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F-1 Foreign Students Need to Choose Their Majors Carefully, to Obtain the STEM Two-Year Extension of Work Authorization

F-1 foreign students with a degree in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) major are eligible for a total of three years of work authorization, while F-1 students with other majors are eligible for only one year of work authorization. However, there are various definitions of STEM, and USICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has their own list defining which are STEM degrees. Whether a degree qualifies as a STEM degree is not entirely intuitive, and F-1 students need to choose their majors carefully to make sure they qualify as STEM degrees.

USICE (immigration and Customs Enforcement) has a list of all degree programs which fall under STEM, and make a graduate eligible for a two-year extension of OPT (Optional Practical Training), for a total of three years of work authorization. Thus, graduates with STEM majors can seek a total of three years of work authorization, while those with all other majors can apply for only one year of work authorization after graduating. You can check whether a particular major makes you eligible for the additional two-years of work authorization by checking the list at https://www.ice.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Document/2016/stem-list.pdf. The list is quite broad, and starts out with Agroecology and sustainable Agriculture, and includes many fields such as Animation, Interactive Technology, Video Graphics and Special Effects, Artificial Intelligence, many IT and computer science majors, many Engineering majors, Architectural Drafting, CAD, Biopsychology, Behavioral Sciences, many fields in Psychology, a myriad of Veterinary majors, Management Science, among many others.

What may be surprising is that the list does not include most fields in healthcare, with a few exceptions. For example, the STEM list of majors does not include Nursing, Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Dentistry, Speech Language Pathology, Chiropractic, or other healthcare fields. An MD (Medical Doctor) is not included in the STEM list. Thus, however obvious that these degrees are related to science and technology, they are not included on the STEM list, and so those graduates in the healthcare professions are eligible for only one year of OPT and will not be able to get the additional two-year STEM extension.

Biological and Biomedical Sciences, which are included in the STEM program, consist of the non-clinical biomedical sciences and biological sciences. Healthcare professions are not included in this grouping. So, for example, Radiation Biology, CIP Code 26.2209, which is the study of the effects of radiation on living organisms and biological systems, is included as a STEM degree but Radiologic Technology/Science, CIP Code 51.0911, which prepares you to provide medical imaging services to patients, is not a STEM degree.

What are the exceptions? Which healthcare fields would qualify as STEM majors? Various majors in Psychology, Veterinary Science, and Pharmaceutical Sciences all qualify as STEM majors. Pharmaceutical Sciences is a little tricky. Pharmaceutical Sciences, CIP Code 51.2010, qualifies as a STEM major, but Pharmacy, CIP Code 51.2099, does not. However, a Pharmaceutical Sciences degree does not equip you to practice as a pharmacist, rather to work in the fields of drug research and development, drug testing and analysis, or pharmaceutical sales and marketing. A Pharmaceutical Sciences degree does not qualify you to take the licensing exam to be a pharmacist, but a student who wants to be a pharmacist could initially get a bachelor’s degree in Pharmaceutical Science, which qualifies as STEM, and then get their Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm. D.) which does not qualify as STEM. Because their bachelor’s degree is a STEM degree, the graduate would qualify for the three years of work authorization pursuant to STEM, even though his or her most recent degree was in a non-STEM field.   Thus, those wanting to go into a healthcare profession, but who also want the three years of work authorization through STEM, would have to obtain two degrees, one a STEM degree and one in the healthcare field of their choice. Regardless of which degree was the most recent, the graduate would be able to obtain the two-year extension of work authorization due to their STEM degree.

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