Updated: Nov 16, 2020
I moved to the US with the F1 student visa. During my MBA years, I had an internship using CPT (Curricular Practical Training) at a small investment firm which I was hoping to get a full-time job offer from. Didn’t happen. Not knowing anyone in the US who could refer me for job openings, I had to work day and night to find an employer who would be willing to sponsor my work visa, aka H1B.
When I think back of all years since I moved to the US, I looked for jobs for four times. The most difficult one by far was finding my first job. The other times were not even comparable in difficulty. All of my international friends had the same experience. But why is it so hard to find your first job?
Here are a few reasons:
- Most companies don’t hire internationals who require sponsorship, especially right out of school.
- You don’t have an established network of people in the US who know your work ethics, intelligence, potential and performance.
- Your communication skills in English are probably still developing, which makes it harder to connect with the interviewers, have natural small talks and be in the same frequency.
- Since the number of available jobs open for internationals are limited, competition is very fierce. You are not only competing against US nationals who have strong language skills, but also against top international talent who are aggressively looking for a job in the US.
Here is a reminder. You should be aware of your unique qualities that differentiate you among the crowd. You managed to move from a different country to the US by jumping through many hoops. It is a very brave move to start a life in a country from scratch, in a new culture where no one knows you.
You studied hard and ranked at the top in your country which probably is very competitive. In your applications, you took multiple tests and achieved high scores. You are probably bilingual at the least and have multi-cultural experiences that most people don’t have.
Most importantly you are fighter. You are a survivor. You don’t take things for granted. That’s why 55% of the unicorn startups are founded by immigrants in the US.
It is the easy way to complain about how process is getting harder, how Trump made everything more difficult, how H1B quotas are decreasing and feel like a victim. If you want to stay here, you will need to fight for whatever limited space available. I graduated at one of the worst times for internationals to search for a job during 2009-2010 crisis and over 90% of the companies were not even interviewing people who needed a sponsorship. Me and my international friends who were determined to find a job in the US spent 8+ hours a day for almost 2 years and we all succeeded at the end. If there is a will, there is a way.
In my career, I interviewed hundreds of people and what I will share below comes from personal experience on both sides of the table. Ok that was a long intro. So how will you do an effective job search while leveraging your differentiating qualities? Let’s get to the point!
1) Be structured and systematic.
I recommend creating an excel sheet where you will track all your job search activity. I would create following columns for the open positions that you’re interested in:
- Recruiter or hiring manager and their contact info
- Contacts / referrals (who work at the company) and their contact info
- Last update
- Next step
- Link to the job description
I would also create a comprehensive list of people who know you well and the companies they currently work at. This will feed into the “contacts/referrals” column as you find openings in their respective companies.
2) Do your research.
Most large companies have policies about whether they sponsor internationals or not. Startups are more fluid and can make ad hoc decisions based on how much they are interested in you. They can even create roles if they really like you. That’s actually how I found my first job.
Here is a fantastic website where you can not only find companies that hire internationals, but also positions as well as salaries: https://h1bdata.info/.
Create alerts in the job search websites. If you are interested in start-ups, research for lists of fastest growing/most promising start-ups. A basic Google search would lead to results like this: https://www.forbes.com/sites/amyfeldman/2020/05/28/next-billion-dollar-startups-2020/#737ab6483f9f.
3) Use LinkedIn effectively.
LinkedIn will be your #1 source to leverage during the job search to find opportunities, to find contacts and to communicate with them.
Here are a few tips when you are using LinkedIn:
- Make sure that your profile is visible to everyone and has a good summary of your background and experience. When people glance at your profile, they should have a good idea about your qualifications. Don’t be afraid to provide details.
- Get a premium membership (or whatever they call it these days) that allows you to send inMail to people even if you’re not connected to.
- Turn on the “open for opportunities” switch. This will make the recruiters know that you are in the search process.
- Every time before you apply for a job, search for three things on LinkedIn; the recruiter, the hiring manager and people working at that company (ideally 1st degree or 2nd degree connections).
- If you see a 2nd degree connection, ask for an intro through your 1st degree connection if you feel comfortable.
- Have a brief message template ready when you reach out to the recruiter, hiring manager and connections. Do NOT ever send a whole cover letter. People are busy, cover letters are too mechanical, long and boring. Your notes should be short, sweet and personal.
4) Be sincere, be authentic, be yourself, avoid clichés.
This is self-explanatory. Forget the B-School lingo if you are exposed to it.
5) Utilize your contacts wisely.
Don’t burn your contacts out, don’t leave a bad taste in their mouths. You should leverage your contacts at the right time, at the right amount, in the right way. It is typically not an effective approach to just tell them that you are looking for a job and ask if they know any open positions. It is your job to find the opportunities and they are typically posted online right after they got approved internally.
Once you find opportunities and do a thorough research, reach out to your contacts working in these companies. Indicate your interest about the position and ask for any guidance and advice. I would recommend not to ask directly for referral unless they offer it. People are smart enough to know your expectations and will offer to refer you for the role if they feel comfortable. They are putting their reputation on the line when they make a referral, so respect their choice.
Don’t forget, 40% to 50% of the hires come from referrals. Therefore, time invested in building relationships is well worth it.
6) Prepare well to your interviews.
Here are some basic areas to cover as you prepare for your interview.
- History, vision, values
- Business model and how they make money
- Strategy and current priorities
- Priorities and related initiatives
- Short, medium, long term plans
- Financials and metrics
- Growth trajectory
- Market cap / latest valuation
- Revenue by products
- Revenue by geography
- Profit margins (especially gross margin for startups)
- Customer profile and user characteristics
- Other operating metrics
- Challenges and risk factors
- Growth ideas for the company
- Market definition
- Market size
- Adjacent markets
- Similarities and differences from competitors
- Competitive advantages
- Market shares
- How the market has been evolving, trends etc.
Some research tools
- Company website
- Google search on recent articles about the company, industry, trends etc.
- Industry reports
- Analyst reports (typically created by investment banks and consulting firms)
- 10-K and annual reports (if the company is public)
- Glassdoor for interview questions
- Speeches and presentations of the executives (check out Youtube, company website, Google etc.)
- Talking to people who worked/are working for the company
- Seeking Alpha for articles
Some generic questions to be ready about
- Going over the background
- Be structured, articulate and clear. Highlight your relevant experience and skills.
- Don’t get lost in details, you will lose the interviewer!
- What are you looking for?
- Why are you interested in this company?
- Why this industry?
If you are currently employed
- Why are you leaving your current company?
- What were your responsibilities and accomplishments in your last role?
- Again, be structured and clear. You can use numbers when presenting your thoughts (e.g. “I had 3 main responsibilities in my previous role; 1) bla bla bla…)
Write down every possible question that you can think of and write down your answers for each question as you prepare for the interview. This is not about memorizing your answers, writing forces you to be clear and concise. This preparation will give you confidence during the interview.
Finally, try to integrate the words on the job description when talking about your past experience. This is especially helpful when talking to a recruiter who is trying to check boxes when deciding to whether introduce you to the hiring manager.
7) A bird in the hand is worth a flock in the bush.
I know more than one person who counted on receiving an offer from a desired company and turned down an existing offer in hand only to get disappointed when they didn’t get the offer. Here is a brutal truth: Throughout the interview process, companies make you feel like you are their first choice and make you think that you will get an offer even if you’re not their first choice.
This is especially apparent through the final stages of the process. They may tell you that everyone in the interview panel is a thumbs up and now they are discussing the final details. Don’t count on it! If you receive another offer, tell them about your decision deadline, reiterate your interest and ask if they can accelerate the process. If they don’t, take the offer in hand.
Sometimes it is a tactic, sometimes things really change in the companies. The role may be eliminated or job level -therefore requirements- may change while you are interviewing. Whatever the case is, you may not get the offer that you thought was a certainty.
The journey will be challenging, you will have ups and downs throughout. But remember that the first job is the most difficult one to find. The longer your career gets in the US, the easier it will get to find a job. Before you know it, you will be the one deciding where you want to work at. Especially if you follow the path to financial independence, you will have the power that most people including US citizens don’t have; moving from a position of strength.
Hope this article will be helpful for everyone who needs a sponsorship. Let me know if there are other areas that you want me to cover. Now it’s your turn to bring it on!