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Can a doctoral dissertation award from my university count as an “Award” to satisfy the O1A evidentiary criteria? How about for an EB1A?

A professional holding an award

With the updates to the USCIS policy manual in January 2022, entrepreneurs and applicants with advanced degrees, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) may find the O1A visa a more accessible option than before.

One example of this is how certain O1A evidentiary criteria are interpreted more expansively compared to the EB1A context according to USCIS guidance.

In both the EB1A and O1A contexts, one evidentiary criterion is whether an applicant received “nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence in the field of endeavor.” Although the language is the same for both contexts, the range of awards that can be used to meet this criterion is different.

*Note that the “award” discussed in this post refers to lesser national or international level awards that is one of the several criteria among which three or more should be met to qualify for the O1A or EB1, not the one-time major achievement award that can independently qualify for the EB1A such as a Nobel Prize.

Awards in the O1A context

The USCIS manual specifically allows an applicant to meet the “awards” criterion with certain doctoral dissertation awards and Ph.D. scholarships, or awards that recognize outstanding presentations at nationally or internationally recognized conferences. The manual also specifies that awards from well-known national institutions and well-known professional associations can count.

Normally, an award will not qualify if it is only open to a limited pool of applicants – such as those limited to a single locality, employer, or school. Having said that, USCIS specifically recognizes an award open to members of a well-known national institutionincluding an R1 or R2 doctoral university – or professional organization may qualify as a “nationally recognized” award.

What does R1 or R2 doctoral university mean? This is based on the Carnegie Classification list and includes Universities that awarded at least 20 research/scholarship doctoral degrees and had at least $5 million in total research expenditures. R1 tier universities are schools with “very high” research activity. Currently the database shows 146 universities in the US that qualify, including well known universities across the nation such as MIT, CalTech, NYU, UT-Austin, Boston University, Johns Hopkins, etc. R2 tier universities are schools with “high” research activity and includes 133 universities in the US. Although the Carnegie Classification does not include universities outside the US, a similar logic can be used for international universities in determining whether an award from a particular university could be considered a “nationally or internationally recognized” award.

Therefore, if you were awarded a “Best Dissertation” Award at one of those research-heavy universities or if you won the “Best Presentation” Award at a major international conference in your field, there is a chance you may use these to qualify for the “Awards” criterion in the O1A context.

Awards in the EB1A context

By contrast, the EB1A guidance does not have a special provision allowing for doctoral dissertation awards, Ph.D. scholarships, or conference awards. Relevant considerations are (1) the criteria used to grant the awards or prizes, (2) the national or international significance of the awards or prizes in the field, and (3) the number of awardees or prize recipients, as well as any limitations on competitors.

In addition, the award must have been given in recognition of the applicant’s individual excellence in the field, as opposed to being given to a project or employer that the applicant is a part of.

In comparison to the O1A guidance which explicitly recognizes that this criterion can be met by certain awards within the University context or within conference participants, it is a little more uncertain in the EB1A context that those awards could be sufficient for meeting this criterion because the nature of these awards is that the pool of applicants are limited to a smaller group of people.

Like the above example illustrates, there are nuances to what kind of evidence is relevant in qualifying for a visa for individuals of extraordinary ability. It is important to note that as immigration policy changes, certain categories may become more accessible than previously understood.  Therefore it can be of great help to discuss the particularities of your case with an experienced immigration attorney who can find an opening for you to take advantage of some of these elusive categories.

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