How Can A PhD Student Apply For A Green Card?

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Picture of Shawn Sedaghat, Esq.

Shawn Sedaghat, Esq.

Are you a foreign national Ph.D. student who wishes to apply for a green card? Do you have significant contributions to your field of expertise? Are you looking for a green card that is suitable to your academic background?

If you are eligible, the EB1-A, EB1-B, and EB-2 National Interest Waiver (NIW) might be your perfect visa options.

This article will provide a brief overview of what you can do as a foreign national Ph.D. student as you undergo the EB1-A and EB2-NIW application process.

Key Takeaways

  • Ph.D. students can apply for a Green Card through EB-1A if they have extraordinary ability or EB-1B as outstanding researchers or EB-2 NIW without a job offer.

  • The National Interest Waiver (NIW) allows those with advanced STEM degrees to apply for a Green Card by showing their work benefits in the US without an employer sponsor.

  • Maintaining legal F-1 status and following visa rules is vital to avoid having difficulty during the application process while applying for a Green Card.

  • Gathering strong evidence such as awards, memberships, publications, and recognition is crucial when applying through self-petition categories like EB-1A and EB-2 NIW.

  • Application costs include basic fees, optional services like premium processing, attorney fees for legal guidance, and additional expenses related to document preparation.

Understanding Green Card Eligibility for Ph.D. Students

Exceptional Ph.D. students or those with advanced degrees in science, arts, or business may be eligible for green card options toward U.S. citizenship. They can apply for EB1-A, EB1-B, or even EB2-NIW.

Yes, international students aspiring to become PhDs can also be eligible for EB2-NIW if they can prove that their proposed endeavor is of national interest.

For example, a foreign national who has not finished the Ph.D. program yet, but has a a proven groundbreaking impact in the field of expertise can try to apply for an EB2-NIW. This national interest waiver can help them skip other time-consuming green card application procedures, such as the labor certification process, and it could also save a lot of time since it was approved before the end of the Ph.D. program.

I only have a master’s degree, but I am currently a PhD student. Can I still apply for an EB2-NIW?

In order to meet the criteria for NIW, the applicant’s proposed endeavor must hold considerable significance for the nation — or national interest— as mentioned above. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will assess whether your advanced degree is relevant and groundbreaking to a particular field of American life during your green card process.

foreign nationals trying to apply for such green card options, which skips over the time-consuming labor certification process, must understand a few essential things as indicated below.

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Green Card Options for Ph.D. Students

Ph.D. students considering long-term opportunities in the United States have specific options for obtaining lawful permanent residence — and eventual citizenship.

They may find their advanced degrees and specialized expertise align well with certain green card categories, opening doors to a future where their scholarly contributions can continue on American soil.


The EB-1 visa category for individuals with extraordinary ability has specific criteria that applicants, including Ph.D. students, need to meet. To qualify under the EB-1 category, a Ph.D. student must satisfy at least three of the following 10 criteria:

  1. Receipt of Lesser Nationally or Internationally Recognized Prizes or Awards for Excellence in the Field of Endeavor:

    • This includes awards or honors that recognize outstanding achievements in the applicant’s academic field.

  2. Membership in Associations in the Field Which Demand Outstanding Achievements of Their Members:

    • Evidence of membership in societies or associations that require significant accomplishments for admission.

  3. Published Material About the Applicant in Professional or Major Trade Publications or Other Major Media:

    • This refers to articles or media coverage highlighting the applicant’s work and contributions to their field.

  4. Participation as a Judge of the Work of Others in the Same or an Allied Field of Specialization:

    • Serving on editorial boards or as a reviewer for peer-reviewed journals can fulfill this criterion.

  5. Original Scientific, Scholarly, Artistic, Athletic, or Business-Related Contributions of Major Significance in the Field:

    • Documentation of the applicant’s original research or contributions that have significantly impacted their field.

  6. Authorship of Scholarly Articles in Professional Journals or Other Major Media in the Field:

    • Evidence of published papers, articles, or books authored by the applicant in reputable academic journals or media.

  7. Display of the Applicant’s Work at Artistic Exhibitions or Showcases (for fields applicable):

    • For those in the arts, evidence of exhibitions or showcases featuring the applicant’s work.

  8. Performance in a Leading or Critical Role for Organizations or Establishments That Have a Distinguished Reputation:

    • Demonstrating a significant role in projects or organizations recognized for excellence in the field.

  9. High Salary or Other Significantly High Remuneration in Relation to Others in the Field:

    • Evidence of a high salary or remuneration that indicates the applicant’s exceptional ability compared to peers.

  10. Commercial Successes in the Performing Arts (if applicable):

    • For applicants in the performing arts, evidence of commercial success, including box office receipts or sales figures.

Ph.D. students aiming for the EB-1 visa must thoroughly document their achievements that correspond to these criteria, providing compelling evidence of their extraordinary ability in their academic field.

NIW National Interest Waiver

If you are asking how can a Ph.D. student apply for a green card, NIW is probably the best path. To obtain a National Interest Waiver (NIW) as a Ph.D. student, certain criteria and documentation are essential. The process can be outlined in the following numbered paragraphs:

  1. Demonstration of Exceptional Ability or Advanced Degree:

    • Ph.D. students must prove they possess an advanced degree or demonstrate exceptional ability in sciences, arts, or business. This involves presenting evidence such as the Ph.D. degree, publications, awards, and letters of recommendation from experts in the field.

  2. Evidence of National Interest Work:

    • The applicant must show that their research or work serves the national interest of the United States significantly more than the inherent benefit of their advanced degree alone. This includes detailing how the research addresses critical challenges or advances U.S. competitiveness in science, technology, or another crucial sector.

  3. Substantial Merit and National Importance:

    • It’s necessary to establish that the proposed endeavor has substantial merit and national importance. This could involve outlining the potential impact of the Ph.D. student’s research on industry, public health, or other areas critical to national interests.

  4. Well-Positioned to Advance the Proposed Endeavor:

    • Applicants must demonstrate that they are well-positioned to advance their proposed endeavor. This could be through their unique skills, knowledge, record of past achievements, and the relevance of their current or planned research.

  5. Waiver Benefits the United States:

    • A critical aspect of the NIW is showing that it would be beneficial for the United States to waive the job offer and labor certification requirements. Applicants should provide a compelling argument that their contributions will significantly benefit the U.S. economy, educational system, or another vital sector.

  6. Preparation of Documentation:

    • Assemble all necessary documents, including the Ph.D. diploma (or official transcripts if the degree has not yet been conferred), CV, publication list, peer reviews, citations, evidence of awards or grants received, and detailed letters of recommendation.

  7. Application Filing:

    • Complete and file Form I-140 (Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker) with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), accompanied by the NIW petition letter and all supporting documents. The petition letter should effectively argue the case for NIW eligibility based on the criteria outlined above.

  8. Awaiting Adjudication:

    • After submission, the applicant must wait for USCIS to adjudicate the petition. This period involves responding to any Requests for Evidence (RFEs) issued by USCIS, which may require additional documentation or clarification of the presented evidence.

Successfully navigating these steps can significantly enhance a Ph.D. student’s chance of obtaining an NIW, allowing them to contribute their expertise to the advancement of their field within the United States.


The EB-1B (Employment-Based First Preference Category) visa is specifically for outstanding researchers and professors. To qualify for an EB-1B visa, applicants must meet the following requirements:

  1. Demonstration of Outstanding Research or Teaching Abilities: Applicants must demonstrate outstanding achievements in their academic field. This can include publications, citations, awards, and other recognitions that establish the individual as an outstanding researcher or professor.

  2. At Least Three Years of Experience: Applicants must have at least three years of experience in teaching or research in their academic field. This experience can be in the form of teaching positions, research positions, or a combination of both.

  3. Offer of Employment: Applicants must have an offer of employment from a U.S. employer for a tenured or tenure-track teaching position or a permanent research position. The offer must be for full-time, permanent employment, and the employer must provide evidence of the applicant’s outstanding qualifications.

  4. Supporting Documentation: Applicants must provide supporting documentation to demonstrate their outstanding research or teaching abilities. This can include letters of recommendation from experts in their field, evidence of publications and citations, awards and honors, and evidence of participation in academic conferences and symposiums.

  5. International Recognition: Applicants must have international recognition for their outstanding achievements in their academic field. This can include evidence of invitations to speak at conferences or universities outside the United States, collaborations with international scholars, and other forms of international recognition.

  6. Labor Certification: Unlike other employment-based visa categories, the EB-1B category does not require a labor certification from the Department of Labor. However, applicants must provide evidence that their employment in the United States will benefit the nation.

  7. Intent to Continue Work in the Field: Applicants must demonstrate their intent to continue working in their academic field in the United States. This can be shown through the nature of the employment offer and the applicant’s career trajectory.

It’s important to note that meeting the minimum requirements does not guarantee approval of the EB-1B visa application. Each application is evaluated on its individual merits, and applicants must provide strong evidence to support their eligibility for the visa category. Additionally, consulting with an experienced immigration attorney is highly recommended to navigate the application process successfully.

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The Path to a Green Card: Key Steps

It is advisable for Ph.D. students who aspire to obtain U.S. citizenship to follow a set of steps to ensure a successful application.

To do so, it’s important to understand and execute each process carefully, ensuring that you meet the necessary criteria for eligibility and status adjustments.

The outstanding achievements and other valuable information declared by the applicant must align with the strict requirements of the immigration process. To accomplish this, each step must be approached methodically and with legal knowledge.

Identification of Eligibility

To start your green card journey, check if you qualify for the EB-1A, EB-1B, or EB-2 National Interest Waiver (NIW) green cards. PhD students aiming for an EB-1A must show extraordinary abilities in their field.

For an EB-1B green card, prove you are outstanding as a researcher or professor. Here, it’s key to demonstrate a record of success in academic circles. Think about awards, memberships in prestigious associations, and professional recognition.

For the EB-2 NIW, future PhD holders must be able to provide enough evidence to prove that their proposed endeavor is of national interest.

These options let foreign nationals stay on track toward achieving permanent residence and eventual citizenship without needing labor certification if their work benefits the U.S. significantly.

Employment Opportunity or Decision to Self-Petition

As a Ph.D. student applying for a green card, you have two other options. One is finding an employment opportunity. If a U.S. employer offers you a job, they may sponsor your green card application.

This process starts with the labor certification process to prove no qualified American workers are available for your job.

Your second path is self-petitioning. You might choose this if you don’t have a job offer but believe your work benefits the U.S. For example, entrepreneurs can show their active role in a business here and how it helps the country.

Or, as someone researching an area of national importance, you could apply under EB-1A for individuals with extraordinary ability or EB-2 through the National Interest Waiver without needing an employer’s sponsorship.

Whether supported by an employer or undergoing self-petition, keep up-to-date on forms and fees related to your situation. Consult an immigration attorney to guide you in selecting the best pathway for your circumstances.

Adjustment of Status

It is highly recommended to undergo the Adjustment of Status if you are currently in the US on a student visa, a process that can be completed through the Form I-485 .

This process allows you to change your F-1 student status to permanent residency without having to leave the country.

Consular Processing could be your path if you are outside the US or prefer returning to your home country for this part of the process. It involves applying for an immigrant visa at a US consulate abroad.

Once approved, you enter as a green card holder ready to start your new life in America. Both paths require careful documentation and adherence to USCIS guidelines, so make sure all paperwork is thorough and accurate before submission.


If you’re a Ph.D. student eyeing a green card, choose the right path for your situation.

Consider factors like costs, required documents, and eligibility criteria.

Lastly, keep up with legal status changes and consult professionals if needed – they can guide you through complex steps. Stay informed and proactive to turn your American dream into reality!


1. What types of employment-based green cards can a Ph.D. student apply for?

Ph.D. students may be eligible for various employment-based green cards, including the EB-1A for individuals with extraordinary ability and the EB-1B for outstanding professors and researchers.

2. Can a Ph.D. student self-petition for a Green Card?

Yes, Ph.D. students pursuing an EB-1A Green Card can self-petition, demonstrating substantial intrinsic merit in their research or field of expertise without requiring employer sponsorship.

3. What is the importance of ‘priority date’ in applying for a Green Card?

The priority date is significant as it establishes an individual’s place in the queue for green card processing. Applicants must wait until their priority date becomes current before advancing with their green card application.

4. Does having a master’s degree help when applying for an Employment-Based Green Card?

Possessing a master’s degree can bolster an applicant’s case, particularly if they lack extensive experience in their field. It demonstrates advanced knowledge and expertise, potentially strengthening eligibility for certain green card categories.

5. What is an Employment Authorization Document and does a foreign worker need one while their Green Card application is pending?

An EAD allows foreign workers to legally work in the United States while awaiting approval of their green card application. Obtaining an EAD ensures compliance with U.S. labor regulations during the interim period and facilitates lawful employment status.

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