How I ended up doing my Master Thesis at Harvard University – Steps to go to the US as free-mover

Have you ever dreamed of moving to the United States? I had! And for a long time!

I already had the KI research experience (I worked for a year at the Department of Microbiology, Tumour and Cell Biology at KI before starting the master) therefore I decided the 4th semester of the Master was the appropriate moment to fly all over the Atlantic Ocean to carry out my Master Thesis in the United States of America. In the following, I will describe the steps I took, as a free-mover student, to write my thesis at Harvard Medical School (Brigham and Women’s Hospital), in Boston.

The old building of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachussets.

[Free mover = “prepare and arrange your studies at a foreign university on your own initiative”]

1- Do research on universities, departments and research groups

First, you should consider whether is worth it to go abroad for such a short period of time (it will be only 4,5 months), taking into account that in KI, KTH, SU and Scilife Lab there are groundbreaking research groups. If you are still sure that you want to move to the US, after communicating it to your program director, you have to decide where you would like to go. The major deciding factor should be the research group and the university that will host you.

2- Contact the PI or the administrative assistants of the groups you are interested in

Once you have a list of the groups (or companies) you want to contact, make sure to find the right person to send an email to. I recommend contacting both the PI and the administrative assistant of the group or department, if there is one. Sometimes contacting the post-docs might help too. They usually do not receive as many emails as the PI’s and they might be interested in having a student.

Keep in mind that over the summer people take time off so it is not the best moment to contact researchers. I recommend starting the hunting 12-10 months before the date fourth semester because the administrative and visa processes take very long and can be quite stressful.

3- Be sure the host university does not charge you tuition fees.


Extremely important step! Generally, in the US, universities charge fees for everything and to everyone, so you really have to be careful. When I was first accepted at Stanford University in California, I was told I would have to pay “visiting student fees”, which were quite high. As a free-mover, there is no scholarship or any other funding allocated to us. However, you can always try to find funding on your own and apply for grants.

4- Start the J-1 visa application process.

Ideally, you should get help from the international coordinators at the host research center/department/university because this is an extremely tedious process, with many different steps and many documents to be sent. Preferably, they should sponsor your visa, which means they are the ones taking care of a big part of the visa fees. This does not mean you will not have to pay at all. On the contrary, you will have to cover the expenses of 3 other steps:

  • The shipment of the DS-2019, the most important document! It is a Certificate of Eligibility issued by the sponsor of the programme. Around $60
  • The SEVIS fee (I-901); around $180. Paid before receiving DS-2019.
  • The visa application fee; around $160. Paid after receiving DS-2019.


In this step, you will have to prepare a big bunch of documents that you will have to scan and send to the international coordinator. Some of these include “basic” stuff, such as your passport and copies of your completed degrees. You will also have to send a draft of your Research Project previously discussed and agreed with your supervisor. Moreover, funding information where you demonstrate to have enough funds to live in the US for the time being there is also required. You will have to justify both if the funding comes from a scholarship and if it is private funding.

Note: KI will issue a health insurance for you when traveling as a free-mover, make sure to ask for it by contacting the KI international coordinator.

5- Wait for the DS-2019

It might take around two months to work through the documents you sent in step 4, process the visa application and ship your DS-2019.

6- Register online, obtain the DS-160 and make an appointment at the US embassy

Once you get the DS-2019 you will receive some instructions to follow when entering the US Embassy website. You will have to register on their webpage and fill in a lot of different information (here is where they will ask you if you have ever committed crimes and other weird similar questions). You will also have to pay the visa application fee in order to get the DS-160 Visa Confirmation, which will allow you to make an online appointment at the US Embassy in your country.

Note:  If you are in Sweden but you are not a Swedish citizen you can still choose to go to the US Embassy in Stockholm.

7- Go to the US embassy to get your visa

This is the final step of the visa application process. When you go to the embassy make sure to take with you all the documents you have been asked before plus all the ones listed by the US Embassy. Better to have extra info!

Don’t panic before the interview. This is another bureaucratic process and if everything has worked smoothly until this point there is no reason to deny your visa. The interview consists on showing to the embassy officer some of the documents (they might not even ask for half of the ones you will be carrying with you!) and maybe answering a couple of questions such as “where are you going to live?” or “where are you going to be working at?” or “what are you going to do research on?”. They only want to be sure you are not lying and you know why you are going there for.

They keep your passport for some days and send it directly to your house with the visa on it.


8- You’re ready to GO! –> America!



 9- Extra tips:

  • Start to look for research groups VERY early. There are SO many documents that need to be sent that you will get crazy at the end.
  • Housing is a BIG issue in the United States. It is VERY expensive and hard to find, especially in big cities. As soon as you have a yes from a research group, start looking for accommodation.
  • Because you will probably be working in a laboratory and the US has a very strict medical policy, you will have to hand in a detailed medical certificate, demonstrating you do have a number of vaccinations and other health tests. Relevant if you are not living in your home country since Sweden has not your medical records!

I hope you are not too overwhelmed after reading this post! If you really want to do your thesis in America, you should do it!

Do not hesitate in contacting me if you need any help with the process of any other tip for moving to the US! I will be happy to help 🙂


Linkedin: Carolina Savatier-Dupré Bañares

Facebook: Carolina Savatier

Instagram: Carolina Savatier-Dupré Bañare

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