Regulations specifically state that a completed thesis or equivalent is not required
According to 8 CFR 214.2(f)(10)(ii)(A)(3), a student is eligible to apply for OPT temporary employment if the employment is directly related to the student’s major area of study provided that all course requirements for the degree have been completed, excluding a thesis requirement or equivalent.
This also agrees with US government policy regarding the F visa program, which is to attract and retain the world’s best and brightest people. So it logically follows that since the 17-month STEM extension is actually just an extension of a current period of post-completion OPT, it makes sense that students should not be required to have completed their degree thesis requirement or equivalent in order to get the STEM extension.
ICE also takes this position as stated in its policy guidance in section 6.7 of Policy Guidance 1004-03 – Update to Optional Practical Training, which states that F-1 students who have completed all course requirements except for the thesis or equivalent, may apply for pre-completion OPT or post-completion of OPT while they complete their thesis requirement or equivalent. The policy guidance states that students who apply for post-completion OPT may work full-time, are eligible for the cap gap extension, may be eligible for unemployment, and may apply for a 17-month extension if otherwise eligible.
The student’s major area of study must be that of a STEM degree.
8 CFR 214.2(f)(10)(ii)(C) states that a STEM degree is one that is in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics area listed on the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) STEM-Designated Degree Program List here: (Insert link here http://www.ice.gov/doclib/sevis/pdf/stem-list.pdf).
The STEM OPT extension is added to the normal OPT extension
According to 8 CFR 214.2(f)(10)(ii)(C), (1) and (2), the 17-month OPT extension is in addition to the normal 12-month post-completion of OPT. To qualify for the STEM extension, the student must not have previously received a 17-month OPT extension after earning a STEM degree. The regulation states that a STEM student who is currently in a valid 12-month period of post-completion of OPT may apply for an additional 17-month OPT STEM extension. The 17-month extension is added to the 12-month extension resulting in a maximum total OPT of 29 months.
Therefore, students who are currently in post-completion OPT while still completing their thesis are eligible to apply for the 17-month STEM extension, provided that they have completed all of the other course requirements necessary for the STEM degree.