The national interest waiver (NIW) application is for professionals who have an exceptional skill or talent in their profession and are applying for an NIW because they believe their proposed endeavor will benefit the national interest of the United States. As such, it is not absolutely necessary for an applicant to be on a Ph.D. track because the main criteria that should be satisfied is that the applicant's work has some national benefit to the United States and its economy. Often, the U.S. national interest is closely tied to its domestic economy and valuable sectors of influence like engineering and materials science, or medical and life sciences research.
This could very well mean that an applicant who only has a Masters degree, but has been in the workforce for many years, is eligible for an NIW provided they have been working on something that is innovative, offers realistic solutions to a current problem, or helps an entire field or industry. It could also mean that an applicant who has a Master's degree but doesn’t have a lot of professional working experience is ineligible for an NIW because their career hasn’t really blossomed yet, and they are still not advanced enough to be working on projects that would have any national impact.
This blog will be dedicated to better understanding how the degree you hold sets the bar for the NIW. In short, we will argue that the Master's is the absolute minimum requirement for applying for an NIW, but that having a good chance of receiving an NIW revolves around other external factors.
The Benefits of a Ph.D. Track
Online immigration forums have this question posed often. Potential applicants want to know if their Master's degree will have weight when they are applying for an EB-2 NIW, or if they should simply try to apply in a different category. The answer is that Master's programs are often two-year specialized programs that train applicants how to get a job in their desired field or industry. There is higher level thinking in Master's programs, lots of case studies, and case work, but ultimately it is supposed to be a fast track to a higher earning job offered within months of graduation.
The Ph.D. track is much different as it can last anywhere from 5-7 years and is meant for a career in research or academia. Therefore the way Ph.D. candidates are able to narrowly focus on a certain scientific, philosophical, business-related, or political problem for their Ph.D. thesis means that they will probably become leading experts in a very specialized field or sub-field as they have years to collect data, analyze it, and work towards defending their thesis. You don’t receive this level of focus and specialization in a Master's program.
As such, a Ph.D. candidate may be more well-equipped to solve an industry-led problem because of the amount of time they have been dealing with the issue.
That being said, it is more common for Ph.D. applicants to apply for an NIW precisely because they have developed an innovative way of thinking about a problem and have years of professional research experience in their field. They feel that this combination of research-led experience will be satisfactory for their NIW application.
Letters of Recommendation
In addition, you might have higher quality letters of recommendation if you have been in a Ph.D. candidacy for 5 years. The relationship you develop with your colleagues (who are most likely graduate teaching assistants) will help shape your professional career. You might be able to get good letters of recommendation from a Master's advisor or from a well-liked professor in your Master's program, but most likely you will be getting letters from other long-term employers too.
The difference is that if you are already in academia, and still a Ph.D. candidate, you’ll have very good writers (academic professionals) writing your letters of recommendation, and they will probably be of very high quality when read by the USCIS officer. Applicants need to think about this when they are in the midst of applying for an NIW.
Out of School Experience
Finally, the question of whether or not a Master's degree is sufficient for an NIW application misses the point of how many working years of experience the applicant has. If you worked in a Ph.D. lab setting for five years doing specialized work, that is a highly valuable experience and evidence that you might have a project that will be beneficial to the U.S. economy and the national interest. If you have only been working for two years after your Master's degree, then likely you won’t meet the minimum working requirement if you didn’t work professionally before entering your Master's program.
The consensus from immigration lawyers is that an applicant needs at least five years of post-graduate school experience to be eligible for the NIW.
Overall, applicants need to take into consideration these factors when deciding to file for an NIW. The USCIS will not penalize an individual for only having a Master's degree, but could reject your application if your proposed endeavor is not concrete enough to be in the national interest of the U.S.