Now that Novartis is hoping to grow its R&D division from 850 to 1,100 scientists, recruiting, which used to be a fall ritual, has become a year-round affair, with teams of scientists and human resources hitting more than a dozen universities around the world hunting for talented prospects.

Brian Flanagan, global head of staffing for Cambridge, Mass.-based Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, will look at where these candidates went to school, which labs they've worked at, and "clearly defined team and leadership behaviors."

Another major factor: can they work in the United States, and for how long?


These days, US companies searching for life scientists not only have to contend with finding the right person for the job, they must also figure out if sponsoring a foreign-born scientist for a work visa is worth the expense.

When hiring foreign-born scientists, US employers have always had to show that...


During the Clinton presidency and the beginning of the Bush administration, the economy was red hot. Employees were entertaining multiple offers. As a result, in 1998, Congress raised the number of H1B visas awarded each year from 65,000 to 150,000. In 2001, it went up to 190,000.

But in 2004, as the economy cooled, the number was reduced to a paltry 65,000 a year. Another 20,000 H1B visas recently became available, but only for advanced degree holders.

"This number gets exhausted very quickly," says James McGovern, director of the Office of International Students & Scholar Services at the City College of New York, which helps international students manage their legal immigration status. "A typical progression for an F1 student is they graduate and get their optional practical training granted by immigration, find an employer, and during that year the employer would sponsor them for H1B status. The problem is there are so few H1B visas available that, typically, F1 students find their optional practical training year is going to expire and it's impossible to convert to H1B status. From the employer's perspective, why hire someone, have them become valuable for one year, and there is no way to continue their employment?"


The cost of sponsorship has gone up as well. The H1B application costs $185, but then there's $700–$1,500 for the educational and training fund, a new $500 antifraud fee, and $1,000 to get the application processed within two weeks instead of the usual 60 to 90 days. "An employer can spend $3,185 on the filing fee alone," says David Raft, a senior associate at Fragomen, Del Ray, Bernsen & Loewy, a California firm that specializes in immigration law.

That doesn't include fees for attorneys like him, or money needed to arrange visas for an employee's family members. (Raft recommends that when applications for H1Bs are being made, H4s for the families also be filed.)

Throw in security changes wrought by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the situation has become even bleaker for foreign-born scientists with only F1 visas. All of this means that companies are much choosier about whom they hire and sponsor.

Not surprisingly, recruiters like Joanne Peters of Kelly Scientific Resources have opted not to work with clients who don't have H1Bs. "We used to sponsor because of the shortage of pharmaceutical chemists," says Peters, a branch manager in Paramus, NJ. "The situation is no better today than it was five or six years ago. I just don't do anything anymore."

Jeff Schwartzman, a senior recruiter at CyberScientific who specializes in the biotech and pharma industries, agrees: "The companies I work for almost require that I find candidates with a minimum of one to two years of industry experience. The candidates I place already will have an H1B visa since they are in industry."


Also stopping Peters from sponsoring F1 candidates: a recent law that allows someone to transfer his H1B status from one company to another after just six months. It can be as easy as hiring an immigration lawyer, says Schwartzman, and paying a $1,000 fee. What employer would be willing to go out on a limb and sponsor someone if there is no guarantee that the person will stay longer than six months?

Does that mean candidates without visa issues have a leg up on those who do? Sort of. Work experience and job suitability are still important. But if a company can avoid dealing with immigration, they will.

"Of course a US citizen or permanent citizen always has the advantage over the competition," says Schwartzman.

"Anytime they have to do a visa, a sponsorship, or transfer a visa, they have to prove to the company and the regulatory agencies that they could not find the candidate on their own," he continues. "Then expenses are involved. Even when you transfer a visa, it can take three weeks. And if the person has an H1B visa, say they are three years into it, what happens when the visa expires? They can get a new H1B or sponsor them for a green card, which is expensive."

But, he adds, "H1Bs are specialized positions in which there are not a lot of people out there. A biostatistician, for example, is hard to fill."

While it may be harder for foreign workers to land a job in the United States, there may be better opportunities overseas. Most international needs are met locally, say the experts.

Novartis, for example, has a research presence in Japan, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Austria. Of the 60 researchers in Japan, all are Japanese, while all scientists in the company's UK operations are British.


Foreign-born scientists in the United States are then faced with tough choices. Get PhD or postdoc experience, or return home. Otherwise, face the ire of the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS).

"In the past, people took a blasé attitude," says McGovern. "But everybody realizes now that there is zero tolerance as far as immigration goes. Going home, while not the preferred option, is the one they have to go with. The options become so limited if lawful status expires."

Daniel Wubah, special assistant to the president at Virginia's James Madison University, agrees, adding, "Now, most students know that all it takes is to be out of school a semester and they would hear from INS. They look over their shoulders more than they used to."

One way a BS and MS can improve their employment prospects, says Flanagan of Novartis, is to specialize in something that few others do. But the most obvious route is to continue one's education.

"I'd advise students to think long and hard to achieve higher education," says Flanagan. "The rules of the game are different for PhDs and postdocs. BSs and MSs, you're going to be lab technicians, not researchers. We need those people, but recognize that it's tougher if you're foreign born."

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