How MBA Students Can Navigate The Visa Maze

Part of a series on the U.S. job market for international MBAs

Part of a series on the U.S. job market for international MBAs

Congratulations, foreign national, on receiving your MBA from a prestigious business school in America!

Now get out.

For international MBAs, the odds of winning the H-1B U.S. work visa lottery can be poor. An MBA’s chances of obtaining the visa change from year to year, depending on the number of applications for the 85,000 visas issued annually through the lottery. This year, employers submitted H-1B petitions for a record 233,000 workers.

But there are ways to improve the odds, and also a small handful of viable workarounds, from temporary career exile to the use of alternative visas and even green cards, business school career services officers say.

Because many jobs and firms are closed to foreign graduates of U.S. MBA programs because of company visa-sponsorship policies, “the funnel of jobs that they have available to look at is inherently going to be smaller as a result of the work authorization,” says Sheryle Dirks, associate dean of recruiting at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business.


However, while Graduate Management Admission Council research reveals that larger companies hire the most H-1B workers, MBA graduates who can provide smaller and mid-sized companies with a powerful value proposition may find success in receiving H-1B sponsorship, Dirks says. “One of the things we try to encourage our students to think about,” Dirks adds, “is to think about the type of firm that might really value your skills and therefore be willing to sponsor the H1B.” That said, Dirks urges students to “leverage large companies that do hire (H-1B workers), or might be willing to do it on an exception basis.”

Sheryle Dirks, Fuqua School of Business

Sheryle Dirks, Fuqua School of Business

Even if companies state that they don’t hire people under the H-1B, or if they’re known to avoid those hires, that shouldn’t stop an MBA who’s interested in the company from approaching them, particularly at recruiting events, Dirks says. At best, the student may find the company willing to make an exception. At the least, the student will probably learn useful information about an industry. And possibly, if a student isn’t dead-set on remaining in the U.S., the company may offer a job in an overseas office, Dirks says.

At the University of Illinois College of Business, associate director of MBA advising Elizabeth Chominski finds “so many exceptions” to apparent company policies against hiring H-1B workers. “I’ve got companies that tell you they won’t sponsor. If the right person was standing right in front of them they would find a way,” Chominski says. “If you know exactly what that company is looking for and you’re that package deal, they’re going to find out how to retain you.”


Taking a job overseas, under certain arrangements, can be an effective path around the H-1B to a U.S. job, says Laleh Rongere, associate director of international student programs at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. An MBA who fails to secure the visa may be able to strike a deal with an employer to post them overseas for a year then bring them back to a position in the U.S. under an easier-to-obtain L-1 visa, which is for managers, executives, and others with what the federal government describes as “specialized knowledge.”

The temporary-exile-overseas option imposes additional costs on companies, notes Harvard Business School career and immigration advisor Kurt Piemonte. “It’s a very costly thing for a company to do that, send them abroad and then bring them back. Some companies do do that. That’s sort of a last resort for them,” Piemonte says.

Both Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Deloitte have shown a willingness to go the temporary-exile route, says Chominski. Visa hurdles and employers’ visa-related policies cause shifts in foreign MBAs’ career aspirations, says Ivan Kerbel, founder of admissions consulting firm Practice MBA and a former director of career development at the Yale School of Management and senior associate director in Wharton’s MBA careers office.


“MBAs who become very knowledgeable about who hires and for what will base their decision on which career path they should take on what are the chances of success and what is the path of least resistance to a job in the U.S.,” Kerbel says. “You could say that that funnels people into jobs they don’t want. I’d probably agree with that. It’s a huge driver in whether they decide they want to do banking versus media and entertainment. Someone may want to work for a luxury brand in Los Angeles doing marketing work but the reality is they may spend all their time recruiting with banks because the hurdle is not seemingly insurmountable.”

But even students who alter their plans because of the visa issue aren’t locked into choices, Harvard’s Piemonte points out. MBAs can find a position that will provide a visa, work at it for two or three years, then change to their preferred type of position, and not be subject to the visa cap, Piemonte says. “That’s an effective strategy that a student could employ,” Piemonte says.

Alternatively, another option “is actually to go straight to a green card,” Piemonte says. MBAs can apply for the permanent residency card while they’re still on their Optional Practical Training 12-month student work visa. Companies, within four to six months, can get labor department certification that their foreign worker won’t be taking an American’s job, and back up the MBA’s green card application with the required “Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker.” The green card process can produce quicker results than the H-1B’s, Piemonte says. However, many larger companies have policies barring them from seeking green cards for workers who haven’t worked for them for two or three years already and thus demonstrated a commitment to the firm.

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