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Is a Graduate Study Abroad Program Right for You?

How to Make an Informed Choice

View of lecture room at the business school IESE. ©PromoMadrid, author Alfredo Urdaci. Creative Commons 2.0.

Did you study abroad as an undergraduate and would you like to continue your studies overseas in graduate school? Perhaps you never had a chance to study abroad during your undergraduate years. If so, graduate school abroad might be a great option for you. Clearly, before you apply it is best to undertake thorough research and think carefully about the pros and cons of getting a Master’s or Doctorate degree in a foreign country. The following guide has been written with you mind when making this important educational decision, while ensuring your success.

Is Your Decision All About Cost?

Cost may be a significant determining factor for many U.S. students when taking the leap to pursue graduate school abroad.

According to Forbes Magazine, American graduate programs in the top 20 U.S. schools cost around $50,000 a year. A graduate degree from Cambridge University in England, on the other hand, may cost you about $10,000 to $12,000 a year. At Singapore National University, the costs are around $4,000 a year. Even less expensive is the University of Barcelona ($2,000/year), the Universidad Autónoma de Mexico ($1,000/year), and the École Normale Superior de Paris (€190/year). Better yet, in Sweden, university tuition for some programs is free.

If you would like to know whether your U.S. Federal Student Aid would transfer towards your education abroad, visit this section on Federal student Aid for students going to international institutions (may require registration for some information). The official government website lists international programs that are eligible for U.S. financial aid.

If the program you wish to attend is not among the listed options, there are several excellent alternatives for scholarships to fund graduate school abroad. The Institute of International Education, for example, offers both undergraduate and graduate scholarship programs, providing funding for individuals whom they believe can specialize in their field abroad and come back to the U.S. to contribute to their local communities. Programs include the Baker-Hughes Foundation Scholars Program in Angola, Alcoa Foundation Technical Education Support Program in Russia, and ExxonMobil Scholar Programs in the Middle East and North Africa, for example.  

Another alternative scholarship program is the Boren Fellowship Basics, an initiative of the National Security Education Program, which provides funding opportunities to U.S. graduate students to study less commonly taught languages in world regions critical to U.S. interests such as Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. In exchange for funding, Boren Fellows commit to working for the government one year after graduation. The Boren Fellowship provides up to $24,000 for overseas study.

When mulling over finances, consider the cost of living in the destination country. For example, London graduate programs may save you around $40,000 in tuition, however the cost of living is significantly higher than in some parts of the United States. On the other hand, if you choose to pursue a graduate degree in Mexico, you will save money both in tuition and in everyday life given that the cost of living is substantially lower than in the U.S. A simple web search for “cost of living + [name of destination]” will often lead you to websites and blogs detailing the costs of apartments, food and other essential expenses that you will need to cover. Sites such as Numbeo also provide a decent sense of actual prices based upon a huge sampling rate of those contributing to its cost-of-living database.

But Money Is Not Everything

When choosing a graduate program abroad, be sure to look at more than just the costs. The decision has enormous personal and career ramifications. After all, you are not just taking a trip, but earning a degree that will remain on your resume, both reflecting and shaping your education, for the rest of your life.

Kathleen Walpole studied abroad as an undergraduate at Syracuse University in London. She fell in love with the culture, and after graduating Syracuse in 2012 decided to pursue a graduate program at London School of Economics in Public Administration.

However, the transition isn’t always easy. She affirms that, “[academically,] LSE pushed me to the extreme, but I’m glad I choose the rigor of my program and the school.” She plans on returning to the United States and working in public service. “I’ve learned how to handle sticky work situations and how to work in a foreign country. I’ve grown, I’ve become more of an adult and seen more of the world to appreciate what I have.”

Along the way, you can expect to experience differences with regard to how educational systems operate back in the U.S. Here are some factors to consider:

  • The Degree. This is perhaps the most important aspect when considering a degree abroad. International universities offer specialized courses of study that may not be offered as majors in American universities. As of October 2013, for example, Forbes ranked Oxford, Cambridge, London Business School, Insead of France, IE Business School in Madrid, SDA Bocconi in Milan, IMD in Switzerland, Hong Kong UST, and National University of Singapore among the top schools for business MBAs around the world. An international business degree may be an advantage for future managers and entrepreneurs. A law degree, however, will most likely only allow you to practice in the country or region in which you received the degree. Be sure to check your future professional options. Will doors will be limited or opened by a selected degree? With the new Bologna Process, for example, degrees throughout Europe will be interchangeable. If you want to be on the safe (and less local) side, there are also U.S. universities that offer both Master’s and Doctorate degree programs abroad, such as Boston University, New York University, or Middlebury College. Check the websites of U.S. universities for more information.
  • Course List. In addition to the degree program, check out the list of actual courses offered. Walpole, for example, notes that in her U.K. graduate program, “one of the main differences academically was that [the university has] a set course list for you.” Unlike in the United States, where you can choose courses almost every semester, in her U.K. program students are only offered a choice of classes during their last semester, with all other courses already set in stone when enrolling. While in the U.S., students are used to crafting their own schedules, universities abroad may have very set schedules. In Spain, for example, graduate degree programs are often combined with full-time jobs, and thus classes are offered from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., which in the U.S. only really happens with executive programs.
  • Extracurricular Considerations. When checking the courses, also look out for additional requirements. For example, graduate programs at Holland’s universities of applied science include courses involving internships and partnerships with businesses, while Singapore’s courses are an admixture of lectures, seminars, group work, tutorials, and a final project.
  • Teaching Style. Many schools in the United States have been moving towards opinion-based and interactive forms of teaching. Unless you are studying at a U.S. university’s campus abroad, don’t expect to find the same teaching style abroad. Although European schools are transitioning to the already mentioned Bologna Process, in which university degrees will be more discussion-based and require attendance, the remnants of the traditional European system remain. Nadine Rasch, a 25-year-old student also at the London School of Economics says, “The academics in the UK are very different from the methodology in the USA. We had one exam per class for the whole year. No class participation, mid-term exams, or projects.”
  • Academic Calendars and Application Deadlines. Keep in mind that schools abroad may operate on a different academic calendar, which will affect application deadlines. In fact, U.S. schools are known for having students apply very much in advance. Conversely, in other parts of the world, you may apply the week before a Master’s program starts and still be accepted. European schools, for example, have an academic calendar starting in October and ending in June. Universities in Asia, on the other hand, have an academic calendar that starts in July and ends in May. Miguel Houghton, professor at the Marketing MBA program at the Complutense University in Madrid, says that adapting to the academic calendar is always difficult for American students. “They have a hard time with the delayed and shorter 'summer break',” he says.
  • Language. If you do not speak a foreign language, your search will be limited to English-speaking programs. In some countries, such as Sweden and Singapore, this is the English-speaking programs are the norm. In others, you will have to look either for U.S. universities or for internationally oriented programs.

A Road to an International Career

Integrating yourself in a foreign university can also be a path towards an international career. Graduate schools abroad often maintain connections with local companies, which can serve as a gateway into the working world abroad.

Pedro Sagone, a 23-year-old graduate student from Guatemala who completed his undergraduate program in Hendrix University, Arkansas, explains that, “I decided to do graduate school at Universidad Europea in Madrid mostly because of my career aspirations. Within Sports Management, I want to focus on soccer and I felt like Spain is not only bigger in soccer, which would lead to a better education, but [that] this program also offers internships and possibly job opportunities with soccer teams and media companies.”

If you are planning to pursue a job abroad after graduation, be sure to look into visa and work permit requirements, which will vary by country. Volunteer work, or unpaid internships, are usually open to all nationalities, but please check individual country visa requirements and work permit laws for more details.

True Global Citizens

Studying abroad is more than just learning about a different culture and improving your resume—though obviously building an international resume is extremely important for those seeking an international career. Reflecting on the students he has taught, Houghton describes the importance and benefits of graduate programs abroad, emphasizing that his pupils have developed a “capacity to understand problems in an international context.” He adds that, “we are not alone in this world,” and that those who study abroad “improved [their] language skills, adapt to different cultures and build personal relationships in an international environment.”

A graduate degree from abroad is both an academic and personal challenge; it will force you out of your comfort zone, but in the long run it can only open your mind to new opportunities, new ways of thinking, learning, and approaching the world.

“Your graduate program will dictate where you end up working,” says Rasch. “Choose the right city for your career. If you want to be in the finance industry, go for a major city. If you are interested in politics, certainly choose the capital of the country. Thinking about art history—choose a city where you can visit the relevant museums.” What did she consider her most important advice? “Get to know the culture and the people that make up that city, that country.”

If, on the other hand, you plan to return home after obtaining your degree, be prepared to adjust culturally once you are back. After finishing her MBA degree in London, Walpole returned to Las Vegas. It has been “a bit of a culture shock,” she says. “I felt like something was missing.” That je ne sais quoi, that special something, of being abroad.

Figuring Out the Logistics

Insurance. Ask whether your tuition will include insurance. If not, or if you prefer to consult other options, there are specific U.S. insurance companies targeted at extended stays abroad, such as HTH, Cigna  International Student Insurance, or in the Transitions Abroad's section on insurance. If you do not speak the language of the foreign country where you will be studying, or if you are simply more comfortable in English, ask whether English-speaking doctors or clinics will be made available to you. 

Housing. Many graduate schools abroad offer housing options for students, but this is not always the case. Ask about the price and what is included (shared or private, kitchen, bathroom, Wi-Fi, location, student activities, etc). Some students prefer arriving in country a few weeks beforehand, staying at a hotel or hostel, and then looking for apartments or residences. A Hostelling International Membership Pass can get you a discount on those kinds of stays, and any other travel you might pursue during your time abroad.

When choosing your housing option, think about food. Are you keen on eating with a family? If so, then you should choose a home stay. Do you prefer cooking? Then choose an apartment with a kitchen. If you are a vegetarian, vegan, or have any other dietary requirements, be sure to keep that in mind — ask beforehand if you are not sure.

Visas. Visa requirements will vary from country to country. Usually, student visas will not allow students to work for pay; instead, you would need to obtain a separate work permit. Inquire with the university; they will usually have information on all the required paperwork.

Student ID cards. ID cards will usually be processed independently of visas. Again, inquire with your university - or look online - as to which ID cards are valid in your destination country. Frequently, such IDs will also gain you access to discounts at museums, transportation, etc., not to mention benefits conferred by international cards such as ISIC.

Making friends. If you are concerned about being lonely abroad, check out Facebook groups and expat forums for your destination before you go and join. Some universities also allow you to connect with fellow students via associations such as the Erasmus network in Europe, which hosts trips and other events for you to get to know other foreigners and locals.

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