Can I get a STEM extension of my Optional Practical Training permit to work in a lab?

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Question:

I'm an F-1 student who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology. I’m working in a lab, and would like to keep working here as long as possible – am I eligible for a STEM extension?

Answer:

The answer is most likely yes. As it sounds like you have already heard, F-1 students who have graduated from a STEM-designated degree program and who accept positions in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics can receive an extra 17 months of work permission as Optional Practical Training (OPT), allowing them a total of 29 months of OPT work authorization. Starting May 10, 2016, the allowable extension will become 24 months.

In order to be eligible for the 17-month OPT STEM extension, you must:

  • be currently working on your initial 12-month OPT
  • not have previously received a 17-month OPT extension
  • have completed a degree in a major (and its distinct CIP code) that is listed on the STEM Designated Degree Program list, AND
  • have a U.S. employer that is registered in the E-verify system.

The rules for the 24 month extension are slightly different. To be eligible for the 24-month OPT STEM extension, you must:

  • be currently participating in an initial period of regular post-completion OPT
  • have a degree in an eligible STEM field from a Student and Exchange Visitor Program-certified school that is accredited when you submit your extension application to USCIS
  • pursue your STEM OPT extension through an employer that is enrolled in USCIS's E-Verify employment eligibility verification program
  • select a STEM OPT employer that provides you with formal training and learning objectives, and
  • work at least 20 hours per week per employer.

Each major in the Student and Exchange Visitor System (SEVIS) is given a unique CIP (Classification of Instructional Programs) code. Your major and its CIP code can be found on your I-20 at the top left hand corner of page three.

In order to determine whether your employer is registered in the E-verify system, you will need to contact its human resources department directly. If your employer is already registered in the E-verify system, ask for its E-verify number and the exact name under which the company is listed in the system.

If your employer is not currently registered in E-verify, registration is free and easy. However, joining will commit your employer to a list of serious obligations and duties. The decision to join E-verify must not be taken lightly and should be made by your employer.

If you are currently approved for the initial 12 months of OPT, have not received a STEM extension before, majored in a topic whose CIP code appears on the STEM major list, and will be working for an employer that is registered in E-verify, you can contact your Designated School Official (DSO) for help with the STEM extension application.

One word of caution: The STEM extension can be granted only once in a lifetime. If you have aspirations of continuing onto the next education level (Masters or Ph.D.), then you might be better served by foregoing the STEM extension and saving it for later.

However, if you plan on switching your area of study to a non-STEM major for your subsequent degree, then go ahead and use your STEM extension now. The STEM extension is given only when your current major is on the STEM majors list. For example, after completing your current degree in biology, if you decide to go for a master’s degree in business (a non-STEM major), then you will not be eligible for the STEM extension based on your M.B.A.--not even if you find a job in the biology field.

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