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What You Need to Know About Studying in Graduate Schools Abroad

The Pros Often Outweigh the Cons

View to Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea.
A view of Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea.

The experience of going abroad is often the most transformational period of your life for those fortunate to have such an opportunity. Expat living can offer lessons and values that a person will internalize into the rest of their life. There comes a point, however, when you eventually ask yourself (or perhaps should ask), what am I doing to secure my future career aspirations?

Often, the answer to this question is difficult to swallow—heading home seems to be the solution. However, there are ways to circumvent packing up and ending your excursion, while still gaining crucial skills for a future career. One of these solutions is going on to obtain a Master’s degree in your foreign-host country.

Having an MA can boost your potential earning power significantly. In addition, as more people have Bachelor degrees, a Master’s will further separate you from other candidates. However, what about doing an MA program from a foreign institution? These four issues should be considered before taking this route: Credentials, Language, Finances, and Worthiness.

1) Credentials

The most important piece of information to obtain is whether the foreign institution is recognized in your home country. Potentially, you could end up wasting money and, more importantly, time on a degree that does not have any value back home.

With an increase in the global exchange of scholars, people coming from foreign universities are becoming ever more common around the world. Because of this, even if your potential university is not “recognized” there are services that can give you equivalency credentials. Note that these credentialing services can be quite expensive—a few hundred dollars for the initial check and then extra fees for sending it out to potential employers.

Perhaps, one of the best ways to ensure that your potential degree will translate back home is to check its ranking on various higher education ranking systems. Despite some criticism, these rankings can be quite useful when evaluating an institution's perceived reputation abroad. You should try, if possible, to go to one of the top ranked universities in your host country. This will help if you intend to stay in that country, and will be even more beneficial once you decide to leave, as it should be more recognizable.

For even more assurance, check to see if the program, school, or department is a part of any associations connected back with universities in your home country. Likewise, see if the potential institution offers any study abroad or dual-degree programs within your country of origin. This is certainly a sign of its relevance back home.            

Multinational corporations, with offices and employees across the globe, will value someone with a degree from abroad. However, even with proper credentials, some smaller organizations and companies might be leery of your degree because of unfamiliarity with this practice. There will be some degree of spin required of you in marketing yourself, and this is why you need to do your due diligence when selecting a program.

Key points to look for in programs that will help translate your experience back home:

  • High international ranking;
  • Top ranking in your school’s country;
  • Visible web presence;
  • Connections with other schools back home.

2) Language

Not fluent enough in the local language yet, especially for academic study? Do not fret. Many nations around the world are attempting to boost their foreign student numbers. One strategy for this is creating programs, or even entire departments, that are taught exclusively in English.

While these programs will be “a part” of the university, you will often times be “apart” from the happenings of the main campus. There are two reasons for this: first, your program is in a completely different language and most likely has a larger foreigner population. You are apart, because you are different. Unfortunately, this is the reality. The second reason is quite easier to accept. Graduate students are older and typically do not have a great presence on campus, especially compared with undergraduate life. This is not because you are a foreigner or speak another language; this is because you are a graduate student. Being older, more mature, and more serious about your studies, such perceptions are only natural.   

One downside to the rise of an all-English curriculum is that it provides a crutch, and can stunt your language growth. For those returning home without the language skills, be prepared to explain why you cannot speak the language of the host country where you just spent a few years (or more) of your life. Meaning, aside from being very useful, gaining the language can offer legitimacy to this educational route, even if your skill level is not very advanced. 

3) Finances

In the States, many people are taking on very large loans to cover their educational expenses. In other Western countries, these programs might be cheap enough to eliminate the need to take out a loan. In non-Western countries, these programs can be even cheaper. This cost factor should be a large factor in your decision on a foreign graduate school to attend.

As mentioned, governments are actively looking to boost their foreign student enrollments. This is not always connected to more revenue streams for their institutions. In actuality, this new push is more connected with soft power, or a type of international prestige. This means that there should be ample scholarships available for students to do their MA abroad. You just need to do some digging, especially on governmental websites (which can sometimes be terribly designed). Keep looking, as such scholarships exist.

Now, does this mean that if you cannot get a scholarship, you should look elsewhere? Not necessarily. If the program is high quality, the demand to get in might be larger than you realize, and the scholarship funds would be lower in that situation. This is especially true for the mentioned top-rated universities. You may be trading less financial incentive, for a higher reputation. It is a tradeoff, and one that you should consider hard before taking the leap.   

4) Is It Worth It?

This is something that you really need to ask yourself. Even if you want to stay in your host country, an MA might not actually broaden your career spectrum that much. If you are unsure of your career aspirations, and do not know which direction to go, then perhaps even more beneficial than an MA would be attending an intensive immersion language school.

Really honing in on the language of the locals will always boost your career and life as an expat. You become much more valuable to any organization, as you can then fill two roles— the task for foreign employees and the task of any employee. Plus, this will give you time to really think about your path in life. An MA in a field that you do not want to go into can set you back a few years, but language skills are always useful.

You might be thinking that doing an MA and language training simultaneously provides the best solution. While true, as many MA programs give you that option, you may find the intensity of your course work quite challenging, and adding language learning (which can be a full-time study by itself), an insurmountable challenge. Add in a part-time job, and this becomes seemingly impossible, or at least impossible to do all three well.   

For those who are already fluent and still looking for a career boost, an MA program becomes an even more attractive opportunity. The combination of the degree, your experiences, and language skills would be ideal for your return. But remember, language is an additional skill, not a credential like an MA.

5) The Final Decision

Doing an MA abroad is not for everyone. But for those considering this route, these few thoughts should help guide you in making this critical decision. An education abroad can give relevance to your experience that might not come merely by working. Such a realization is especially significant for many ESL veterans who eventually return home and attempt to work in fields not relating to education.

The institutions you are targeting really should come into consideration. Receiving a degree from an Ivy League level school probably trumps most universities abroad in terms of reputation and opening doors. But, the odds of getting into these programs are much lower for the average applicant. In addition, if you still wish to remain abroad, then this is not a practical avenue to pursue.

If you do have long-term PhD aspirations however, an MA abroad at well-regarded institutions—such as the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, and other great world universities—will give your application a boost, making acceptance by universities such as Columbia or Yale a real possibility in the future.  

If you went through the four listed categories above and are still unsure which track to take, then one final question can help tip the scale for your decision: are you willing to stay and work in your host country after the MA? If the answer is no, then you may need to rethink your decision. The country where the institution is located is going to provide maximization of the degree’s value. Yet, the four categories I have explored can ensure that if you indeed do an MA abroad, but decide that you do not wish to stay in your host country, that you can still have value in your investment.

The decision of doing an MA abroad should not be taken lightly. It can help add to your years abroad, and can significantly enrich your experience in your chosen country. However, obviously you will have to make a more significant investment (time and money) than simply working or traveling. If you follow these four thoughts on the potential institution or program-Credentials, Language, Finances, and Worthies-you can protect yourself from lots of wasted time and money.

Ultimately, the answer is up to you. Think hard about this decision. It will and can change your life, whichever path you decide.

Graduate School Abroad — Pros/ Cons

The Pros The Cons
Significantly increases career prospects in our host country. Cost of gaining credential service if you go abroad.
Sets you apart from other job candidates at home. Some institutions and employers are unfamiliar or leery of institutions abroad.
Study programs abroad tend to have lower costs. You may not be eligible for student loans if you study abroad.
Programs could be taught all in English. All-English programs may hinder learning.
Great way to work in ESL while you develop professionally. Working and studying abroad at once might be an overwhelming experience
You have a good shot of getting into a top-ranked University in your host country. Overseas institutions are still largely below the Ivy league graduate and post-graduate schools in the U.S. in quality and reputation.

Ryan Allen is a Berkeley College adjunct professor of history and politics. He received his MA in International Cooperation from Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. He is now at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is also a freelance writer.

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