fridge, cupboards for keeping stuffs. And it's all in Paris! – Science Man Dec 23 '15 at 12:27

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