In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. Louise Lassalle, a postdoc at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in Berkeley, CA. Louise recounts the hurdles in the process of her move from France to the US for her postdoc. We discuss short-term hurdles; e.g., being approved for a rental, establishing credit, and the cost of moving; medium-term hurdles; e.g., choosing a health insurance plan, adjusting to the cost of living, and paying tax; and long-term hurdles, e.g., the cost of applying for a green card. This episode will give international graduate students and postdocs preparing for a move to the US a preview of what is to come and what pitfalls to watch out for.
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00:00 Louise: Don’t just accept a job offer because you love the science. We are all passionate about it, we just want to do science. But where you live is also important, and if you have to worry too much about the financial then you won’t have as much time to do actual science.
00:24 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast, a higher education in personal finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts. This is season six, episode three and today my guest is Dr. Louise Lassalle, a postdoc at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in Berkeley, California. Louise recounts the hurdles in the process of her move from France to the U S for her post-doc. We discuss short-term hurdles like being approved for a rental, establishing credit, and the cost of moving; medium term hurdles like choosing a health insurance plan, adjusting to the cost of living and paying tax; and long-term hurdles like the cost of applying for a green card. This episode will give international graduate students, postdocs and workers preparing for a move to the US a preview of what is to come and what pitfalls to watch out for. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. Louise Lassalle.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
01:21 Emily: I am delighted how joining me today on the podcast, Dr. Louise Lassalle, and we are going to be discussing the particular financial challenges that come with coming to the US for part of your training. So, Louise, thank you so much for joining me and will you please tell me and the audience a little bit more about yourself?
01:40 Louise: Sure. Thank you for having me. I got my PhD in France, in Grenoble and after that I was looking for postdoc and I think I was looking in all Europe and also in the US and I got a postdoc in San Francisco in Berkeley, more precisely. When I came for my post-doc was my first time in the US. I went to the US neither for vacation or for conferences and I’ve been there for three years now and I’m still the same job, so I’m still on my post-doc.
Initial Financial Challenges with an International Move
02:23 Emily: All right. Yeah. Great to hear. So let’s start back when you first arrived, maybe even before you arrived in the US but when you were applying for your job, getting your job offer — were there any challenges associated with being an international post-doc associated with that stage of things?
Before the Move
02:41 Louise: I think the first thing is even before you come, you already start with a visa application. You already start with paperwork and try to understand what’s going on. I think that’s the visa application was the main thing to understand, make sure you do everything right and I think that’s the main thing.
03:06 Emily: One question to that is that — the visa application, is that something that you’re able to do totally on your own or do you need to consult with a lawyer or something?
03:15 Louise: In the US, most of the post-docs will be on G-1 because it’s the easiest way to get a post-doc. A G-1 is supposed to be for a change and visitor, but university use it for that proposal too. So basically you employer will provide you with a form for DS-2019, and the process is quite easy on G-1s. Now that I know other processes, I realized that G-1 wasn’t that difficult, but as a first timer you don’t know. So you don’t need a lawyer. It’s quite a straightforward.
03:54 Emily: Okay. Yeah. Great. And I think you mentioned to me earlier that one of your difficulties at that stage of things was understanding the salary offer that you received and putting it in context, having never lived in Berkeley before.
04:11 Louise: Yeah. So first I was very excited to get a post-doc in Berkeley and the topic was super interesting for me, so I was already in the mood that I will accept whatsoever. And also the salary was basically twice what I was doing before, but of course it doesn’t work this way because the rent is not the same as it was. The rent would be like three times and all the costs of living are different. So that is my first advice is make sure you know what the cost of living is before. I’m not sure would have been able to negotiate my salary whatsoever. It’s very hard when I just have like a Skype interview with my PI at this point. But perhaps negotiate your starting time, if the flight is too expensive, then say, “okay, can I start like one month later?”, or something like that.
05:12 Emily: Yeah. Actually, so a year or so I launched this project, PostDocSalaries.com and that’s a database of self reported salary and benefit information. And one of the questions I included in that survey is did you negotiate something about your package or not? And I was surprised actually that about, if I remember correctly, it was about a quarter or a third of the people who responded said, yes, they did negotiate, successfully that is. I thought that was actually pretty high. So it’s definitely something that people don’t necessarily know to do, but it’s sort of one of those, well you may as well try, like you might not be successful, but why not try. But I would be interested in knowing if international postdocs have less leverage maybe than domestic ones in going into that negotiation process. I’m not sure.
06:01 Emily: So you decided you were going to accept whatever offer came your way because you’re excited about the topic and so forth. And so did you try before you actually moved to figure out what the cost of living was going to be or were you just kind of like, “Okay, it is what it is, I’m going.”
06:15 Louise: It was a little of both. I think I still started to check on Craigslist to see the rent, but I was still very optimistic about that and I can go little more on how to get to housing after that. So no, I didn’t really look at it more carefully and it was more like, “Let’s go, let’s do it.”
06:42 Emily: Okay. And so did you arrange for housing before you moved or upon your move?
06:47 Louise: So in this also, I was a little too optimistic. I did a book an Airbnb for one week before and it wasn’t enough at all. I should have booked it, I will advise at least two weeks or even one month. Also because, at least for me, where I live is kind of important. You want to make sure you’re making a great choice and I won’t advise anyone to rent something, apart from Airbnb, from outside. You need to see before you sign anything or you send money. I would really advise to go to an Airbnb, even if you spend a little more money at the beginning, and then find something that really fits your needs. And also you don’t know your neighbors, you don’t know the public transport, or if you want to get a car, if you can do it.
07:40 Emily: Yeah, there is a lot. I mean I agree with you. It’s very difficult to rent something sight unseen. You’re taking a big risk there. And so it’s kind of cool actually that there has been this rise in short term rental options so that you can do something for a couple of weeks or a month without having to sign a lease, but just going into a short term rental situation so that you can do all that research on the ground. It sounded like you needed a little bit more time than what you gave yourself. Did you end up extending that Airbnb or moving to a different one or how did you work that out?
08:09 Louise: I moved to another one but I got a very cheap one and it wasn’t great. And then I rushed to rent an apartment and it wasn’t a good one, because what you see in Airbnb is not what you will get. I can expand more on that later on, but you are not actually competing at exactly the same levels as other people, so in general you go to the more expensive or the apartment that kind of no one wants.
Financial To-Do List When You Land
08:37 Emily: Yeah. So what’s the next thing that you would like to address? When you have your flight coming into San Francisco or wherever you flew into, what were the financial challenges that you were facing right away?
08:50 Louise: I think this is for everyone moving somewhere else, you need quite a lot of money to just first book your flight. Since you need your visa and you don’t know when your visa will come up, then you book your flight like two weeks in advance. And for example, I booked my flight and I arrived mid July. It was a more expensive flight I ever booked, and this, I think I could have perhaps negotiated more, or ask for an increase in my relocation fee because of that.
09:28 Louise: To rent, all of this, I think opening a bank account was actually one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. It Is very, very easy, and what helps a lot is to have the letter of employment with you, and that helps also for the renting part. In general, when you go to the city, everyone knows the big universities that are close by and they like to rent, especially if you’re not the students, you are post-doc, because they know that an employee will pay their rent on time and is not going anywhere. This kind of helps as kind of a reference.
10:06 Emily: I actually am curious about how you paid for things like until you had that bank account opened. Did you have a credit card from your home that worked here or how did that work?
10:17 Louise: Yeah, so you can pay with your credit card. Actually in France we don’t have credit cards and our card is both debit and credit. But the equity we can get on it is generally smaller. But you can pay outside. I think we use, I think the cheapest way is to use wise transfer, but this also takes a few days, so sometimes it’s a little harder. I have to say think that with a credit card I was good because after one week I sent some money over and it was okay.
10:55 Emily: Yeah. It sounds like opening a bank account was probably one of the very first things you did right? Like day two or something.
11:02 Louise: And as I say, it was super easy. Some people say that they ask for, for example, security numbers. They don’t or at least the one I went to it was okay.
11:15 Emily: Gotcha. And what about getting like ID here? Is that another thing you did right away?
11:21 Louise: So right away what you need to do is get your social security number, for sure. This was also another paperwork, but I think it was — generally the university will provide you with some guidance on that. Then what you can do, I mean, the only ID you can get here is a driver license, and I got mine actually a few months after I got here because I didn’t need a car. It was more so I didn’t have to bring my passport everywhere. I think a drivers license is great because it’s kind of an ID and, and then you can keep your passport safe.
11:58 Emily: Gotcha. Yeah. Was there anything else that you discovered in those first few weeks here, especially as you’re arranging for housing? Anything that you wish you had known maybe before you moved or that would have made things easier?
12:14 Louise: So I didn’t expect it will be so hard to get an apartment. First, a lot of people ask for reference and they ask for credit score, and if you’ve never lived in the US you don’t have a credit score. And you have your letter of employment, but technically you didn’t start it yet, so you don’t have that previous salary and sometime also when, if you move up as a couple, you just have one salary. So in general, when they do the list and it’s hard to get at the top of the list, because there’s always someone that’s making more than you, or has better credentials.
13:00 Emily: I would imagine just the housing market also in the Bay Area, broadly, is a very difficult place. Lots of competition. So you may have had among the hardest times that you might have in any city around the US. So how did that end up working out?
13:18 Louise: So I rented something very fast and it wasn’t the best apartment ever, and I moved out this apartment after six months. Also, for example, the rental lease, the rule around that is very different from France and it’s much, much harder on the people that are actually renting the apartment than on the owner, and for me was a surprise to sign a lease. I say that I will have to stay there, whatever happened, even if I get a new job for one year, or I will have to elect to pay for it.
13:55 Emily: So the terms were a little bit unfamiliar to you, in terms of it was much more favorable to the owner, the landlord than it was to the tenant. Is that what you’re saying?
14:05 Louise: Yeah.
14:05 Emily: So what would be more typical in France?
14:08 Louise: So in France, in general, the lease is to protect the renter and also owner. So the lease will be a [inaudible] lease. That means that the owner cannot push you away or they need a big reason for doing that, but you can leave. You have to let your landlord know three months in advance and you can go down to one month if it’s a very hot market or if you get a new job or you move for professional reasons. So I think it’s much more close to what the reality here is, that sometimes you just need to move because you get a new job.
14:46 Emily: Yeah, I know the lease that I signed for my current apartment in Seattle, the terms to break the lease were much more stringent, much higher costs than I had signed in the past. So this is definitely one of those local things, right? It can vary from place to place and obviously individual owner or leasing company, like that. But yeah, I think maybe in higher cost of living cities, the owners have a little bit more power and anyway, the terms can be quite high for breaking a lease early.
15:15 Emily: Anything else regarding some of those first financial challenges that you encountered right away when you arrived here?
15:24 Louise: One thing, it is not directly financial, but you have one month, at least in my lab, you have one month to sign up for your healthcare insurance. The postdocs here have great healthcare insurance also because we have a union, so it was negotiated. We pay very low. You still have two ways, like HMO, PPO is covered differently. And so I think it’s not specific to internationals, because what I understand is even for an American it is a complete mess and so I don’t think it’s very specific, but perhaps for international, it had another layer of things you have to take care of and can be very stressful. And I will say especially for people with family, to understand that with kids that you go much more often to the doctor to understand how it works.
16:19 Emily: Yeah, I can imagine that can be a huge challenge because the US healthcare system is really, really challenging for everyone, and especially if you’re coming from somewhere that makes it a lot easier and you’re not familiar with all the weird stuff that happens here, I can see how that could be super challenging. Was your HR department helpful for you in making that kind of decision about which kind of healthcare plan to take? Did they guide you in any way?
16:42 Louise: Yeah, we had some presentation. The problem here is that I think I remember not getting anything. I think I got how it works perhaps one year after, when I was actually explaining to other people and I asked them to sit down and I think it’s just very confusing. Even me when I tried to explain it again to new postdoc, I also get confused at some point., but they try to help you out.
17:10 Emily: Okay.
17:13 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude. I bet you and your peers are hungry for financial information right now, especially if it’s tailored for your unique PhD experience. I offer seminars, webinars, and workshops on personal finance for early career PhDs that can be billed as professional development or personal wellness programming. My events cover a wide range of personal finance topics, or take a deep dive into the financial topics that matter most to PhDs, like taxes, investing, career transitions, and frugality. If you’re interested in having me speak to your group, or recommending me to a potential host, you can find more information and ways to contact me at PFforPhDs.com/speaking. We can absolutely find a way to get this great content to you and your peers even while social distancing. Now back to our interview.
Mid-Term Financial Challenges of an International Move
18:13 Emily: So let’s move to sort of more midterm challenges. You’ve been here for a few months, what were the next sort of set of financial challenges or questions that you had?
18:25 Louise: I think you feel like you are getting a bunch of money, but of course, when you remove the rent and then half is gone, and as the cost of living tends to be also a little higher, so I think you also need to adapt to that and adapt your way of living. Also what you will do in your country that will cost you nothing that here is expensive. For example, the food. You have to rethink and you have to come up with new things because there’s no way I can eat the same way I eat in France, it is way too expensive. I mean this is a small adjustments, but it is and adjustment. For me, and this is personal, but I have a hard time to understand the credit card system. And it scared me at first, that they say, yeah, you have $1,000 and you can spend it. I’m like, but I don’t have it really. I mean, yes, you have it, but not really. Andwhen I should do my reimbursement and how I should reimburse so my credit score actually goes higher. This also was a little confusing for me.
19:38 Emily: I do not think you’re at all alone about that, because even for people who grow up here, if you’ve never been explicitly sat down and taught how a credit score works or read about it for yourself, there’s a lot of misconceptions floating around about it. Like, for instance, some people believe that if you carry a balance on a credit card, it improves your credit score. In fact, the opposite is true. It’ll probably dinging you in some ways. So yeah, understanding that system can be really difficult. Did you start off with a secured credit card? Was that the first kind you got or were you able to qualify for like a normal credit card?
20:14 Louise: I think a normal. So what I heard from some friends is sometimes the bank actually asks them to put a deposit and they get from this deposit and I don’t know why my bank just give me one and they didn’t ask for anything. And even my husband that was, so we were teo on my salary, and my husband got a credit card like this. So yeah, no we didn’t. I think we get the normal one right away.
20:42 Emily: Yeah. I don’t know why that would be either. The path that I also know is the same thing. Secured card. You put down a deposit, then that’s the amount of money you have available to you. So it’s kind of the same as a debit card, but it helps you build credit. It’s something that mostly people only have to use for a few months, maybe six months or something, before they can then move on to the regular credit system. I don’t know why you would be able to jump right into that one either, but glad you didn’t have to take that first step. And how do you feel about credit now? Now that you’re three years in, are you more comfortable with that? Do you use it at all?
21:13 Louise: Oh yeah. I noticed some people have different credit cards and all from a specific supermarket or brand or whatever. And I just, I didn’t go into it. I feel more safe to just have one. And even this, I use it carefully. But yeah. This is this more personal but once you get it, it’s okay.
21:44 Emily: It sounded like you moved in July, three years ago. How about when it came to tax time that following year? How did you work through that?
21:58 Louise: Okay, so first I’m a post-doc employee, so I have a W-2 form, so it’s quite easy. It’s much, much easier than people on fellowship. So you just have to do it once. And I find actually the first year, it’s not so confusing. We had a presentation here to the lab from the tax people, they help us go through and we can send her an email with our specifics, because since also I wasn’t in the US before, so I was no resident for everything, and it was kind of okay. I think the second year I became a resident for California, but not resident for federal, and it makes it a little more difficult. And this year actually my husband got paid, but as self-employed and that for this one was very difficult to figure out how to declare that. The taxes are hard, but it’s also once a year and everyone has to go through it. We invite people to try to find people from the same country because you can have some country has this treaty that you’re exempt from federal taxes, and some country you still need to pay your taxes back then. Some you don’t. This was quite, it was a boost of my salary and helped a lot in the beginning. That’s a big one for federal taxes.
23:34 Emily: And so is that what the tax treaty with France says? Is that what applied to you, that in the first year you moved here you didn’t have to pay federal tax, but starting in the second year you did, is that right?
23:44 Louise: It’s two years.
23:44 Emily: Oh two years.
23:44 Louise: Yeah, it’s two years day to date. And then the fact that I didn’t have to pay in France is because French tax says that you just pay what you earn in France. It is not related to your citizenship like in a US or in Germany.
24:02 Emily: Gotcha. Yeah, I think the US is very unusual. There’s only a couple of countries that tax their citizens no matter where they live, but yeah, US does that, warning.
Additional Advice for PhDs Planning an International Move
24:13 Emily: Anything else? Any other financial challenges you came upon or things that you want to pass on to other people, bits of knowledge, as you were getting acclimated to the US.
24:22 Louise: Yeah, I just think getting used to that you will spend much more cash and you have to be careful with that. Also, you get a little excited. You want to travel, you want to visit, and it can get a little too much. Every time you go on conference you will spend at least $1000 to $2000 and in general you will get reimbursed but after that, so even with credit card and all of this, get prepared for that too and kind of put it on your budget. If you know you will go to a conference, you should have at least $2000 to make sure you cover the cost. This is for everyone, but that’s true that for an international sometimes you already spent so much on getting there and then you need to rebuild your funds.
25:13 Emily: Yeah, I totally agree. You were just mentioning traveling and I guess something that we think about here is that, you know, in France, our perception is that you guys get a lot of vacation time and we get very little vacation time in comparison. How has that been for you?
25:28 Louise: First that’s true. But as I mentioned before, we have a union, we negotiate five weeks vacation. So it’s actually quite good. And we have also some sick leave that we can take from here to here. Five days is the minimum you will get in France, for example. Generally when you work for a university in France, you get more like 10 or 12, weeks per year. So it’s not that far away and I think it’s helped a lot also. Also if we talk about vacation, this is also a burden on the international. It’s like every time you need to renew your visa, you don’t know how long it will take. So in general, in most countries in Europe are okay, but you never know because they can go on back processes and then you don’t know. But people from India or China, it could take like one month, one month and a half, and then you just use all your vacation for that or you just don’t come back.
26:37 Emily: Yeah, that’s really, really challenging. Just the uncertainty around that, I agree.
Long-Term Planning for Permanent Residency
26:42 Emily: So I understand that you are applying for permanent residency, or are looking into it. What’s that process been like?
26:49 Louise: Okay. Actually I got it.
26:52 Emily: Oh yeah. Great. Congratulations!
26:54 Louise: I got it a few weeks ago. The process for the green card — you will need to pay basically two entities. You will need to pay the US government, and it will be I think $2000 to $3000, also depending if you apply as a couple or not. The big thing, the big part of it is to pay a lawyer, and I won’t to go into details, but you may need lawyers. A lot of people go with lawyers because if you need to make your case, even if you get a green card because you are a scientist, there is a lot of legal stuff going into it, and it’s not a straight out science, like you would write a paper. You can get become eligible by just getting married with an American. Your employer can also ask for a green card for you, and you can petition. That’s what I did. And as a scientist you can kind of easily make your case and you can go for one of the easiest ones, national interest. So that’s like US economy needs you, basically. Then there’s the whole process to get people to refer you. Technically, your lawyer will write a reference letter that you will send to them and they will sign it. And then it’s a lot of bunch of paperwork, that you need to put and translate stuff. In general, preparing all of this will take between three to six months, I would say. And then generally this is used both for eligibility and to adjust your status. Eligibility, you will know around six months. Adjustment of status, it depends a lot on where you come from. It can be from one year to 10 or more.
28:40 Emily: Wow. Yeah, that sounds quite the ordeal. And do you mind sharing, how much did you ultimately spend on the lawyer part of it?
28:48 Louise: For the lawyer, I paid for the eligibility part and I paid $5,000 and I think that is roughly what you will pay. There are cheaper ones, but…I did much more math for this one, I wanted to be more prepared. If you look at the postdoc salary, anything else you can get, in general, is much highe,, and that’s th problem. With my G-1 I cannot get a job in industry or nonprofit or anywhere else. And also I cannot have a side job. I just can work for my employer at my university. This, or me, was also why I wanted ,a green card so I can start and perhaps have a side business, if I wanted to.
29:39 Emily: And why did you decide to go that route instead of maybe finding a next employer and going to the H1B route?
29:49 Louise: Because I wanted to do a career move. I wanted to go out of science and go more applied initiative positions in university or nonprofits. To still work with scientists, but more on the kind of development on the science communication part. And for this one, then my skill as a scientist, I will use part of them, but not the specific one, not the technical one. My employer won’t be able to say, because that’s what they do when they ask for your H1B for you, they basically say no American can do it. I was applying for jobs that they can’t say that, so that’s why. And I think even if you can get a n H1B, the H1B for industry, you can just apply once a year and it is a lottery, so even your employer doesn’t know if you will get it. Then I think you have the O-1 that you can apply to, but it is also, I think, depending on the employer, so you do get less freedom on your part. Actually a lot of people that want to stay here a little longer, if they can, the go for a green card because that’s what gives you the most freedom and also peace of mind. Because now if I lose my job now I need to leave the country within a month. So I think a green card also gives you some freedom around this.
31:12 Emily: Yeah. Well, I’m glad that you have completed that process, so you have that peace of mind now. That’s great to hear. Is there anything else that we haven’t covered yet? Some piece of advice you’d want to give to another international student or postdoc moving to the US for the first time?
Final Words of Advice
31:26 Louise: Yeah, so for sure I will say, do your homework, as good as you did when you choose your position, or you look for a job. When you look for a job, you will perhaps do informal interviews, you will do networking, and try to know what is the job about and do you want to go this way? And I think it’s great to do exactly the same when you move to another country, or another city. Do informal interviews. Be aware, because, so I did one, but someone who lived here I think five years ago and so the renting market just completely changed. The rent doubled. So of course what he was saying, he wasn’t what was happening right now. Do some informal interview, too. See if the environment fits you and fits your needs, because this can also be one point. And do the math, too. And be aware that getting an apartment for the first time will be much harder than you think you will be, so take your time for that.
32:34 Emily: Yeah, I agree. And actually I have a resource. I made a webinar and template spreadsheet earlier this summer, so I’ll link that from the show notes that are all about how to budget at a distance. So how to figure out what is that cost of living where you’re moving to. This could be within the US, if you’re coming from another US city, or coming from outside the country, it’s going to work either way. So what are some like resources you can look to, to figure out what does that cost of living going to be, especially the housing, because that’s the really big rock in the middle of your expenses is figuring that out. And so that’ll really help you kind of know, how is that salary offer? Is it going to be sufficient? And certainly for graduate students it is a question mark, whether or not it’s going to be enough to live on, depending on the city and depending on the program. If that sounds good to you, please go check out that resource in the show notes.
33:19 Emily: So Louise, last question before we wrap up. What is your best financial advice for another postdoc or another early career PhD?
33:29 Louise: Really look into it. Don’t just accept a job offer because you love the science. We are all passionate about it. We just want to do science, but where you live is also important, and if you have to worry too much about the financial part, then you won’t have as much time to do the actual science. And especially if you move in with a partner or if you are moving with your family, then you have even more. That is my advice.
34:04 Emily: Oh, excellent. I totally co-sign all of that. Great, great advice. And Louise, thank you so much for this interview and for joining me today.
34:10 Louise: Thank you.
34:14 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode. PFforPhDs.com/podcast is the hub for the personal finance for PhDs podcast. There you can find links to all the episode show notes, and a form to volunteer to be interviewed. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved. If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, please consider joining my mailing list for my behind the scenes commentary about each episode. Register at PFforPhDs.com/subscribe. See you in the next episode, and remember, you don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance, but it helps. The music is stages of awakening by Poddington Bear from the Free Music Archive and is shared under CC by NC podcast editing and show notes creation by Lourdes Bobbio.