Sunday, January 21, 2018

DFIR Jobs -- International student version

As an adjunct professor at George Mason University's MS in Computer Forensics program I've met a lot of great students over the years, many of which are now friends and co-workers.  I'm hoping talking about this might help international students in the United States or those that are involved in their career paths.

Just about year round I spend a substantial amount of time advising students on how to find DFIR jobs. I often try to put myself in their shoes, which is wild. Being in a foreign country unsure of all the cultural nuances, (possibly) the language and doing well academically. All for the end goal of trying to find find a DFIR job in the states. I'd certainly want some help if I was in another country under the circumstances! Wouldn't you?

The jobs and situations all vary as some students have no experience while others have a good bit. One thing always remains the same; most need help.  This can be in the form introductions, relationship building, career path advice, references and many other areas.

Many of my students are international and here on a F-1 visa. Once they graduate from the Master's program almost all students want to find a job in the digital forensics or incident response space. Every semester I'm always pleasantly surprised as most of my students are very proactive about their job searches and truly want a career in the United States.

Most of my students with F-1 visa successfully receive an OPT visa, which stands for optional practice training. This allows a F-1 student visa holder to gain temporary employment in a field directly related to their major. There are two tops of OPT visas.
  • Pre-completion: once students have completed 1 year of academic study, students can work part time when in school and full time when not in school.
  • Post-completion: Once students have completed their degree they can work part time (20+ hours a week) or full time.
For science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors, which computer forensics is, an 24 month OPT extension can also be applied for. If a student has found employment, their employer must be E-Verified. In a perfect world, 36 months of work could be possible for a F-1 visa holder before needing H-1B sponsorship.

One thing to keep in mind though is that eventually students will need to find sponsorship by an employer. Be very sure to discuss this with your employer and make sure you know where things stand before and during your employment. I know several students who got jobs and thought everything was solid until their employer came in late saying they weren't actually E-Verified. Many times this happens later on make timelines tight, sometimes even after important deadlines have past like the H-1B lottery.

Getting the DFIR job:

  • Start your job search early! If you wait until you finish studying you'll behind the curve and have a much more difficult time landing the role you want. Many Universities have strong career resources, use them. University career fairs may seem overly competitive but don't be frightened off. Use this time as practice being in front of a potential employer, you get better with practice.
  • Go after an internship. Don't be worried if it's not the junior level role you hoped for. Many (most?) DFIR internships i've seen are paid. My team has two interns ever summer and we do our best to put them in front of exciting work. We have a list of projects at all time so it's a great time for interns to pick one they are passionate about. We've hired several of our interns as junior analysts, so that's something to think about. It's an 2-3 month interview process for both sides, them and us.
  • Network, network, network! Many (hopefully) of your professors currently work in the industry, or previously have. This means they've likely been working in the space for sometime and have built solid relationships along the way. Take advantage of that. Ask them to connect on LinkedIn. There is a strong demand for junior roles and an even stronger one for experienced ones. 
In Summary:

It's certainly not easy to be an international student today with any certainty that you'll find gainful, sponsored, employment. With that said, there are people that want to and can help you. First things first, make sure the educational program you are interested in is solid! Do they best you can to ensure your program is going to prepare you for getting your first job, promoting yourself or switching careers. I wrote this with a goal of sharing what I've seen as many don't know the struggle of students coming to the United States from other countries. I also did this to grow my understanding of the current climate, logistical and legal issues facing International students especially those who are or want to be in the DFIR field. If I missed anything, or if you have something to share please let me know in the comments section!

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