Updated on Wednesday 6 March 2013
Do you want something a little different from the standard degree program? Maybe you need practical skills or professional contacts more than an educational credential. Perhaps you would prefer a “real world” experience that allows you to travel or work outside of a university environment. Or maybe you are interested in academic study but are unsure about your English fluency, or about the time and financial commitment that a degree program requires.
If any of these circumstances describes your situation, you might want to consider a non-degree option. The United States offers many choices:
Most universities allow students to take classes on campus without enrolling in a degree program. You may not wish for a credential at the end of the program and simply want the learning experience of studying in the U.S. Many universities offer the opportunity for you to pursue your own interests and choices of courses for a semester or a year without formal matriculation (entrance into a degree program).
If you have completed graduate study, you can inquire into postdoctoral research or other opportunities with university departments or particular faculty members who have interests that match your own. Check school catalogs or contact admissions offices about the existence of “visiting student,” “non-degree,” or “non-matriculated” status at the institutions in which you are interested.
During the summer, many U.S. universities offer courses that are open to both non-students and those already enrolled. While there are likely to be some requirements (such as English language proficiency), participants in summer programs generally do not have to go through as complicated and rigorous an admissions process as they would to gain admission to a degree program.
Summer classes are often more fast-paced than those offered during the regular academic year, covering material in five to eight weeks that is usually covered in a thirteen- or sixteen-week semester. Classes may be smaller than usual, offering extra contact with professors and fellow students. In some cases, tuition is lower in the summer. However, schools may not offer all of the services (such as student advising, tutoring or even housing) that are available during the regular academic year.
If you want a credential at the end of the program but do not have the time for a full degree, consider a certificate program. The term “certificate” does not have a precise meaning in terms of U.S. education, so there are many options available to you. A certificate program may award undergraduate credit, graduate credit, or no academic credit at all. The certificate may simply indicate that particular vocational or professional skills have been mastered.
At some schools, certificate programs may be more common at the graduate level. They often take one academic year, or one summer of more intensive study, to complete. Graduate certificate programs are likely to provide credit toward a degree (should you wish to complete one later), and may even provide enough education to allow you to enter your chosen profession.
Many short-term educational programs are offered all across the U.S. that are not intended to result in a degree. Rather, they are designed to build and update practical, professional skills. Courses to meet a variety of career needs are offered by various schools, university departments, businesses, government agencies, associations, and private organizations specializing in providing short-term training.
English language training is the most widely offered type of internationally focused training. English-for-Specific-Purposes (ESP) programs can be particularly valuable to the international professionals who have an intermediate to high level of English proficiency. These programs provide instruction in the terminology of a specific field, such as law or engineering. Many ESP programs combine English instruction with opportunities to take courses in a particular subject, make visits to U.S. organizations, and perhaps even complete a brief internship working in the field. English language programs also offer a range of other options, from test preparation to holiday vacations.
Training suitable for international participants can also be found in hundreds of professional fields, from export management to epidemiology to graphic design. Program length may vary from a day to a year, with most training lasting between one and six weeks. To find programs, check with your local advising center, U.S. associations in your professional field, and universities that have research facilities or degree programs in the area.
Many short-term training programs include brief work experiences in the form of professional internships. Internships are a great way for you to earn hands-on experience in an area of interest without a commitment to a job or career. You may also make contacts with people who may be of help in the future when you are ready to begin your career. Some internships are available to people who are not officially enrolled in a school’s academic program, and it may be possible for trainers to arrange an internship on request and/or for an additional fee.
Work as the primary experience of a visit to the U.S. is also possible, with proper preparation. Start early—begin researching internship possibilities at least six to nine months in advance. An added challenge for you (in addition to demonstrating that you are the right person for a position) will be dealing with the legal regulations designed to protect the jobs of U.S. workers. Non-U.S. citizens who wish to work in the United States must abide by U.S. immigration regulations. Potential employers may not be familiar with these regulations on employing foreign nationals; they may be reluctant to deal with the paperwork involved.
The most common way to handle this problem is to work with one of the U.S. organizations that sponsors work exchange experience for international participants under the J-1 (exchange visitor) non-immigrant classification, trainee category. Some of these organizations focus on particular types of work experiences, such as placing counselors at U.S. summer camps for children.
Others can help with visas for all types of professionals internship experiences lasting less than eighteen months, or (in a few cases) with “summer travel/work programs” that allow any type of U.S. employment for a more limited period in the summer (or the winter, for students in the Southern Hemisphere). For a fee, sponsoring organizations may be able to help you locate an internship in your field or, more commonly, they will help arrange a J-1 visa for an employment experience you that you have located yourself.
Other visa categories that may be appropriate for U.S. work experiences include: the H-1B (temporary worker), H-3 (trainee), or Q (international cultural exchange visitor) visas. These options only fit particular types of cases and require that the prospective employer file substantial documentation for approval by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service district office in the region where the work will take place.
Peterson’s Internships, U.S. consular officials and overseas educational advisers can provide a full list of the organizations authorized to sponsor interns and summer workers for J-1 visas, most of which limit their services to particular work regions and types of work experiences. A few of the larger organizations are:
Whether you are studying or working in the United States, you will likely encounter a variety of differences from what you are used to in your own country. Here are a few tips for success as you prepare to work in the U.S.: