How to Choose a Postgraduate Degree Abroad

In 2010 I graduated from the University of New Hampshire with degrees in English and Linguistics, and moved to Glasgow to undertake a Masters of Research at Strathclyde for 2010-2011. I’m still here working on my PhD, and every few months, I get a Facebook message from an acquaintance saying something along the lines of “I’m thinking about going to graduate school abroad! You did it, right? Can you tell me about it?” And every time I think, here we go. Time to dig out my response from the last time I answered this question! So, for posterity, here’s my answer. Keep in mind that details on applying for postgraduate education are going to vary from country to country. This took me a little bit by surprise at first, because I had expected all education systems to be like the US’s. They are not. It is easy to forget this! As a result, keep one eye on all deadlines, because they might come sneaking up on you much sooner than you think (or take much longer than you would have anticipated).

Admittedly, my experience has been limited to a humanities track, so there might be some variants between humanities and science or engineering, for instance. This is meant to be resource for others considering graduate school abroad from the US, but I think it generally works for applying to graduate school anywhere.

First things first.
Great, you’re thinking about doing a graduate degree! What, specifically, do you want to study in your field? What are you interested in? I came to Scotland specifically to work with my supervisors because I was interested in the intersection of literature and linguistics. In undergrad, I would meet with my teachers, explaining that I wanted to write my essays about linguistics in a literature class and vice versa. I was tired of having to explain and sell my ideas every time. I decided that I wanted to do a graduate degree, but only if I could do something on the intersection of literature and linguistics. I didn’t want to keep having to explain it, I wanted to just be able to do it. (Obviously, I still have to explain it, but for different reasons now.)

My best advice about all of this is to figure out what you’re most interested in. A postgraduate degree is a little more specialized than an undergrad degree. You will want to be in a department with people who have research which is similar to the sorts of things you would want to do. Google any possible combination of what you want to be studying and ask mentors or advisers if they have any ideas. I wanted to study literary linguistics, and it turns out that Strathclyde has been heavily involved in literary linguistics and stylistics. These two fields never really caught on in the US, but they’re doing OK here in Europe, which works in my favor.

I hope this is not discouraging, but if you happen to be particularly interested in African American slave narratives along the Mississippi River – the people you will probably want to work with will probably not be in the UK. I’m not saying that you can’t or shouldn’t – but really think about what you want to do. Before you even start looking at schools, look for people you might want to work with. In the end, you’re not coming here for the school name but the expertise that school can offer you over all other institutions.

Once you have made a list of a few people you’d be interested in working with, contact them! Tell them that you’re interested in their program, in what they’re doing, and ask questions. The first ones which spring to mind for me are What will the course be like? Will my work abroad would be transferable back to my home country? Find out if these people are even considering taking on more graduate students – it would be a bit like structuring your entire undergrad career around taking one class you’ve waited to take in your last semester of your last year only to find out that the lecturer is on research leave. It’ll be heartbreaking to hear now, but way less so than finding out after you move specifically to work with someone. You surely will have better, more relevant questions than I will about your field – ask them. Find out if the place you want to go is a good fit for you.

Though I applied to three universities in the UK, and contacted one person at each institution, I actually only contacted one of my now-supervisors initially and had no idea that my now-primary supervisor (or his project) even existed. This has turned out to be quite the happy accident for me; I certainly can’t guarantee this success rate for everyone else. But I wouldn’t have known at all if I hadn’t contacted Nigel and asked questions in the first place.

So! You have a department (or two or three) you want to apply to. Now what? Ask more questions. I had to decode the British university application without much help (“Qualifications? What do you mean by that?”). What degree are you applying for? I did a Masters of Research, which is different than an MPhil and an MA. Again, if you’re not sure: email someone and ask. I don’t think I can stress this enough. I distinctly remember asking a postgraduate coordinator about GREs and getting an email response back of “I don’t know what those are, so I would advise you not to worry about them.” Not Having To Take the GREs was definitely a plus in favor of graduate school abroad, I won’t lie, but trying to figure out how my GPA fit into the UK degree ranking system was a nightmare. In the end, it’s the responsibility of the universities to figure out all these conversions – most transcripts should have an explanation of the grading system.

I still feel guilty about the GRE thing when I talk to my friends who are in graduate school in the US, for what it’s worth.

This is the big one! You are trying to figure out how, exactly, you are going to pay for this. Currently I think postgraduate student tuition in the UK is around £9000. This does not sound like a lot, but when you do the conversions (depending on day, position of the sun, stock markets, whether or not the moon is rising in Aries, etc) it ends up being about $18k. This is the good news, because that is a LOT less expensive than any US program.*

* When you factor in the cost of moving abroad, this number will go up quite a bit. (Cost of living, flights to/from the US and getting settled is an entirely different story.)

Ask someone who you’d want to work with what funding is like in your field and how it might apply to you, especially as a foreign student. The bad news is that as a non-UK/EU citizen you will not be eligible for much funding here (sorry- this is truly the bad news). We have a number of research councils here (the one that would cover me is the AHRC. Google ‘UK Research Councils’ for this information). They often offer a variety full studentships (scholarships) at different universities. They also fund big projects, so if someone is looking for a Masters student to join them as part of an ESRC-funded project on eye tracking in reading, for instance – again, making these up off the top of my head – they might mention that, and you’ll have to ask how that will work.

The US often sponsors students going abroad (see Rhodes & Fulbright scholarships, among others); there will probably be specific ones for your countries. I think the Erasmus Mundi program also sponsors scholars going abroad, but I’m not sure of the details of it. Apply for these before you leave the US, as some of them are not applicable to people who have lived outside the US in their place of research. This turned out to be a problem, as I missed the deadline for Fulbright scholarships the day I applied to Strathclyde. Because I’ve lived in the UK for over a year consecutively now, I can’t apply to the Fulbright grant system. I’m still kicking myself over this, for the record. That does not mean there aren’t other grants for you. My officemate funded 3 years of his PhD through a series of small, private grants from various organizations.

Good luck! If your university has any sort of international or study abroad office, get in touch with them, too. Take all the help you can get, seriously – you’ll be glad you did.