What You Need to Know About Becoming a Visiting Scholar in the U.S.  By

What You Need to Know About Becoming a Visiting Scholar in the U.S.

For thousands of years, the concept of academia has existed to encourage the growth of knowledge through sharing and learning as a group—humans would be privy to only a small fraction of the currently archived knowledge were it not for collaborations between experts across the world.

Now that increasingly advanced technology has resulted in easier and more efficient methods of communication, this collaboration has become more and more commonplace. One way that academics choose to engage with other experts is by inviting visiting scholars to their institutions.

As a result, the concept of a visiting scholar has become universal at educational institutions in the U.S. and throughout the remainder of the world. These scholars may partner with local or international universities, remaining for only a couple weeks or staying for a year or longer to collaborate with university experts and graduate students.

Currently, there are about 300,000 international individuals visiting the United States from 200 countries each year, all for the purpose of educational or foreign exchanges. A large number of these visa holders are visiting scholars who are working at institutions around the United States, and this statistic does not even include the vast number of visiting scholars who are traveling domestically from one U.S. institution to another!

As the digital age continues to transform the way that research is conducted and knowledge is spread throughout academic communities, some visiting scholar programs now include the concept of “digital visitation,” meaning that the scholar will collaborate with a partnering university or even give live lectures via the internet rather than visiting in-person.

What is a Visiting Scholar?

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While the specifics of a visiting scholar’s responsibilities will vary depending on the program sponsoring them, there are some characteristics of a visiting scholar position shared by all (or at least most) existing programs.

Generally, a visiting scholar is an expert in their field of study. By becoming a visiting scholar, this expert will travel to an educational institution in order to lecture (a single presentation or a semester-long course), conduct independent research, formulate new connections, consult on a curriculum, consult or write with their host department, access resources unavailable to them at their home institution, or otherwise contribute to the academic environment of their sponsoring institution.

A visiting scholar may be an individual already holding a high-level degree, or a visiting scholar may also be a student researcher searching for beneficial experiences to add to their education as they pursue a degree. 

Related: 15 Best Travel Apps for Vacations and Sabbaticals.

A visiting scholar’s responsibilities and expectations may include some or all of the following:

  • Living near their sponsoring institution and assimilating into the institution’s work environment as an active, academic participant
  • Attending conferences, seminars, and other academic gatherings at the host institution
  • Presenting lectures about current research topics and relevant areas of experience and expertise
  • Meeting regularly with other faculty members, including a sponsoring faculty advisor
  • Providing a report of work completed during the length of their appointment—including publications and conducted research

Importantly, the partnership of a visiting scholar with an educational institution is beneficial for both the scholar and the institute.

Hosting Institution Benefits

The university or institute hosting a visiting scholar receives the benefit of expertise outside of their usual faculty and student population. This provides an opportunity to integrate unique perspectives and experiences into their current research programs—this may lead to significant research findings of their own and opportunities to enrich attending students at lower levels of education.

Working with visiting scholars may also result in published, influential studies that can bring attention, notoriety, and additional funding to the sponsoring institution.

As a result, a university or other institute may choose to invite visiting scholars of their choice, or they may open applications for visiting scholar positions. This allows experts in their field an opportunity to search for institutions who are searching for their skills—often, a potential visiting scholar will search for applications in order to gain access to a university’s resources.

Related: SabbaticalHomes.com Houses Huntington Scholars.

Visiting Scholar Benefits

In addition to the experience of working as a visiting scholar, institutions will typically provide their visitors with a number of benefits. 

Scholars who live in remote areas, for example, may benefit from the vast number of resources provided by a university’s library, or they may have more opportunities for research achievement by gaining access to a university’s research facilities and state-of-the-art equipment. Additionally, these scholars will be allowed unique opportunities to broaden their horizons as they consider the scope of their research and cultural experiences in a context different from their usual place of work and study.

Often, it is collaborations between existing groups of academics that result in the most outstanding work and forward progress within educational communities.

Related: Member Spotlight: Suzann-Viola Renninger, Columbia University Visiting Scholar.

Who Can Become a Visiting Scholar?

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Any scholar who has exceptional knowledge within their field of expertise may be eligible to become a visiting scholar, but requirements for each visiting scholar program will vary amongst different institutions and individual programs of study within those institutions.

Usually, a visiting scholar has attained a high-level degree such as a PhD or MD, but this is not always a requirement! In some cases, graduate students may serve as visiting scholars. In other words, individuals who have received a bachelor’s degree but who are continuing their education in pursuit of a higher degree are sometimes welcomed as visiting scholars. When this is the case, the visiting graduate student will often pursue research during their appointment, some of which may contribute to a master’s thesis or a doctoral dissertation.

Other individuals may also be eligible for a visiting scholar position. For example, Columbia University designates in its handbook that visiting scholars may include members of other research laboratories or institutes, staff or students of international universities or academies, government officials, practicing artists or professionals, or any other individual deemed capable of enriching the university’s intellectual atmosphere.

Many universities reserve a limited number of spots for visiting scholars within their programs, either inviting esteemed professionals in the field or opening applications for individuals who are interested in visiting the university and contributing at an academic level.

Some of these programs are more competitive than others—necessary actions for becoming a visiting scholar are discussed in more detail below.

What You Need to Do to Become a Visiting Scholar

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Visiting scholars achieve their valuable position via a number of different means. An application process may or may not be required in order to become a visiting scholar, depending on the needs of the program in question, the influence of a faculty sponsor, or other factors.

Related: How to Apply for a Visiting Scholar Visa to the U.S. 

Invited Visiting Scholars

Oftentimes, a university will invite an individual who is prominent in the field of interest—receiving an invitation as a visiting scholar is quite the honor! A university may invite a particular individual due to the potential for collaboration or further education. Usually, a visiting scholar invitation indicates that the invited party is well-regarded within their field.

Once the invitation is accepted, the institution will counsel their potential scholar on the next steps required prior to the official designation of the position.

Visiting Scholar Applications

Those who wish to become a visiting scholar but have not been invited by a university program are welcome to apply to a number of open positions.

As a part of the application process, prospective visiting scholars will be asked to include a curriculum vitae and a cover letter stating their reasons for the application. Usually, letters of recommendation from existing collaborators or advising faculty are required. It may also be necessary for a scholar to obtain their own funding for the duration of their visiting scholar appointment. In this case, documentation of funding for the visiting scholar and their family, if applicable, is necessary upon application. 

Many institutions will also request that a potential visiting scholar obtain a written declaration of sponsorship (and willingness to advise) from an existing faculty member. 

Unsolicited Inquiries about Visiting Scholar Positions

Finally, a scholar may choose to inquire with a particular department or program in which they have a vested interest (even if this department is not openly accepting applications). While this is the most difficult way to become a visiting scholar and the rate of positive responses may be low, the individual hoping for a visiting scholar position may receive a favorable reply by including information about their field of study, research plans, and how they can share mutual benefits with their program of interest. 

However, it’s not uncommon for academic programs to turn down an unsolicited inquiry, particularly if the interested party has no sponsorship from an existing faculty member or anyone else who is willing to vouch for the scholar and take responsibility for the visiting scholar’s application.

Visiting Scholar Visa

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Many individuals who hold citizenship in a country outside of the U.S. are popular candidates for a visiting scholar position. However, before a non-United States citizen can live and work at an American educational institution, they must acquire a U.S. visa.

The J-1 Visa

More specifically, a visiting scholar will need a document called a J-1 visa, also called an exchange visitor, non-immigrant visa. This visa is utilized particularly for those who are taking part in student exchange or work exchange programs—all visiting scholar positions fall under this category.

About the DS-2019 Form

In order to apply for a J-1 visa, a visiting scholar will need to provide particular documentation—the most basic of these documents is called the DS-2019 form, or a “Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status.” This form is completed by a sponsor (the institution which the scholar will be visiting, for example), and can then be provided to the U.S. embassy. (However, the sponsoring institution will first ask for documentation from the scholar prior to completing the DS-2019.)

Afterward, the applicant may seek an interview with the embassy to be granted the J-1 visa for entrance into the U.S.

Other Requirements

In addition to the DS-2019, J-1 visa applicants will also need to meet the appropriate health insurance requirements. A university, institute, or another sponsor may provide the appropriate insurance coverage, or they may encourage the visiting scholar to purchase a separate insurance plan.

These requirements also apply to any family members traveling with the visiting scholar.

Not All Visas Are Accepted

It is important for international visiting scholars to note that a U.S. tourist visa will not suffice for a visiting scholarship application, as the purpose of the visit must match the visa status. 

For visiting scholars who have questions about the visa requirements and application process, the university program they will be visiting can usually provide the necessary assistance or resources for a smooth application.

How to Find Housing as a Visiting Scholar

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The process of finding housing as a visiting scholar will vary depending on the institution that is hosting you and the length of your appointment. Similarly, payment for these housing locations will depend on a scholar’s funding status and the stipulations of the sponsoring program.

Wake Forest’s visiting scholar program, for instance, has set aside designated housing for visiting scholars, but it is up to the scholar to pay for housing fees with their own funding sources. Brown University offers a similar setup, reserving some living areas on or near campus for their visiting scholars on a first-come, first-served basis.

In other cases, visiting scholars may be responsible for securing their own housing and daily transportation to their place of appointment. 

Regardless of a program’s housing offerings, institutions are typically happy to provide resources to their visiting scholars regarding local housing, should there not be designated housing available for traveling scholars.

Related: University Off-Campus Housing Sites.


All in all, visiting scholar positions are designed to benefit academia in a wide range of studies—large universities tend to reserve visiting scholar positions in a variety of departments. No matter the area of expertise or motivation for future discovery, it’s safe to say that, somewhere in the world, there is a visiting scholar position for everyone.

One might say that the tenets of visiting scholar positions are collaboration, knowledge, and passion—what more could academia need?

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