Don't you just love seeing those two little words on practically every job posting you come across? It's a catch-22: How are you supposed to gain experience if you can't get a job without experience. After you do your best to cope with your despair, you realize there is an answer: you get an internship.
Every year, thousands of international students decide to get an F1 visa and study in the United States. Maybe some of them don't know this, but the F1 visa allows you to do a CPT (Curricular Practical Training) program or an OPT (Optional Practical Training) program in the U.S. This is a huge opportunity because you get much-needed experience in your field of study, and it will definitely give you an advantage in the job market, whether you decide to stay and work in the U.S. or move to another country after finishing your studies.
An internship is also a great way to immerse yourself in the culture and form a professional network. But how do you get an internship as an international student? In this article, we will discuss a few things you should know about how internships work in the United States so you can make the most of a CPT or OPT program.
Let's start with eligibility. If you are in the U.S. on an F1 visa, you can get an internship on-campus without needing to jump through hoops or fill out extra paperwork, but you should know that there are some restrictions in regards to where you can work and for how many hours. Since you're typically allowed no more than 20 hours per week, you'll want to search for a part-time internship.
If you want to do an off-campus internship, as we mentioned in the introduction, you have two options: a CPT or an OPT.
CPT or Curricular Practical Training internships can be paid, but they must be related to your degree. If you can't land a paid internship, you can also look into ways to generate passive income for F1 students. To be eligible for a CPT, you first have to complete two full academic semesters at your university, but if you have already completed a degree in the U.S., you don't have to wait. Before you can begin your internship, you have to apply for approval and receive an updated I-20 form.
OPT or Optional Practical Training internships don't have to be directly related to your degree. You can do an OPT while you're studying or after you graduate. Getting an OPT internship is a bit more difficult because you will need to get authorization from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Your internship can last for up to 12 months full-time, but if you are in a STEM field, you can get an extension for up to 24 months.
In both cases, even though some potential employers may imagine overwhelming hurdles or red tape when hiring an international student, in reality, the process is a lot less complicated, so make sure they know this so you can increase your chances of landing a job. Your university can provide you with information on the process of hiring an international student, and you can even ask for the contact information of someone your employer can reach out to for clarifications.
Campus Resources & Networking
Most universities in the United States have career centers and online platforms to help their students get into contact with recruiters. When looking for an internship, the first thing you should do is go to the career center or international student services office and talk to the international student advisers at your institution.
Universities also have a lot of networking events like career fairs, which can be very helpful. Keep in mind that when you participate in these events, you don't have a lot of time to talk to representatives from each company. You'll need to have a well-polished resume and a compelling elevator pitch ready, so you can make a good impression quickly.
You should also talk to your professors since they'll know where graduate students have interned in the past. They tend to have extensive professional networks, including big companies and local businesses. Of course, you first need to make a good impression on them by being attentive during class, getting good grades, showing that you are a hardworking student and you take your education seriously. Keep in mind that you will also need your professors to write letters of recommendation to improve your chances of landing an internship.