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Dissertation Defense and Post-Completion Guide
for International Students

I-20 expiration dates following completion of program

The semester in which international students successfully passes the final oral examination is considered the semester in which they "graduate". This is different from the Graduate School’s graduation dates. The Graduate School has their own deadlines which determine what semester the student officially graduates.

After successfully passing the final oral examination, Global Affairs (or DISSA) will shorten the student’s I-20 (a form which provides supporting information to a student’s visa) to the end of the semester in which the student takes the exam or 4 weeks following their exam date if the student defends when there is less than 4 weeks left in the semester.

A student passes their oral exam on October 1. Their I-20 would be terminated at the end of the Fall semester and the student would officially graduate in December.

A student passes their oral exam on December 1. Their I-20 would be terminated 4 weeks following the defense, which would be sometime around January 1. However, they would not officially graduate until Spring semester (May graduation). Due to the expiration of the I-20, they are no longer considered a student as of January 1 even though Penn State does not consider them graduated until May.

This is standard policy by Global Affairs. The 4 week extension following the oral exam allows the student to finish up (dissertation corrections, lab work, etc.). At the end of the 4 weeks or the end of the semester, the student’s visa will expire and they will need to do one of the following to remain in the USA legally:

  1. Obtain a working visa

  2. Apply for Post-completion OPT (Optional Practical Training) through Global Affairs, which extends the student’s visa allowing them to continue working in the laboratory for an extended period of time without having to obtain a work visa. This can take 60-90 days to process so the application should be started as soon as the student knows their oral exam date or their graduation timeline. (For more information please see the following link:

How this affects the student and adviser

If you are in situation 1 (see above), you will most likely not be affected as most students take this track. The student will have until the end of the semester to find employment or apply for OPT to remain in the country legally.

If you are in situation 2 (see above), the student will not be considered a student the following semester and therefore is not eligible for assistantships or employment under a student visa. This means that they must obtain employment (a work visa) or apply for OPT to continue working at Penn State. After the student visa expires and if no action is taken, the student is no longer eligible to work or study in the USA and will be considered here illegally.

What the student/adviser should do

Student: Be mindful of when you choose to defend your dissertation and what steps you will need to take to remain in the USA legally and not run into any delays or breaks in receiving a paycheck and/or health insurance.

Adviser: Be aware that if you want your student to stay at Penn State to finish up projects, there are additional steps that international students must take into consideration. If the student is defending close to the end of a semester, the international student will need to apply for OPT to continue working in your laboratory the following semester (unless you officially “hire” them and they obtain a work visa).