Why & How to Earn a Graduate Degree Abroad
Making the decision to pursue a graduate degree marks the start of an exciting new chapter. Graduate school affords more flexibility and freedom than undergraduate study and your learning opportunities are seemingly endless. When you begin your research and start to narrow down your options, don't limit yourself to universities in the U.S. There are literally thousands of quality graduate degree programs abroad, located across the world, just waiting for you.
Why Earn a Graduate Degree Abroad?
With so many prestigious and diverse universities in the U.S., why should you consider going overseas for your Masters or Ph.D.? The Wall Street Journal reported that in 2015, over 47,000 US students were pursuing advanced degrees overseas, compared with 42,000 in 2011. This is not surprising, given the many perks of studying abroad. If you want to know why these students are pursuing their graduate degrees outside the US and how they are doing it, read on. This option may just prove to be the right one for you!
1. You'll Save Some Cash
Let's face it: going to graduate school in the U.S. is expensive. Stupidly expensive. If you don't want massive student loan debt to be your own personal ball and chain for the next 20+ years, consider going overseas for your Masters or Ph.D. The average cost of a graduate degree in the US varies by discipline but roughly ranges from $30,000 to over $200,000, for a liberal arts degree vs. medical school, respectively. A highly ranked university in Europe can cost you much less.
In countries like Iceland, Norway, and Germany even international students can get free tuition so all you'll pay is yearly fees which generally total under $1,000. Other countries with low tuition costs include Finland, Sweden, Spain, and Poland.
By studying a Masters in Ireland, I saved around $17,000 in tuition costs. I paid roughly $17,300 at University College Dublin instead of the in-state tuition of $34,500 at University of Maryland, Baltimore. I found the course offerings and professors at UCD to be high quality and living in Dublin was a great experience. Cost of living in the Irish capital has skyrocketed in recent years but there are ways to keep costs low. The dining hall on campus served cheap and healthy meals and sharing accommodation outside of the city center saved me money on rent as well.
2. You'll Gain International Experience
In a highly competitive job market, applicants need something to help make their resumes stand out. In recent years, given the increase in college graduates pursuing advanced degrees, simply have a Masters isn't enough. However, a graduate degree earned overseas, coupled with international job experience, can give you the edge you need to land an interview.
To engage in further CV/resume building, chat with your professors once you start classes. If you are proactive, you can take advantage of outside opportunities (both paid and unpaid) that will help you get your foot in the door in your field. A classmate of mine at UCD got an unpaid internship with the Irish Health Service Executive during the program which converted to a paid job after graduation. Even if you don't plan to stay in your country of study, practical international work experience is another invaluable addition to demonstrate to potential employers.
Aside from experience gained through work and study, your classmates are indispensable when it comes to networking. My Master's course in Ireland had a much more diverse student profile than the first graduate program I completed in Maryland. Not only did my classmates come from across the globe, but they brought with them previous degrees and experience in a wide range of fields. Making friends with my fellow students helped me build a network of professionals from a whole host of countries.
3. You'll Learn to Be More Flexible
Studying abroad pushes you to the limit and requires independence and at times, resourcefulness. Setting up life and pursuing your degree in a new country can be a scary prospect, but you will learn more than what you're there to study. Your fellow students will likely come from a wide array of backgrounds and cultures and can show you different approaches to both life and study.
Aside from broadening your worldview, you will adapt to different teaching styles. I found that my graduate program in Ireland required a greater deal of independent study and autonomy than the Masters I completed in the US. I was not used to the level of time management my Irish degree needed so I had to change my study and review habits in order to succeed. This helped me be more mindful of my somewhat lacking time management skills in other areas of my life.
4. You'll Learn or Improve a Language
If learning a new language or improving one is on your mind, there's no better place to do it than the country where it's spoken. Even if your graduate program is in English, living with locals in the community will give you numerous opportunities to practice. European cities are very student-friendly as well, so you can always find activities geared toward the student population.
In Spain, intercambios are organized language exchanges that draw native Spanish-speakers and those wishing to learn to a venue like a bar or coffee shop. Non-native Spanish learners can spend half the time speaking in Spanish while sharing their language (usually English) the other half. Speaking more than one language is a huge plus to employers and is even a must for jobs in fields like international health and medicine. Even if a second language isn't a must it can help others. As diverse as the US is, having another major language under your belt can only be viewed as positive.
5. You Can Stay After Your Studies
Earning your graduate degree abroad gives you the wonderful option of international relocation. Most countries in Europe give students some additional time after graduation to seek work. In the UK, Masters students are only given six months to land a job while Ireland gives its graduates two years. In Germany, new grads can apply for an 18-month residence permit that allows them to start their employment search. Keep in mind the language requirements necessary if applying for work in a non-English speaking country.
After graduating from UCD in Dublin, I switched from the Stamp 2 student visa to a Stamp 1G under the Third Level Graduate Scheme. That enabled me to apply to any job in Ireland and work up to 40 hours a week. For five months, I juggled three different part-time jobs before getting a position at a U.S.-based tech start-up that had opened an office in Dublin. Had I not studied in Ireland and attempted to apply for an employment visa from the U.S., I would have had a much harder time. Unless you fall under one of the "critical skills" fields, getting a job in the E.U. as a non-E.U. citizen is very difficult.
How to Get Started Earning a Graduate Degree Abroad
You've read some of the many reasons why earning a graduate degree overseas is a great option. So how do you make it happen? The good news is, you'll probably have more trouble choosing the perfect program out of a sea of possibilities than you will navigating the paperwork. I've broken down the steps to help guide you through the process.
1. Identify Programs of Interest
When it comes to finding the right graduate program, you will find that your options are seemingly endless. This can be both exciting and overwhelming. Luckily, there are websites devoted to the search for available programs within your field of interest. Go Overseas has a grad school resource page with programs to get you started. Another option is Masters Portal, where you can browse through more than 71,000 programs worldwide.
Before settling on a degree program, an important factor to consider is accreditation. Will your overseas degree be recognized in the US? For some disciplines including nursing, education, medicine, and law, the answer can be tricky. Each field is subject to its own licensing board and may not recognize degrees earned outside of the US.
If you hope to study one of these specialized fields overseas, do extensive research to determine whether your degree will be recognized upon your return. Some programs exist that make licensure in the US much simpler. The Atlantic Bridge program allows U.S. students to study medicine, dentistry, physiotherapy, and pharmacy in Ireland. The coursework is pre-approved so students may sit the board examinations without additional degree verification or added classes.
2. Search for Funding Opportunities
There are several ways to fund a graduate degree overseas. If you don't have the money to pay for part or all of your tuition, there are still options open to you to help cover the cost.
Student loans: When applying for aid money, you have the choice between financial aid from the federal government or a loan from a private lender. Loans from the government tend to have better interest rates and more flexible repayment plans. U.S. financial aid is accepted as a form of payment at select universities across the world including Australia, Ireland, Israel, Germany, Poland, Mexico, and more! For the complete list of approved universities, check out the U.S. Federal Student Aid website.
American students studying abroad has become so common that during the federal loan process for my Masters at University College Dublin, I had my own point of contact who walked me through all the steps!
Grants: Grants are usually need-based, so even if you didn't have a perfect GPA you can qualify simply by demonstrating the need for financial aid. Explore the opportunities available to you at your chosen university. Some universities offer grants to non-E.U. students to help offset the cost of attendance.
Scholarships: Information on scholarship opportunities can be found all across the web, even here at Go Overseas! Most scholarships require applications and/or essays and will take some time to complete. However, the free money for your education is certainly worth the extra time you'll spend completing the requirements. Among the many sites you'll find, the Department of Labor sponsors a database filled with over 8,000 scholarship opportunities.
Assistantships/Studentships: This option may be rarer overseas than in the U.S. but some universities do provide opportunities for students to work alongside their classes in exchange for free or discounted tuition and a living stipend. While more common among Ph.D. programs, be sure to check with your university to learn about possible studentships for all levels.
3. Apply Directly to the University
The admissions process in Europe is similar to the U.S. and you'll be happy to know it is often less rigorous. Programs generally require transcripts from previous universities, a CV, statement of purpose, and references from a professor or employer. However, you won't need to submit GRE or similar US standardized testing results. Of course, these requirements vary from institution to institution so read up on what's needed on your university's website. If you have any questions during the process, contact the program administrator with questions.
4. Gather Necessary Visa Documents
No student visa is needed for study programs less than 90 days in any of the 26 countries in the European Schengen Area. However, because graduate degrees require longer-term stays, a student visa is required prior to departure. The visa process may seem daunting when you look at all the paperwork required, but it is actually more straightforward than you think.
Typical documents needed for the visa application include acceptance letter, proof of sufficient funds, proof of insurance while overseas, and background check. Once you have the necessary documents (don't forget to make copies!), you will need to make an appointment at the country's consulate Consulates generally serve a specific region of the US, so if there's not one in your city, check the embassy's website to find out which one you must attend.
For some countries like Ireland and Germany, as an American, no student visa is needed prior to traveling to the country, even for stays longer than 90 days. Once in Dublin, I was simply required to take my paperwork to the Immigration Bureau to register within 90 days of arrival. At that appointment, I was given my residence card and Stamp 2 student visa which was valid for the duration of my program. It is important to remember that most countries are processing a high number of students before the start of term so be sure to make your appointment as soon as possible once you arrive.
Your prospective university helps hundreds of international students a year navigate the visa process. Their website will likely have detailed information to guide you step-by-step. When in doubt, the international office will be able to assist you.
Prepare for the Experience of a Lifetime
For me, studying abroad for my graduate degree was an invaluable experience. Compared with my U.S. Masters, the degree I earned in Ireland taught me to be more independent and take greater ownership of my own study habits. I had the opportunity to travel during university breaks, met countless people from all over the world, and found living in another country a daily challenge and learning experience in itself. I would recommend pursuing a graduate degree overseas to anyone who is looking for an exciting change in their life. Who knows where it could take you!
This article was originally published in June 2015, and was updated in August 2018.