A recent interim policy memorandum, released by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), clarifies the degree completion requirements for the 17-month extension of Optional Practical Training (OPT) available to F-1 students enrolled in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) degree programs. The memorandum concludes that F-1 students engaging in post-completion OPT are eligible for a 17-month STEM extension even if they have not completed the thesis or equivalent requirement for their STEM degree.

Foreign students currently on F-1 visas may apply for a 12-month period of full-time, post-completion OPT work authorization. To be eligible for post-completion OPT, among other things, students must have completed all course requirements for their degree, excluding any applicable thesis requirement or equivalent.

Students with degrees in STEM professions may apply for an additional 17 months of OPT (not to exceed 29 months). This extension is available as long as the student has not previously received a 17-month OPT extension after earning a STEM degree, and the degree that was the basis for  the student’s current OPT is a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degree in one of the degree programs listed on the STEM-Designated Degree Program List.

In its interim memorandum, USCIS takes the view that the requirements for a STEM OPT extension are the same as those that apply to the previously granted period of post-completion OPT. Specifically, since the thesis requirement or equivalent need not have been completed in order to be eligible for post-completion OPT, by the same token, students who are applying for the STEM extension need not necessarily have completed their STEM degree thesis requirement or equivalent in order to be eligible for the extension. This reading is consistent with the policy of attracting and retaining the world’s best and brightest individuals.