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U.S. Permanent Residency Options for International Master’s and Doctoral Candidates

People come from all over the world to study and work in the United States. But what if you came to the U.S. for postgraduate studies and would like to explore permanent residency after your degree program? You have a few options. 

permanent residency


A green card (also known as a permanent resident card) allows foreign nationals like you to live and work in the U.S. permanently. It also puts you on a path to U.S. citizenship, which you can apply for after five years of permanent residency.  

It is worth looking into your future green card options while you are still completing your studies so that you know how to best position yourself for success with future green card applications. 

Here are some common employment-based immigration paths for Master's and Doctoral candidates:

EB-2 National Interest Waiver

The EB-2 National Interest Waiver (EB-2 NIW) is a great fit for Master's and Ph.D. candidates or recent graduates, especially those whose work may have a positive impact on the U.S.

If you have a Masters's degree or higher, you meet the basic qualifications.

If you do not yet have a Master's degree or higher, you may still qualify for the EB-2 NIW by having a Bachelor's degree plus five years of work experience, or if you meet three or more “Exceptional Ability” criteria

Either way, you will need to demonstrate that your work has ‘national importance’ and ‘substantial merit’ and that you have a background that proves that you’ll be able to succeed with your future work. 

There are many ways that your work could have national importance and substantial merit. Some examples include:

  • Your work will benefit the U.S. economy and create U.S. jobs
  • Your medical research is advancing healthcare
  • You have major contracts with U.S. government entities, and your work will advance U.S. national security 
  • The educational technology you have designed will make education more accessible in the U.S.
  • Your environmental research will help preserve U.S. natural resources

These are just a few examples. Think about what type of work you have done throughout your postgraduate studies and what you hope to do in the future. How could the U.S. benefit from your work? 

EB-1A for Individuals with Extraordinary Ability

The EB-1A is the most difficult immigrant petition to get approved. However, if you are an accomplished expert in your field, it might be the perfect path for you! 

To qualify for the EB-1A, you must have received an internationally recognized prize or award such as a Noble Prize, Pulitzer, Oscar, or Olympic Medal, or meet three or more of ten Extraordinary Ability criteria:

  • You have received lesser nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence
  • You are a member of associations in the field which demand outstanding achievement of their members
  • There have been published material about you in professional or major trade publications or other major media
  • You have been asked to judge the work of others, either individually or on a panel
  • You have invented original scientific, scholarly, artistic, athletic, or business-related contributions of major significance to the field
  • You have authored scholarly articles in professional or major trade publications or other major media
  • Your work has been displayed at artistic exhibitions or showcases
  • You have performed a leading or critical role in distinguished organizations
  • You have commanded a high salary or other significantly high remuneration in relation to others in the field
  • You have had commercial successes in the performing arts

In addition to receiving an award or meeting three criteria, the immigration officer reviewing your case will assess whether or not you "sustained national or international acclaim" in your field through a "final merits test". They will determine this by looking through all of your EB-1A materials. 

One of the benefits of the EB-1A petition is that you can self-petition. This means that rather than having a specific employer sponsor your EB-1A, your petition will not be tied to a company. This can be particularly helpful if you don’t yet have a U.S. employer or would like to have more flexibility with which companies you work for throughout your green card process.

EB-1B for Outstanding Professors and Researchers

The EB-1B for outstanding professors and research is also a viable path for many individuals who come to the U.S. for postgraduate studies. 

To qualify for the EB-1B, you must meet at least two of six criteria:

  • You have received major prizes or awards for outstanding achievement
  • You are a member of associations that require their members to demonstrate outstanding achievement
  • You have published material in professional publications written by others about the noncitizen's work in the academic field
  • You have participated, either on a panel or individually, as a judge of the work of others in the same or allied academic field
  • You have invented original scientific or scholarly research contributions in the field
  • You have authored scholarly books or articles (in scholarly journals with international circulation) in the field

Some of the EB-1B criteria may look familiar since they are similar to the EB-1A criteria. However, you only have to meet two, rather than three, EB-1B criteria and there is no final merits test, making the EB-1B easier. 

However, unlike the EB-1A and EB-2 NIW, your employer will need to sponsor your EB-1B.

Final thoughts

Immigration is confusing. You don’t have to go about it alone. Legalpad’s experienced immigration team is here to help you select the right immigration path! Schedule a meeting to discuss your unique qualifications, or register for one of our free workshops.  

About the author:

Annie Blay

Content Marketing Specialist

Before joining the marketing team, Annie helped over 60 Legalpad clients navigate U.S. immigration on the client services team.