What is STEM OPT? STEM OPT Extension Guidelines for OPT Students

(Disclaimer- This is not a legal advice just recommendations. Please consult an attorney for any legal advice)

Every international student in the US can seize an excellent opportunity to work part-time (off-campus) in Optional Practical Training (OPT) status both during and after the completion of their degree by enrolling for STEM OPT Extension. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) has set various rules to regulate the implementation of OPT. Moreover, the country has stringent immigration & labor laws in place to safeguard its economy. Such laws have helped the U.S. to develop world’s largest economy with a GDP of around $20.513 trillion. 

Nevertheless, you can apply for OPT status after being enrolled full-time for a minimum period of 9 months. However, you cannot pursue employment until you receive your (EAD) Employment Authorization Document from USCIS and completed at least a full academic year. There is no need to have a job offer before applying for the OPT Employment Authorization Document.

It’s better to be swift in your actions and start early since USCIS also takes up to 3-4 months to process the application. International students are required to take prior permission for doing any work during their stay in the U.S. which is based on maintaining lawful F-1 status.

Increase in the number of International Student enrollments due to OPT

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a potent program that enables international students to work & earn income during or after their enrollment. It not only helps students to gain considerable work experience but also enhances their educational learning, and gives a platform to retrieve some part of their investment in education.

Reportedly, the total number of international students in the U.S. higher education system has increased by 0.05%. That inflation in the numbers was majorly driven by the simultaneous increase of OPT placements. In the year 2018, international students contributed $44.7 billion to the economy of the U.S.

Academic YearOPT Students
2017-2018203,460
2018-2019223,085

The above table depicts an increase in the number of OPT students which rose from 203,460 in (2017-18) to 223,085 in (2018-19), which is a percentage increase of 9.6%. A percentage year-over-year increase in OPT had been recorded as 15.8%.

Requisites for Pre-Completion and Post-Completion OPT

OPT is subdivided into two categories for which students needs to meet different conditions as given below:

Pre-completion OPT (before completing a degree): As its name suggest, Pre-completion OPT is authorized before you complete your enrollment program, but it is only available after you have completed 1 academic year of study. Following are the guidelines for a Pre-completion OPT student:

  • The students must enroll in school for full-time.
  • Students can only work 20 hours a week while school is in session.
  • Students can choose to work full-time during the summer break or any other holiday season (until the student returns to the school after the break).
  • Student may also work full-time after all the coursework has been completed and he/she is making stable progress towards the degree.

    Post-completion OPT (after completing a degree): Students apply for this OPT once they have finished their program of study. Here are the guidelines of work for Post-completion OPT students:
  • After completion of the degree, students must do full time OPT work (40 hours/week).
  • Student must receive application for post-completion OPT by USCIS prior to the completion of their degree.
  • The authorized time-period for post-completion practical training is 12 months so students must use that period within 14 months of completion of their study.

    Students, who want to extend their stay in the U.S for up to 24 months after post-completion OPT can apply for STEM OPT extension only if their course of study falls under the following category:
  • Engineering Technologies/ Engineering
  • Mathematics
  • Physical Sciences
  • Life Sciences
  • Actuarial Sciences
  • Military Technologies
  • Computer Science Applications

An overview of STEM OPT Extension

STEM stands for a degree education in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. As more industries demand for knowledge and training in the STEM disciplines, it broadens the scope of students to get stable jobs with salaries higher-than-average.

When USCIS grants STEM OPT extension to a student, it gives an additional 24 months period of employment authorization to prosecute on-the-job training in the STEM field.

Based on the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 3 out of 4 STEM jobs in the U.S. shall going to be computing in 2020 and also in the forthcoming years as shown below. While other STEM like life science and engineering will only have a small share of employment market. 

According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans claimed that there are more benefits of working in STEM fields than the Non-STEM industries.

Percentage of U.S. adults who say that STEM jobs are better in comparison to Non-STEM jobs in multiple aspects:

After analyzing the above chart, one can discern that though STEM jobs provide plenty of perks to employees’ like, higher pay, more flexibility & great opportunities, but they are way more difficult to get into.

The Future of STEM Jobs

When pursuing a degree, students often contemplates about the scope of building a career in that field. If you are interested in OPT STEM extension, then you should have a good insight of the future of STEM occupations.

The U.S. is considered as the global leader in science & technology, a title which the country will likely to endue for some time. Over the past, U.S. officials have recognized a shortage of STEM majors that prompt a need to attract world top talent.

In order to bridge this gap, the government has created new schemes for the international students. Under an F1 visa, the recent graduates can apply for the OPT program and work for around 12 months after completing their graduation degree. However, the students having STEM degrees are allowed to extend their program for additional 24 months. By choosing STEM OPT extension, students get more time to secure employment and permeant residence in the U.S. 

From all the STEM fields, computer occupations contribute 45% of employment. The largest STEM occupations are related to IT such as applications software developer, computer user support specialist, Web developer, computer systems analyst, etc. Employment in computer occupations is likely to increase by 12.5% by 2024, which is substantially more than any other STEM category. US News and other sources has anticipated the number of new computer STEM jobs in the upcoming 10 years along with their average salaries, as follows:

STEM JobsMedian Salary
(annual in USD)
No. of new jobs in the next 10 years
Software Developer$103,000200,000
IT Manager$142,00046,800
Information Security Analyst$98,00035,000
Civil Engineer$86,00020,500
Web Developer$69,00020,000
Operation Research Analyst$83,00028,000
Web Developer$69,00020,000
Statistics and Analytics$101,00013,600
Database Administrator$90,00010,500
Mechanical Engineer$87,37012,800
System Administrator$82,00018,000
   

USCIS Guidelines for STEM OPT Extension

USCIS has laid a list of regulations for the OPT students who wants to apply for STEM extension. So, it is indispensable for all the OPT students meet all the requirements before applying.

Eligibility Criteria

A student is eligible for STEM extension under the following conditions:

  • The student has been granted OPT;
  • A student needs to be currently working in the period of post-completion OPT;
  • Must have a bachelor or higher degree in any of the STEM fields from a school that is accredited by a U.S Department of Education and is certified by SEVP at the time you apply for STEM extension.
  • Have a paid job offer that fulfill the requirements mentioned below:
  • The job must be with an employer enrolled in the USCIS E-Verify program. Cross-check with your employer whether they are enrolled in E-Verify or not as sometimes the USCIS E-Verify database is incorrect.
  • The job with a need to work for at least 20 hours per week
  • The job which provides formal training & learning objectives directly related to your STEM degree

Documents Required for STEM OPT Extension

To apply for STEM extension, you have to file these documents:

  • Before applying to USCIS for STEM OPT extension, students must download, sign, complete, and submit the Form I-983 to their (DSOs) Designated School Officials.
  • Form I-765 with the prescribed application fee, Company Identification Number & name of your Employer as listed in E-Verify or a valid E-Verify Client Company Identification Number;
  • Form I-20, (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status) as endorsed by your DSO within the last 60 days;
  • A copy of your STEM degree.

Things to keep in mind when filling Form 1-983

It is mandatory for STEM OPT students to work together with their employers for completing the Form I-983 as instructed bythe U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This form is an extremely important document as it depicts the relationship between the STEM OPT opportunity, degree received & learning objectives of an F-1 student. Therefore, the students need to be more considerate while completing this form.

All the STEM OPT students and their employers are bound to follow the terms & conditions under the regulation of 24-month STEM OPT extension and Form I-983 instructions.

The students can obtain the Form I-983 online, which they are required to complete, sign & return to their DSO. Further, it is DSO’s responsibility for keeping the completed form in the student’s record.

However, the STEM OPT employers are also responsible for completing (Section 3-Section 6) of the Form I-983. They must provide a signature on the annual self-evaluation of STEM OPT students, as documented on the form.

An employer can utilize the existing training programs to assess the progress of a student whilst the program meets the requirements of DHS as defined on Form I-983.

Note– Only an E-verified employer who provides actual training relevant to STEM degree of a student is authorized to complete & sign the form I-983.

STEM students are allowed to participate in the entrepreneurial ventures, but they neither can fill Sections 3 to 6 in their respective forms nor can act as their own employer in order to complete the form.

Key Specifications of Form 1-983 that Employers must not Neglect

Since the employers of STEM OPT students are equally responsible in properly completing the Form I-983, they cannot afford to make any blunder. So, make sure to include these set of information about your formal training plan in the form:

  • How the practical training is directly related to the student’s qualifying STEM degree?
  • Specific goals which can be achieved through the STEM practical training.
  • How will students be able to achieve those goals from the work-based learning opportunity with you? Focus on explaining the knowledge, skills set and techniques that you will impart to the STEM OPT student.
  • Methods of oversight & supervision of the STEM OPT students.
  • The performance evaluation process you will follow.

The plan documented in the Form I-983 must also demonstrate that:

  • You have adequate number of resources and staff available to provide suitable training in connection with the specified opportunity. Also, validate that you are prepared to implement the work-based learning opportunity at the identified locations.
  • Ratify that the STEM OPT student shall not be replaced by a full-time/part-time, temporary/permanent U.S. worker.
  • Your opportunity will help the student in accomplishing their training goals.
  • The working hours, compensation, duties associated with the position of STEM OPT student are equivalent to other employee’s working in the same area of employment in the U.S.

Responsibilities of Students during STEM OPT Extension

  • Do not exceed more than 150 days of unemployment throughout 26 months of STEM extension and post-completion OPT.
  • Work at least 20 hours per week– In order to maintain your work status, it essential for you to work for at least 20 hours a week in a job which is directly related to your field of study.
  • Start your OPT employment after receiving EAD paperwork- File an application foryour (SSN) Social Security Number, if you haven’t received already and then investigate your H-1B employment visa option with your employer.
  • Do not indulge in any volunteer, unpaid work or self-employment as it is not permitted under the regulations of STEM OPT extension.
  • Prepare for a sustainable financial future in the U.S. by developing a strong credit profile. 
  • Report your changes in employment, name, address to OGS- It is your duty to ensure that you report any changes in your legal name, address, employer’s name and address to the DSO within 10 days of the change. Report to OGS every six months to confirm the listed information, even if there are no changes in your information.
  • Keep Documents of all your jobs for the future– It is prudent to keep a track record and proof of all your employment history during OPT. The documents will act as an evidence for each of your job. In case, it is uncertain from a job description that the work is related to your field of study, then you should attain a signed letter from your employer’s hiring manager, supervisor, or official to validate the interconnection of the work to your degree and keep it in your personal records.

 

Checklist of documents which proves an OPT Employment

OPT students must keep a copy of these documents during their course of OPT placements as it may be requested by USCIS when applying for the future immigration benefits.:

  • Copies of job offer letters, contracts or agreements with all your OPT employers.
  • If you ever worked for a consultancy or agency, keep a record of the projects you worked on.
  • Copies of job descriptions having the details of job title, pay rate, location, duties, and working hours per week.
  • Maintain copies of pay stubs or pay vouchers for all periods of employment.
  • Keep the copies of your bank statements which shows corresponding deposits from your employers.

Conclusion

International students pursuing a STEM degree are most likely to encounter an affluent job market in the United States. Though STEM jobs require lots of preparation, commitment and competence, it is certainly worth the hard work. You can expect a favorable outlook for STEM careers in the U.S for the foreseeable future.

As most in-demand STEM jobs are IT-related, so you must develop some exceptional technical skills by enrolling into our skill-enhancement program. Our program will revamp your skills in Java, Hadoop, Machine Learning and other technologies.  

On an average our candidates get hired within 6 weeks period after completing the technology upskill program. To enrich your IT knowledge and hop onto well-paid jobs, reach out to our experts. We have helped thousands of OPT students in building a strong career in various technical domains.

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