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Every question has an answer. And ‘Destination USA’ will strive to provide the right answer to all those youngsters who dream of studying in the US.

Mail your questions and doubts to ‘[email protected]’ to have subject matter experts answer them, right from the degree and programme of study you can pursue to what the application process entails, on universities, how to prepare resumes, financing your studies and even how it is like to live and study in the US, all are welcome.

Q. What are the work options while studying in the United States?

A. Most international students in the United States go on an F-1 (non-immigrant) student visa.  On an F-1 visa, a student is eligible to work only on the campus of their university.  US immigration laws do not allow international students to work off-campus during their studies.

On-campus work opportunities are also limited to up to 20 hours per week during the academic semester and up to 40 hours per week during school breaks. In addition, please take note that you are eligible for on-campus employment only while you are enrolled full-time in an academic programme.

On-campus work depends on the availability of such positions. If a department/college offers assistantships, you may apply for these during your application or after admission. Most of the time, an assistantship means that the student does not pay tuition and receives a scholarship or stipend that can cover some portion of accommodation, meals, books and personal expenses. The sum paid for an assistantship varies by State, town, university, etc.

Assistantships are available to students in the form of Teaching Assistantships (TA), Graduate Assistantships (GA), and/or Research Assistantships (RA) through which students help their departments with teaching, research, both teaching, and other department work. You may search on the department/college webpage or contact department officers for further information about assistantship options.

You may also apply for other on-campus jobs that are generally advertised through a student job portal by most universities. There is competition for all open positions, so you should plan to apply as early as possible. Also, take a close look at the eligibility criteria before applying for the position.

F-1 students can also avail themselves of Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT) after completing one year of coursework.  CPT is an off-campus internship or practicum in a major field of study and requires pre-approval by the international student office of your university. OPT is also off-campus work, for which you may apply after completion of an academic degree. It is 12 months of work directly related to your academic major and can be extended up to 24 months for STEM fields.

Q. What are letters of recommendation for undergraduate (Bachelor”s) programme admissions in the United States?

A. A letter of recommendation is a critical piece of the undergraduate (Bachelor’s degree) application for US universities. Also called letter of support or reference letter, a letter of recommendation highlights and personalises a student’s academic capabilities, personal character, extracurricular work, and other individual strengths.

The letter may further discuss a student’s weaknesses, but in a positive manner, perhaps noting how the student has overcome challenges. The best recommendation letters are those that are unique and specific to the individual student.

In general, higher education institutions in the United States require letters from one school counsellor and sometimes one or two school teachers.  Some institutions also accept additional recommendations from coaches or others. In cases where a school counsellor is not available, students may request either the principal or another teacher nominated by the principal to write the letter. Recommendations should not be written by direct family members.

It is the student’s responsibility to request recommendation letters from appropriate recommenders. Students should request letters from someone whom they know very well. Also, it is always best to send a personal request well in advance, to give recommenders enough time to write the letter.

Q. How is a Ph.D. programme structured in the United States?

A. Ph.D. programmes at US universities are designed for students to move towards their end goal of a professional dissertation in a gradual and progressive manner, involving various benchmarks throughout the programme, which a student should achieve in order to proceed to the next level.

Students gain a better understanding of their subject and research methods through one-to-two-year mandatory coursework before they start conducting research. At the end of the first year, students go through a candidacy exam, which in most cases is a written exam based on all coursework that a student has completed in that year. This is followed by a comprehensive exam around the end of the second year to test students on their capability to comprehend and assimilate the knowledge to conduct research in their discipline. The design and structure of the comprehensive exam vary by discipline and university.

The next step is for the student to present a proposal for their Ph.D. research work to the dissertation committee, generally referred as proposal defence. Once the committee clears the proposal, students continue the dissertation research and write their dissertations. The programme culminates with a final dissertation defense by the student before committee members, students and faculty from their own and other departments at the university, and other invited experts.

Once the committee and dissertation chair approve a student’s research work, the student can submit their work to the university to be awarded her or his Ph.D. on completion of all university formalities.

Each university follows a slightly modified version of this step-by-step assessment process for Ph.D. programmes.

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Author: Howard Caldwell