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Working While Pursuing a Master’s Degree in the US: International Student’s Guide

November 20, 2019 :: Admissionado

No matter your field of study, studying abroad for a master’s degree expands your worldview and exposes you to a new suite of challenges and opportunities. 

Alongside the exhilaration of stretching yourself outside your comfort zone comes the additional pressures of adapting to a new culture. It is, therefore, an understandable instinct to want to focus exclusively on course work for your program. 

This is often a missed opportunity. Working at a part-time job while being a full-time student will amplify your classroom learning, and can be one of the strongest endorsements on your resume, no matter where in the world you hope to work.

Read on to see how you can expertly navigate the U.S. job market while balancing a full-time graduate program. Is it difficult? Most certainly. But with the proper planning, it can be done with a high degree of success.

Step 1: Can I work in the U.S. while completing a master’s degree?

Yes. As an international student on an F-1 visa, studying full-time at an accredited academic institution, you can indeed secure both part-time and full-time opportunities in the US. That being said, there are certain limitations to consider. Let’s walk through the most commonly-seen terms when it comes to working as an international student in the US. 

NOTE: The information below is far from exhaustive. When seeking employment opportunities as an international student, your first and last step should always be the International Student Office at your school. This guide will help get you started, but your school has crucial information specific to your program.

On-campus employment

This is a common route for both international and local students. As an international student, you may work up to 20 hours per week (part-time) in any employment opportunity offered by the school. This could be academically-focused work such as a research assistant position, but could also range from food service to retail—any operation the happens on your campus.

Off-campus employment

For international students in academic degree programs, the two most common off-campus employment opportunities are (as defined by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS): 

  • Optional Practical Training (OPT) – “provides a practical training experience that directly relates to an F-1 student’s major area of study.”  
  • Curricular Practical Training (CPT) – “is any alternative work/study, internship, cooperative education, or other type of required internship or practicum that is offered by sponsoring employers through cooperative agreements with the school. CPT must be an integral part of an established curriculum.”

While both OPT and CPT provide hands-on, applicable experience to supplement your degree work, there are crucial differences. At the top of that list: CPT opportunities are full time, while OPT jobs can only be up to 20 hours a week.

Step 2: Part-time jobs for master’s students

Don’t overlook on-campus opportunities. Many positions available within the school will allow you to develop on-the-job skills without first needing to secure OPT or CPT. And, as an added benefit, these jobs are conveniently located to your classes.

Here are some typical on-campus part-time jobs:

  • Teaching assistant – A TA position allows you to deepen your knowledge of your field, develop a professional relationship with a professor in your department, and practice your public speaking skills by running discussion sections.
  • Research assistant – Conducting research for a professor will allow you to develop your analytical and writing skills.
  • Lab assistant – This role will best suit students in a STEM-based degree program, and will hone both your specific experimental skills and your overall attention to detail (which is applicable to any field).
  • Library attendant – Every field of study will require intensive knowledge of and facility with libraries. A role in any campus library will enhance your skills in organization, process, and customer service.
  • Administrative Assistant – Administrative needs are high at any university. This role exposes you to a wide variety of tasks, which can give you experience in project management, new technical skills, as well as exposure to the structure and organization of a U.S. office.
  • Tutoring – On-campus tutoring opportunities are a handy way to leverage your expertise. Tutoring is ultimately a customer service-focused job, and can greatly improve your soft skills as well as problem-solving skills.

A note of caution

While studying in the U.S. under a student visa, the consequences of working without first gaining approval from the proper channels can be severe. It could jeopardize your ability to work in the U.S. in the future, or even lead to you not being allowed re-entry into the country to complete your degree. 

It’s easy to inadvertently cross the line between authorized and unauthorized work. Below are seemingly innocuous jobs that are not viable employment opportunities for international students.

  • Unpaid internships – If you take a full-time position at a company, just forgoing the payment in favor of gaining experience does not mean you don’t have to first secure the proper approvals to work there. Working full-time for no compensation is illegal in the U.S., and while enforcement varies depending on state and local governments’ priorities, it is not worth putting your visa at risk.
  • Odd jobs – The “gig” economy can provide tempting, short-term and easy ways to earn extra cash, but it is still “work” and, since it likely does not relate to your field of study, will not qualify under OPT or CPT. For example, working for rideshare companies or posting your services on freelance marketing sites to do odd jobs could jeopardize your student visa.
  • Knowledge work – As a graduate student, you have enhanced knowledge of a particular field, and there is likely demand for consulting or tutoring services in your area. Offering your services on a freelance basis or through a non-university affiliated company is not a legal option while a full-time student.

Step 3 – How to manage studying with a full-time job

Ideally, you can schedule your full-time work for periods when your program doesn’t require classwork. But even if you can, you’ll need expert time management to handle two full-time obligations side by side. A full-time job in the U.S. demands 40 hours per week. The average hours of class time for a master’s program varies significantly depending on the program you pursue, but class time alone can be 15-20 hours per week. Add to that the hours you need to spend outside of class doing the reading, completing assignments and participating in group projects, and you can see that working full-time while as a student is very demanding an probably not the best idea.

Tips for time management while working a full-time job as a full-time student:

  • Weekends – Your weekdays will be spoken for. Maximize your weekends for social outings, chores and meal prep so you can focus on work during the week.
  • Scheduling – Schedule not only your work hours, but also when you plan to complete your assignments for school.
  • Read during downtime – Graduate programs have extensive amounts of reading and preparation to accomplish outside of class. Bring your course reading with you so you can take advantage of those pockets of free time.

Step 4 – Make the most of being a full-time student with a job

When approached strategically, experience working during school can be a crucial asset in your job search after graduation. Take the time before your job starts to map out what you hope to accomplish.

Meet with your supervisor.

In the first week on the job, be sure to request an hour-long sit down with your supervisor to discuss and decide on your goals for the duration of your employment. 

Questions to ask yourself are:

  • Are there any tools or best practices you want to master?
  • Is there an opportunity for you to manage a project end-to-end?
  • Does the company expect you to generate any particular deliverables or outcomes during your employment? How will my success be measured?
  • Are there any initiatives you want to propose to the company?

Establish your network.

Use the slower time at the start of your job to schedule 30 min “get to know you” meetings with your new colleagues. This will not only build rapport, but it will also develop a road map of how the office is organized.

Questions to ask your colleagues:

  • How long have you worked in the industry? How long at this company?
  • What made you choose this company?
  • What do you like best about your role? What is the most challenging part?
  • What are you most excited about in the upcoming year?

A note on mentorship. A mentor can be one of the most helpful resources in navigating your career. If there is a colleague whose work you admire, take the initiative and ask if they would consider mentoring you. 

Check in periodically and end on a high note.

Check in with yourself every few weeks to review your goals and think about the work you’ve done. Be sure to document any significant achievements, whether that is a completed project, or praise or feedback you received. 

When your contract is done, keep in touch with your supervisor and colleagues you worked closely with. Ask if they would be willing to be references. An American reference familiar with U.S. recommendation letter customs will be especially beneficial if you choose to pursue full-time employment in the U.S. after graduating.

Step 5 – Setting yourself up for success beyond the classroom

As long as you do your research and plan ahead, there is a wide array of creative and stimulating part-time and full-time jobs you can secure to apply the knowledge you’ve learned during your master’s program.


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