If you’re a recent IT grad or you’re in the final stages of your formal education, your mind will be focused on the next steps you need to take to start a career that takes advantage of your newly acquired skills.
That’s where optional practical training (OPT) enters the frame. It’s intended specifically for international students, and provides all sorts of benefits.
To bring you up to speed with the state of play right now, let’s dig into the OPT options for IT grads and how to take full advantage of them.
The government-backed OPT scheme offers eligibility for those students who are currently working towards a qualification, or who have recently attained a degree.
It gives you the right to live and work in the US for up to 12 months in its simplest form, but extensions are available specifically for those with STEM specialisms under their belt. As you can imagine, this applies to IT grads, who can get up to 24 months of additional employment authorization.
Once the OPT period concludes, you can apply for additional work visas and stay in the US so long as you are eligible, or you can return home and use your skills and experience to forge a fruitful career elsewhere in the world.
So what types of roles and areas are covered by OPT at the moment? Well, for IT grads it can include full time employment as well as unpaid training, in addition to internships. So it really covers the whole gamut of what you might be looking for as a leg-up into a career that you’re passionate about.
You could get hired right away to a programming position in a multinational tech giant. You could take on an internship where you learn how to use a database analyzer powered by machine learning in a large business. You could seek further training at an educational institute to broaden your knowledge base and expand your horizons.
Anyone who has already concluded their studies should have a good sense of the kind of role they want to enter. However, it’s also important to remember that OPT is an opportunity to test the waters and see whether your intended career path is actually a good fit, or whether you’d actually prefer to take a different route instead.
Getting this kind of on-the-job experience is invaluable, whatever the outcome. So if you’re eligible as an international student with a STEM, it’s wise to jump at the chance to get the full 32 month employment visa.
As with any bureaucratic process, it’s not always straightforward to get OPT approval, even if you fit the bill for eligibility down to a tee.
In most cases, once you’ve applied it will take more than a month, and anywhere up to three months, for an application to be processed.
Even in the best case scenario, you will have to wait for several weeks, so getting started with this process as soon as possible is better than twiddling your thumbs and prevaricating over a decision.
Also, it should go without saying but you can’t apply for OPT if the type of employment or training you’re aiming for is not directly related to the degree you’ve attained. So you can’t go from a STEM course into a job in psychology or law, for example. And of course the same applies in the other direction.
Additionally, you won’t be able to walk straight into a high-paying role in most cases; unpaid internships are common, as mentioned, and average wages for OPT jobs remain at the lower end of the spectrum.
This is all part and parcel of being a typical IT graduate, and should be seen as an investment in your future, even if it means making lifestyle compromises in the short term. You can always negotiate a salary if you’re feeling confident.
The extra aspects to take onboard
We just discussed how OPT roles are either low paid or unpaid, but the good news is that you aren’t restricted from taking on a separate job to top up your finances while you continue your training.
You can even volunteer in your spare time, which will help to bolster out your resume and improve your people skills, so should be seen as valuable to you as an individual, and not just something you do out of pure altruism.
The bottom line
International students who have just completed their studies in information technology are ideally suited to what OPT has to offer.
So long as you apply early, read the rules and requirements rigorously, and know what opportunities are available to you, this scheme will be the doorway to a life working in a profession that plays to your strengths, and rewards you financially and emotionally.