Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Understanding the OPT STEM extension

If you are studying in the US in F-1 status, you probably know about optional practical training (OPT). It is normally a one-year period that follows the completion of your academic program, during which you may work in a job related to your field of study.

You also may have heard that certain F-1 students may extend this one year by an additional 17 months, thus giving them a total of 29 months of OPT time. In this blog post, I will discuss important aspects of this available extension of OPT time.

Such an extension is commonly called a “STEM” extension, because it is available for students who study science, technology, engineering or mathematics. In addition, the employer must be enrolled in e-Verify, a special system that determines employment authorization of potential employees.

One important reason someone might elect such an extension is to give themselves an additional chance at H-1B status, should they fail to qualify during their regular one-year OPT. Or else, a student simply might want to have more experience in the job in the U.S., before leaving the US and not wishing to receive H-1B status.

Regardless of the reason, here are some things to watch for with regard to the STEM extension:

-          Avoid confusing the OPT STEM extension with the H-1B cap gap extension
These two extensions, while in some cases are related, nonetheless are separate concepts. The OPT STEM extension deals with making your OPT period longer. The H-1B cap cap extension provides a way for you to remain in status and possibly maintain work authorization between the original end of your F-1 status and the beginning date of an H-1B cap-subject job. A person can receive both extensions, neither extension, or one but not the other.

-          Avoid these INCORRECT ways to determine your eligibility

The following methods of determining eligibility are INCORRECT:

o   Looking solely at the name of your field of study
If your field of study contains one of the STEM subject names, the chances are high that you are eligible. However, this situation does not always hold. For example, not all types of engineering might really be STEM eligible.

o   Basing your conclusion on your type of degree
In the same way, do not automatically conclude that you are automatically eligible because your degree says “of Science.” Conversely, do not automatically despair that you are ineligible because your degree says “of Arts.” These degree names are determined by your institution, and need not correspond to your actual field of study. In fact, in some institutions, you might be able to select whether your degree is “of Arts” or “of Science.”

-          Follow this CORRECT way to determine your eligibility

To truly determine whether or not you are eligible for the OPT STEM extension, consult the top of page 3 of your I-20. There, you will see the name of your field of study, and following it will be a number, probably with a decimal point included. This number is called your “classification of instructional program” (CIP) code. To determine whether you are OPT STEM extension-eligible, compare this number with a table of STEM codes maintained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At the web site www.ice.gov, perform a search of “STEM” to find a spreadsheet or web page of eligible codes.

A few years ago, a friend, who received a Master of Arts degree in environmental science, told me she was upset about not being eligible for the STEM extension. She based her idea on the “of Arts” degree she received. After I told her the above correct way to check, she did so, and discovered she WAS eligible. She was so happy with me that she bought me a Starbucks.

If you too are so happy with this information that you wish to do the same, I will not be mad at you. In any event, I hope this information helps you.

You are welcome to contact me with questions. Please remember that this blog post, as with others, does not constitute legal advice.