Science writing wasn’t on Shi En Kim’s radar when she lived in Malaysia.
When she came to the U.S. in 2012, Kim, now a PhD student studying nanomaterials at the University of Chicago, had her mind set on becoming a scientist. It wasn’t until after she took a science writing internship in her university’s biology department that she fell in love with science writing. “It was really fun; I really enjoyed it,” she says. “I wanted more.”
Excited to improve her writing and broaden her audience, Kim started looking for more opportunities and decided that freelancing seemed like a good fit. However, there was a catch: Her student visa strictly limits the types of work she can do.
Like Kim, thousands of international students arrive in the U.S. every year for student exchange programs or to pursue academic degrees. For those interested in writing, freelancing may offer an appealing means to kickstart their careers and supplement their incomes. However, visa restrictions stipulate that foreign students at any academic level can work no more than half-time at their host universities and must receive school authorization to pursue off-campus work. This means international students must take some preliminary steps with their schools before pursuing paid writing opportunities. Nevertheless, with planning and good record-keeping, it is possible to freelance while on a student visa.
Facing an Uncertain Path
Kim first looked for writing opportunities on her campus, where she knew her visa allowed her to work. After her internship, she started doing some institutional writing for the health and science news office of the University of Chicago Medical Center. She also explored some sporadic off-campus opportunities that would allow her to write and publish stories without receiving pay, since these would not violate the terms of her visa. She wrote for Massive Science—a media outlet that specializes in helping scientists write stories for the general public—and as a student contributor at the magazine Physics World.
However, knowing how many freelancers struggle to find outlets that offer fair pay for their stories, working for free bothered her. “I was weighing two things. I didn’t want to add on to the problem of freelancers not getting paid enough, but at the same time, [without doing so] I wouldn’t get an opportunity to write,” she says.
The lack of clear information about what to do, or who to ask for advice about how to work legally and get paid, added to her frustration. “I didn’t know, at that time, any international student or any established writer who went the route that I was taking,” Kim says. “I had to figure out things on my own.”
Kim’s efforts paid off when she joined the NPR Scicommers program, a community of scientists interested in improving their science communication skills. In July 2020, Ensia accepted one of her stories. When her editor found out that she didn’t want to get paid for the piece, Kim got a call from her, saying something like, “We want to pay you. We will do anything. Just tell me what you need.”
That supportive nudge prompted Kim to contact her university’s international student office to inquire about her options.
Types of Work Authorizations
All international students in the U.S. must follow one rule when searching for paid opportunities, including internships and freelance work. “The only option for working outside of campus is that the work has to be attached to your academic program,” says Natalia Meyer, an international student specialist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
The type of work authorization a student can request—and, in turn, who processes the request and what conditions they have—depends on their visa and what stage they are at in their program.
The type of work authorization a student can request—and, in turn, who processes the request and what conditions they have—depends on their visa and what stage they are at in their program. The most common types of visas held by students are in the F and J categories.
J-1 scholars—students in exchange programs at the post-secondary level—can work by requesting an authorization from their universities for academic training. This type of work can occur both before and after the completion of the exchange program.
For F-1 scholars—people enrolled in full-time academic programs at any level—things are a bit more complicated. During their programs, they can request authorization for part- or full-time work through curricular practical training (CPT), which is authorized by the student’s university. Or F-1 holders can choose optional practical training (OPT), which allows for full-time work after graduation and is authorized by the U.S. government.
Both academic training and CPT require students to have a job lined up before starting the authorization request process, whereas individuals can apply for OPT without having secured a job. However, graduates on OPT are only allowed up to 90 days of unemployment after its start date before they would need to leave the country.
Encouraged by her Ensia editor, Kim decided to apply for part-time CPT. “I talked to my international student office, and right away they said no. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want to give up,” she says. Next, she approached her dean, who agreed to support her. Together, they appealed to the international student office and got the approval she needed. Kim has been able to be paid to publish several stories since then.
Since both CPT and academic training are authorized directly by the university’s international student office, “every school is going to have their own process,” says Meyer. This is why the first and most critical step is to contact your international student office to learn about your school’s requirements.
The most important thing, in Meyer’s opinion, is to make sure that the requested work is, in fact, an integral part of your academic program. Sometimes this may mean that work should be required as part of the program of study. In other cases, a student’s advisor may be able to confirm the relevance of the work for the program. Nevertheless, as long as the paperwork meets the school’s requirements, there should not be any problems down the line, she said.
Although every school has its own process, it’s likely you’ll need to submit a CPT form. Some schools also require a letter from the employer, which may need to include specific criteria about the assignments. At other schools, the work may need to be associated with a specific course, in which case you may need to work with your course instructor or academic advisor to define the assignments. It is also likely that students may have to ask for a new authorization every time they wish to publish for a different outlet.
Freelancing after Graduation
International students in the U.S. need to leave the country within 60 days after they complete their programs and graduate. However, if they wish to work temporarily in the U.S., they must ask for an OPT visa extension, which authorizes full-time work for up to 12 months, or up to 36 months if the student got a degree in a STEM field.
OPT is authorized by the federal government and requires—among other things—that the graduate certifies full-time employment in a field related to their degree. This became a concern for Priyanka Runwal, a native of India, when she could not find formal employment after graduating with a master’s from the Science Communication Program at the University of California Santa Cruz, which brought her to the U.S. in 2018.
UC Santa Cruz’s one-year program requires students to do part-time professional internships during the academic year and a final, full-time summer internship, so Runwal was familiar with the process of requesting CPT to be legally employed as a student.
Nearing the end of her program, she started an OPT application. Unlike CPT, OPT must be approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and the authorization may take three months or more to be issued.
Runwal was not planning on freelancing during her OPT; she hoped she could find a staff position or an internship. As time passed without any positive responses, she decided to give freelancing a try. But she had a lot of questions about how to do this without losing her student visa status.
Proving the relevance of a freelance writing gig should be no problem if your degree is in a journalism-related field, but it may take additional negotiation otherwise.
“I contacted my international student office a few times, because I was really concerned that I might not be able to freelance on my OPT,” Runwal recalls. And even if her visa allowed freelancing, it wasn’t clear how she could demonstrate that she was working full-time, an important requirement to maintain her OPT authorization. “With employment, your employer’s letter would state how many hours you’d be working, but as a freelancer on OPT? How do you even account for hours?” she says.
According to Meyer, people with OPT authorization can freelance as long as it is related to their field of study and if they report all employment to USCIS. Proving the relevance of a freelance writing gig should be no problem if your degree is in a journalism-related field, but it may take additional negotiation otherwise.
The advice Runwal got from her advisor at the international student office at UC Santa Cruz was to keep a meticulous log of her assignments and the hours she worked.
To make it work, she tried to publish every week and documented all her communications in case she was ever asked to provide records. She kept that goal in mind when choosing the kinds of projects she accepted, how much she wrote and for what outlets.
“Just make sure you document all your outlets, all your contracts, all your correspondences very, very carefully. Try to maintain a timesheet on a weekly basis, which could just be an Excel sheet where you put down times,” Runwal says. She used her OPT to freelance for a year, setting goals that would help her apply for an O-1 visa, which allowed her to continue working in the U.S.
Finding Words of Advice
If you are an international student or a recent graduate thinking about freelancing, the first and most-important step you should take is talking to the designated school official, or DSO, of your university’s international student office. They can help you navigate your school’s requirements to get work authorizations.
If you are an international student or a recent graduate thinking about freelancing, the first and most-important step you should take is talking to the designated school official, or DSO, of your university’s international student office.
There is likely no need to contact an attorney at this stage, says Lorcan Shannon, a New York–based immigration lawyer. “University DSOs are generally the experts, so we advise students to talk to them instead,” he says.
If you are still a student, be mindful that both academic training and CPT have duration restrictions. For J-1 students, the total time spent in academic training—be it pre- or post-completion of the program—cannot exceed the total amount of time of the program they are enrolled in. F-1 students can enroll in full-time CPT for up to 12 months; however, those who use the full 12 months of CPT are no longer eligible to apply for OPT. Students who complete fewer than 12 months of CPT remain eligible to apply for the full duration of OPT.
Shannon also recommends that, if your long-term plans include staying in the U.S., you should contact an immigration attorney at least six months before the expiration of your student visa—and sooner is better.
Finally, it’s important to know that U.S. taxes on freelance income are calculated differently than those on income from full-time employment. (Note: Starting with the 2020 tax year, the IRS has begun requiring the 1099-NEC form for independent contractors, rather than the 1099-MISC form; this change is not reflected in the article linked above, which is otherwise up to date.) Tax forms are different depending on an individual’s residency status (see sidebar) but the filing process is pretty much the same for all freelancers.
A Tough but Rewarding Path
Freelancing offers valuable work experience for students and can provide income for recent graduates. But choosing this career path can be taxing.
Kim’s journey has been slow and frustrating at times. Because she must have an employer lined up before applying for CPT, and must do so for each separate freelance assignment—and the university typically takes a few weeks to approve each request—she must look for stories that will be relevant for at least a month after pitching. “I feel like there are some opportunities I’m missing out on because I can’t do a fast turnaround,” she laments.
She highlights the need for maintaining good communication with editors throughout the process. However, sometimes she fears that the additional paperwork the school requires from her employers may prompt some editors to retract an acceptance for a pitch. “I feel like I have to go through that vetting process twice,” Kim says.
Runwal found it stressful to have the pressure of publishing constantly so she could demonstrate that she was working full time. She warns that “it’s good to keep in mind that you can’t give up.” Runwal found that keeping a strong virtual support system of friends and family, taking days off, and finding a senior freelance science journalist who could act as a mentor were key for navigating the anxieties and challenges of the freelance world.
In spite of the challenges, both Kim and Runwal are excited about their choice to freelance. Runwal loves the flexibility freelancing allows, and Kim is grateful that she is able to access opportunities that she would have not have known about if she had stayed in Malaysia. With some persistence, they say, the freelance path can be rewarding and help international students kickstart a writing career.
Natalia Gutiérrez-Pinto is a Colombian biologist and freelance writer, currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She was part of the 2020 class of AAAS Mass Media fellows, writing for the Idaho Statesman, and has been a contributor for Massive Science and several science communication outlets in Spanish, including Blog Pa Sumercé, Planeteando, and Revista Digital Fulica. Follow her on Twitter @natagp.