When the contract for my first ever paid writing gig landed in my inbox, I jumped with joy. Having a formal contract somehow made me feel like a “real” writer, especially as an international student whose first language wasn’t English. Getting paid for my writing was the validation that I needed—that I could be successful as a science writer instead of a research scientist. However, while reading the contract that the publication had sent, I got a nagging feeling. Something wasn’t right.
I soon found out that under my F-1 visa—the most common type of nonimmigrant visa for a full-time student of foreign nationality—I was not allowed to be compensated for my work off-campus. Not only that, the publication wasn’t supposed to take my work for free; if I was doing the same work as someone who got to be paid, under U.S. labor laws, I was supposed to get paid as well. I was caught in legal limbo. Even though money wasn’t my primary motivation, money was preventing me from my pursuit of science communication.
I was caught in legal limbo.
More and more STEM graduate students are jumping into the field of science communication for various reasons. Some are trying to counter the rise of scientific misinformation in American politics and media. Others, prompted by increasing competition for faculty positions, are trying to hone additional skills to distinguish themselves in a tough job market.
However, despite the booming trend, voices of international students are seldom represented, especially in mainstream media, even though almost one-third of all STEM doctorate recipients in the U.S. are international students. And the legal limbo that I experienced is one of the reasons why. International students in the U.S. are allowed to get their education and related training, but the existing laws don’t allow them to do anything else.
Voices of international students are seldom represented, especially in mainstream media, even though almost one-third of all STEM doctorate recipients in the U.S. are international students.
For graduate students, having an opportunity to communicate their science with a broader audience is valuable because it makes them better scientists; the process of writing and presenting one’s science helps scientists widen their view. Acting as a bridge between the public and research science can also be a fulfilling experience, helping graduate students to perceive themselves as valuable members of society.
On the societal level, science helps citizens make informed decisions in their personal lives, as well as on various policy matters. As such, communicating science with the general public should be—but often isn’t—included in the job description of scientists, including international STEM graduate students. After all, scientists communicate their science with peers through journal papers regularly. When trust in scientists is high and trust in the news media is low amongst Americans, it seems logical for scientists, including international graduate students, to spread the gospel of science and scientific thinking themselves—not through someone else’s pen.
Communicating science with the general public should be—but often isn’t—included in the job description of scientists, including international STEM graduate students.
Of course, there are options for international students to communicate science with the public outside of the legal limbo. If the publication—like Sister—accepts work on a voluntary basis equally from all their writers, there is no legal issue. However, for a publication that generally pays their writers, like most mainstream media, things could get a little tricky. Some more lenient publications still offer to publish international student’s work without compensation if they had precedence. But when it is an international student’s first time navigating the unfamiliar territory of publishing, the uncertainties of this case-by-case basis could be discouraging enough for someone to stop trying.
Indeed, I was crushed when I found out that I was trapped in legal limbo. The possibility of my first big piece—which I worked very hard on—not being published at all was heartbreaking. Eventually, the publication and I agreed that I could write for them as a voluntary writer, without signing a contract. I was glad that my work didn’t end up being forgotten on some hard drive after all, but the whole experience demoralized me nonetheless. Still, I continue to seek opportunities to write about science, because I know how important it is for myself and society.
International students, like all other scientists, should be able to communicate science without having to worry about repercussions on their visa and immigration status. And publications should be able to give international students a voice without legal ramifications. Lawmakers should face the fact that science communication is part of scientists’ job and relax outdated laws so that international STEM graduate students can achieve their goals of becoming better scientists while benefiting society at the same time.
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