PhD students are in a unique situation in that the OPT regulations understand that may students use their employment for their PhD research, or that students can often balance working with research. To this extent, students that have completed their required coursework but have not defended their thesis and graduated can choose to end their I-20 and apply for OPT. This option presents PhD students with many options, which we will attempt to clarify here:
1. Complete PhD, then work on OPT; Use CPT for work while completing PhD
This most popular approach allows students to focus on their research and complete their defense before shifting their focus to full-time employment. Current students working on their research are also eligible for CPT, which we encourage you to use as much as possible before deciding to apply for OPT. Part-time CPT is unlimited, and full-time CPT can be used up to 12 months before affecting OPT in any way. Full-time CPT over 12 months will make a student ineligible for OPT.
2. End I-20 during PhD Research; Begin OPT while completing degree
If CPT has been used to the maximum or is not appropriate for a job you would like to take, PhD students can choose to end their I-20 any time after their required course work is complete, and begin OPT. This option should be used very carefully, as students interested in using the STEM Extension should complete their degree and have it awarded before their first year of OPT runs out, to be eligible to apply for the extension. If the degree is not completed after the OPT ends and the student does not choose to use the STEM Extension, the student would have to leave the US to complete their degree remotely, as you could not return to regular student status after OPT.
Please consider these options carefully, and feel free to contact the IES office for assistance with planning to ensure the most effective use of OPT.