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How and Why to Study for a Master's Degree in Southeast Asia
A Positive Experience at a University in Bangkok
Article and photos by Nathan Edgerton
Resources updated 6/25/2019 by Transitions Abroad
| One of the oldest buildings on the campus of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, which I am attending.
(*Editor's note: All universities mentioned in this article, as well as many other useful resources, can be found at the end.)
After living, traveling, and teaching in Southeast Asia for five years, I realized that if I wanted to open up options for other kinds of employment besides teaching English, it would be a good idea to continue my studies for a master’s degree. With apprehension, I made some initial investigations into returning to the USA to study. Visiting website after website, I went straight to the “tuition and fees” page and found figures around $35,000 per year and up. After tacking on living expenses, I knew I’d likely spend well over $55,000 per year. Given the uncertain economic situation in the states, I was reluctant to deplete my savings and even take on debt. Fortunately, I knew there were other options.
I’d met a few people who were studying abroad in Southeast Asia during my time in the region, so I decided to look into what kind of English-language programs I could find and how much they would cost. I ended up choosing a 1-year master’s program in international economics at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok , which cost me less than one-fourth what I would have paid to study in the US. In addition to saving well over $30,000, I was able to continue eating pad Thai, massaman curry, and mangoes on the cheap, learning the Thai language and gaining international experience in one of the world’s fastest-growing regions.
Before settling on Thailand, I searched for universities throughout Southeast Asia. In addition to Thailand, other countries in the region also have a significant number of English-language graduate programs at a similar price level. Programs are available in a variety of fields, including engineering, education, economics, business, social sciences, and numerous others.
| The new central university library has free WIFI and a cafe.
The Philippines is gaining notoriety as a destination for foreign students, especially because the top universities in the country teach nearly all of their programs in English. Some of the top schools include the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, the University of Santo Tomas, and De La Salle University. The Philippines is particularly popular for students interested in studying medicine for an affordable price.
Malaysia also offers quite a few English-language graduate programs through locally run universities such as Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, as well as some through foreign universities such as Australia’s Monash University, and Curtin University. Even Vietnam has a few English-language MBA programs which are run in conjunction with foreign universities.
Singapore has fewer universities, but the ones it does have (for example, the National University of Singapore and Singapore Management University) are among the best regarded in the region. The cost of studying and living there is higher than in the rest of Southeast Asia, but it’s still far less than studying in the USA. A bit further away, China has a large and quickly increasing number of English-language programs. South Korea and Japan do as well, though they may not be much cheaper than studying back home.
I decided I’d rather not move to a new country for the fourth time in five years and I wanted to continue learning Thai if possible, so I looked most seriously at the programs in Thailand. I was lucky to find Studyinthailand.org, which has a detailed list of all the English-language bachelor’s and master’s programs offered throughout the country. I found about 6-12 programs in each of the fields I was interested in – business, economics, and education.
Among Thai universities, Chulalongkorn University, Thammasat University, and Mahidol University have the best reputations. Kasetsart University and Assumption University are also well respected within Thailand. Webster University (Bangkok) and Payap University (Chiang Mai) are American-accredited, which means that your degree will surely be recognized in the US. The State University of New York and Framingham State University also offer US-accredited programs for an MA in education, with classes conducted in Bangkok.
However, it’s not necessary to study at an American-accredited university to get a degree that will be recognized in the USA. It’s also possible to get degrees from other universities accredited in the USA or other countries. You’ll need to check into the accreditation process. The university should be able to tell you whether other students who have finished the program have successfully had their degree accredited abroad.
I studied in a 1-year intensive program, which included eight months of courses followed by a thesis. (Another study option included 11 courses followed by a shorter research paper.) We studied one course per month, which helped to fit the schedules of guest professors. Courses were taught by a mix of Thai professors who had earned their PhD's in English-speaking countries and foreign professors. Our program included visiting professors from the University of Utah (USA), the University of Mannheim (Germany), the University of Melbourne (Australia), the University of Kyushu (Japan), and others.
The students in my program included about 25 Thais, 5 Chinese, 2 Americans and 1 Swiss. We also had exchange students from Italy and Germany who joined some of our classes. Classes were generally lecture format, though some professors assigned students to give presentations on selected topics. It seems that Thai students are rather quiet in class and hesitant to speak up in English, so there wasn’t as much classroom discussion as I had expected. Otherwise, the organization of the courses was similar to my undergraduate courses in the US.
An important consideration about getting a master’s degree abroad is how well the degree will be regarded, especially if you plan to work in a western country afterwards. It must be admitted that Thai universities are not considered as academically rigorous as western universities, or even in comparison with universities in Singapore or Hong Kong. However, some Thai universities are well respected and their cooperative operations with foreign universities are a testament to that. I chatted with one alumnus of my program who said that employers in the USA had been impressed that he had experience living and studying abroad. Another alumnus found work with the United Nations in Bangkok and New York City
Moreover, Thai universities are better known around Southeast Asia, so if you plan on working in this region it can also be an advantage. If you decide to work in Thailand, a master’s degree from a well-respected Thai university will be an asset, especially if you can pair it with Thai language skills.
My university didn’t offer Thai language courses for foreigners, but there are many schools in Bangkok and Chiang Mai that offer them. It costs around $1,000 for a year of courses, and many schools can also arrange a 1-year study visa. If you don’t feel like taking a formal class, there are lots of textbooks and an ever-growing numbers of iPhone and iPad apps that can help you learn.
The comparatively low cost was one of the biggest advantages of studying in Thailand. Base tuition for the yearlong program added up to around $10,000, and this included a 5-day study trip in Japan, two 2-day trips for conferences and meetings, and one field trip. I also got access to the university sports center including a gym and pool. I was fortunate to earn a scholarship that reduced my final bill to around $7,200. Most other English-language master’s programs in Thailand cost between $6,000-10,000 per year, though the MBA program at Sasin Graduate Institute, which was created in collaboration with two American universities, costs around $26,000 per year for two years. The tuition at universities in Malaysia and the Philippines is quite similar, with local universities generally charging around $5,000-7,000 per year and foreign universities charging $9,000-12,000 per year.
The cost of living for a student can be quite low in Thailand. I stayed in a small studio apartment with free WIFI for a total of around 5,000 baht ($160) per month, including water, electricity and limited cable TV. This was toward the cheaper end of the spectrum, but many of my classmates found apartments for $300 per month and under. Meals at the university canteen, on the street or at small food shops run between $1.00-2.00, or between $1.50-2.50 at mall food courts. With cheap and delicious food always easy to find, you won’t need to worry about cooking unless you want to.
Entertainment is also comparatively cheap. Beer at a bar goes for $2.00-4.00 for a 330ml bottle, or $1.00-1.50 from a Family Mart. A movie ticket is between $3.00-5.00. I stayed quite busy with studying and didn’t party too much, so I could get by on about $700 per month. It’s also possible to pick up a part-time teaching job or some tutoring work on the side to help allay the expenses, though you’ll need to arrange a work visa with your employer.
Overall, I think I gained a lot from studying in Thailand, though I’m not one to regret. The academic experience may not have been quite as challenging as it would have been in a top American university, but I studied hard and learned a lot. I think the experiences I’ve had and the international perspective I’ve gained have certainly made it worthwhile. I’ve been able to live for another year abroad, avoid the snow, meet friends from around the world, improve my Thai, and get my degree without going into debt. If you’ve never been to the region before, another bonus is that Bangkok is a great base from which to explore since there are so many connections on budget airlines.
In terms of my future career plans, I feel like it’s also been a good decision. My impression is that employers back in the US look favorably on experience abroad, and especially companies that have overseas operations. Indeed, there is research to substantiate such views by those who report on their post study abroad experiences, even with an undergraduate degree. However, I don’t plan on going back to the states yet, as job prospects in this part of the world seem good. With the Thai economy, as well as the economies of many neighboring countries, growing at 4-5% per year, I feel that the chances are good that some interesting positions will open up. The ASEAN Economic Community integrated the region further in 2015, so it is an interesting and exciting time to study and work in Thailand and Southeast Asia.
Nathan Edgerton moved to Southeast Asia to teach at Can Tho University in southern Vietnam in 2007. What was supposed to be one year eventually became more than 7. In the meantime, he has taught at a public school in Singapore for a year and a half, worked as a writer in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and cycled across Vietnam.
He has been living in Bangkok for the past 7+ years, where he studied for a master's degree at Chulalongkorn University and currently works as Director of Operations Development at The Knowledge, a Thai language school near the city center.