The US may be unrivaled in terms of the quality and number of world-class universities available to students, but there are a number of compelling reasons why perspective graduate students may want to look abroad for their degree. At first glance, many of the reasons for pursuing graduate school abroad are the same as the reasons for spending part of your undergraduate education in a foreign country. At a graduate level, however, the decision is unique enough to merit a separate discussion.
For that reason, I’ll spare you of all the romantic ideas your study abroad advisor probably sold you on when you did a summer abroad. Don’t get me wrong, the widely known benefits of studying abroad are very real, but, let’s face it, when you’re looking into graduate schools, the cold, hard reality of getting a job and making money is much more immediate than when you dawned your gown for high school graduation.
The seven points I’ve distilled here are far from original. You can easily find the same points and more degree-specific information from hundreds of different and far more authoritative sources out there on the web. My hope, however, is that I can make them a bit more meaningful and concrete for interested students by providing elements from my own experiences studying in Paris.
1) Set yourself apart
Your status as an international student will set you apart from your peers. As more students study abroad during their undergraduate years, that semester or even year abroad is becoming less and less valuable on your CV. Living abroad for two or three years while pursuing a graduate degree may be exciting and exotic, but it’s no vacation. Having experienced the recruitment process abroad, I can attest that your status as an ‘international student’ is a very palpable indication for potential employers of your willingness to take risks and your ability to thrive in an unfamiliar and challenging environment.
2) Build a global network of contacts
Even today, business and jobs are had through old-fashioned human contacts more than any other means. Studying abroad will open up infinite possibilities to you through the people you meet and make you and your address book a valuable asset for potential employers. Many of the people you meet abroad will go back to their respective countries to become business and political leaders and a graduate program provides a much more propitious environment for developing strong ties that will last a lifetime. Even if you wind up working in the US, your career will be incalculably enriched by the reach and diversity of your contacts.
3) Guaranteed job in your dream destination
As an alumnus abroad, it is not rare that I receive emails seeking advice from students desperate to come live and work in Europe. It’s not impossible, but, sadly, your chances are much slimmer if you’re searching from the other side of the pond. Likewise, international mobility is not as easy or accessible as recruiters make it out to be. If you have your heart set on working in a particular country or region, there is no better way of improving your chances than doing a full Master’s degree in that country. It gives you time on the ground for your job search and a solid grasp of the language and culture and bureaucratic obstacles. Your school will also offer valuable resources and connections to help you in your job search.
4) Expose yourself to new learning and teaching methods
US higher education is world-renowned, but Americans still stand to learn a thing or two from the way things are done elsewhere. In France, for example, much more emphasis is placed on the ability to synthesise material and present it in a clear and coherent manner. Nothing embodies this more than the dreaded exposé oral, a fifteen-minute oral presentation that French students can be asked to give on even the most improbable of topics.
When I first arrived in France, I found this tradition somewhat superficial, as it privileges presentation over substance. After two years in the French higher education system, I still find this a valid critique, but am incredibly grateful for the skill set I have developed. In your professional career, you’re much more likely to be faced with having to quickly develop an understanding of a new topic and efficiently communicate that understanding to colleagues, than to be asked to thoroughly master a subject at your leisure.
5) Gain full fluency in a foreign language
Coming out of your undergraduate education, you may already know a foreign language well, having done a semester abroad or even majored in a language. A Master’s degree, however, will open the door to full fluency, as well as the cultural fluency necessary to do business in foreign cultures. Unfortunately, the argument that you don’t need to master another foreign language is gaining currency with the increasing dominance of English. If you plan to spend your career abroad, you categorically must know the language. Even if you work in English, you will communicate with colleagues and clients in the local language.
6) Save money
Many students are under impression that schools are free in many other countries. This may technically be true for locals, but you will often find yourself in an expensive city paying ‘international’ tuition rates. In France, for example, the best schools will set you back at least several thousand dollars a year and the most expensive will cost you slightly more than out of state tuition at UVa. On top of this, you will also be paying an arm and a leg for living expenses. In many cases, however, you will end up paying less for your graduate degree abroad. In addition, foreign schools that accept large numbers of international students usually have experience with the US federal loan system.
7) See the world
OK, I said no fluffy stuff, but traveling never gets old! The US has the distinct disadvantage of being somewhat isolated from the rest of the world by virtue of its expansiveness and geographical location. Living abroad can, although not always, give you easy and cheap access to destinations you could only dream about from your office in New York or DC. From major capitals in Europe, for example, you can easily and affordably spend a weekend anywhere on the continent and tickets to many destinations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia are half of what they cost coming from the US.
Post by Stephen Hartka (CLAS ’10)
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