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Challenges for a U.S. national in getting a graduate degree abroad

Pursuing a graduate degree overseas is an incredibly enriching experience, but it also comes with many challenges. However, you can prepare for your experience abroad by maintaining an awareness of the possible issues and problems you may encounter.

What is most important is that you keep a positive, open attitude, and a balanced, realistic overview of what you can accomplish.
Be prepared: Challenges to expect when studying abroad

Admissions and selection

Seeking advice and adjusting to different admissions infrastructures

The admission process in your host country may differ vastly from the system you're accustomed to in the United States. You may not get the same level of support and advice from admissions offices and faculty. You may also face challenges that wouldn't arise in the States, such as demonstrating the equivalency of your previous studies or your mastery of the local language.

Action steps:

  • Allot at least three months for researching programs and admission processes. You can follow this timeline as a guide.
  • Get in touch with U.S. students who are studying or have studied in your host country through professors, alumni networks, admissions offices, and personal contacts.
  • Check to see if there are any professors or students from your host country who are currently in your city. They may be able to offer you advice on the admissions process.
  • Contact admissions and faculty early on in the application process to ask specific questions about the process and programs. Try not to get discouraged if administrative staff and professors do not get back to you right away. Remember to follow up regularly, and keep your emails friendly, direct, and concise. Also, do not hesitate to phone if you have any pertinent questions.
  • Check to see if there are any blogs or forums where you may seek advice outside of your university.
  • Find out if the school will be sending representatives to an Idealist.org Graduate Degree Fair for the Public Good near you.
  • Some countries have national agencies that promote their universities to students abroad. These can be a great source of information about the academic experience in another country; one way to discover these is by visiting the website of the consulate or embassy of your intended destination.
  • Triple-check your application and admission requirements. Recruit friends, family, professors, and mentors—preferably those who are familiar with the admissions process in your host country—to review your application.

Visiting campus

"I got into four schools and it was not possible to go ahead of time to tour them," says Dan Brown, a U.S. national who received a Masters in Public Communication and Public Relations from the University of Westminster in England. "So I had to make a decision based on their websites and brochures." You may not have the time or money to see your campus before the start of your program. However, just because you can't visit in person doesn't mean you can't visit at all.

Action steps:

Starting over

Living in a new culture

Adapting to different ways of living is a great challenge, but it provides the opportunity to gain a tremendous amount of knowledge both in and outside of the classroom, and to become a much more worldly, well-rounded individual. Keep in mind the program and university themselves will have their own distinct culture—and that school cultures may also differ throughout your host country.

Action steps:

  • Learn about the culture of your host country and university through the web, reading, and conversation before you go.
  • Adopt a mentor or someone to guide you through your new cultural surroundings once you are in your host country to help you navigate idiosyncratic language and cultural experiences.
  • Keep an open mind and positive attitude.
  • Be patient. The first few months are always full of surprises no matter how much you prepare beforehand.
  • Maintain your sense of humor.
  • Keep a journal or better yet, a blog where others can support you. Expressing your feelings can be therapeutic.

Cost of travel and living

When you are planning your graduate school budget, remember to look not only at the cost of tuition, but also at the costs of travel and living. In addition to understanding local prices, it's also important to account for currency fluctuations as much as possible in your budgeting. If you've saved in U.S. dollars and suddenly the local currency appreciates, your budget will be squeezed.

Action steps:

  • Research the cost of living by talking to current and former residents of your host city or town, conducting searches on the web, and visiting your prospective universities' websites. You also may check cost of living websites, such as Numbeo and the Expat Forum. Schools, such as the University of Edinburgh provide a sample list of expenses.
  • Create a monthly and annual budget through Excel, Google Docs, or Mint.
  • Make sure you have enough savings for not only your daily expenses, but also any potential emergencies.
  • If you need funding, allot ample time for researching financial aid, loans, grants, scholarships, and—if permitted—local employment options suitable for students.
  • Check not only the current exchange rate, but also its history over the last year or two, looking for highs and lows. Run some calculations with a less favorable exchange rate and see how currency fluctuations might impact your budget.

Making new friends

Being away from family and friends is perhaps one of the hardest aspects of being abroad. You will have the opportunity to make new friends, but it does take time to build a strong network of connections.

Action steps:

  • Join student organizations and societies. International student organizations are a great place to start.
  • Take recreational classes, like yoga, cooking, or silk screening.
  • Join a local sports team. This is a great way to make friends and stay in shape.
  • Audit other classes and join study groups.
  • Find a job (if your visa permits).
  • Ask new classmates to join you for lunch or a study session.
  • Attend cultural events.
  • Volunteer.
  • Don't be afraid to try new things.
  • Avoid the pitfall of becoming a homebody—remind yourself of the reasons you wanted to go abroad in the first place, and find ways to realize those intentions.

Homesickness

Whether it's your best friend or your favorite café, there probably will be a few things you miss about home. "Homesickness is definitely a problem," says Edward Basse, a U.S. student who received a Masters in Philippine Studies from the University of Philippines. "Everyday I missed my family, my friends, and especially, the place I call my homeland. I overcame this by having friends send me token and kitsch items from back home, having friends visit, and watching a lot of U.S. TV shows."

Action steps:

  • Keep in regular contact with your family, friends, and loved ones. Please see the next section for ideas on how to maintain contact.
  • Bring or have your family and friends send your favorite foods from back home. You can also search for a foreign food store or the foreign food section in your local grocery store.
  • Research the availability of your daily healthcare and beauty products in your host country. If you prefer using a particular brand, you may want to purchase that brand in bulk prior to your arrival in your host country.
  • Have friends and family send care packages.
  • Connect with fellow U.S. nationals through international student organizations. Organize gatherings to celebrate Thanksgiving and other national holidays.
  • Watch your favorite television shows and movies from home.
  • Use your love of your own culture to bond with new international and local friends by sharing it with them. Cook your favorite foods for them, find translations of your favorite books or magazines if you are in a non-English speaking country, or invite them to look at photographs of your hometown.
  • Embrace your new cultural environment.

Keeping in touch

Staying up-to-date with friends and family is often difficult, but fortunately there are many ways to keep in touch.

Action steps:

  • Maintain a blog through WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger, or another blog hosting service.
  • Sign up for Skype or another video/voice communication service. You may also purchase a phone card.
  • Join social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr
  • Send postcards and handwritten letters.
  • If you are very homesick, consider scheduling visits back home during the holidays. Alternately, see if a friend or relative can visit you. This may even help remind you how much more there is to experience in your new location.

Language

If you don't speak the language of your host country, you may have great difficulty carrying out your daily life. There are many ways to prepare for the linguistic challenges ahead. It is quite nerve-wracking at first, but it does get easier over time.

Action steps:

  • Take classes or lessons. While in-person interaction is ideal for language learning, there are many great online alternatives, such as Spanish Pod. Your program fees may cover the cost of local language courses, or you may be able to audit a language course given at your university.
  • Download music, podcasts, or applications for your computer or multimedia player.
  • Get a language exchange partner or tutor. Many universities have official language exchange programs
  • Purchase a paper or electronic dictionary.
  • Join a language group. You may be able to search for language groups through social networking sites, like Meetup and Couchsurfing. Local city papers often advertise weekly meet-ups at cafes or bars for inter-language conversations. This can also help you make friends and build a social network.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Take advantage of every opportunity to practice your language skills.
  • Have fun, and don't be afraid to make mistakes.

Cultural learning curve

Adapting to new approaches to your field is one of the most enriching aspects of studying abroad. Initially, you may feel behind your classmates if the philosophy, terminology, and methods are significantly different from those in the States. This may be of great concern for students who work in team-based projects.

"The differences in pedagogy can be both a challenge and a selling point for a graduate program. While it can take some time to get used to a style of teaching and learning that is different from the U.S. style, making the effort is worth it in the end," says a U.S. national who received a Masters in Development Management and Public Policy from Georgetown University in Washington, DC and the Universidad Nacional San Martín in Argentina. "I've found that while a U.S. style learning tends to be much more practical, Argentine education on the other hand tends to be much more theoretical. The interaction between the two can be quite fruitful as they compliment each other's shortcomings."

Action steps:

  • Research the program thoroughly.
  • Request a program handbook, required reading, and information prior to the start date.
  • Talk to students who are currently in the program.
  • Initially, listen more than you speak.
  • Pay attention to how classmates speak and what goes unsaid. Also note situations when they are formal or informal (e.g. Do they always address the professor by an honorific title, or are students and teachers on a first-name basis?)
  • Notice how classmates tackle assignments and how it may differ from your own approach—for cultural or other reasons.

Finding work

Your chances of finding paid work while you're studying abroad may be difficult. Your visa may not permit you to work for money. In order to gauge your employability, understand the limitations of your visa and follow up with your university's career center (if they have one). Make sure to research the limitations prior to your arrival in your host country to take full advantage of your work options. "I was under the impression that my visa wouldn't allow me to work in the United Kingdom during my studies," says Janette Hendrix, a U.S. student who received a Masters in Comparative Literature from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. "It was only after visiting the United States and returning that I was informed by customs that this was not the case. By that point my studies were nearly finished."

Action steps:

  • First, check to see if you have enough time and energy to work while you are studying. Graduate school is very demanding, and your first priority should be your education.
  • Make sure to research which career services are offered at your university if you are concerned about employability. Most schools have a job listings board and job-hunting workshops.
  • Schedule an appointment with a university career advisor to discuss work options or conduct a mock interview.
  • Conduct informational interviews with people who work in your chosen field.
  • Research the main websites, listings, and resources for job searching in your host country.
  • Network with students and faculty in your department. "Talk to current students—especially host country nationals and Ph.D. students that may be around about jobs," says Nicole Merrill, a U.S. national who received a Masters in Culture, Communication, and Globalization from Aalboorg University in Denmark

Transferability

Degree

If you pursue a degree in another country, your degree may not be recognized by employers or universities (if you plan to seek a higher degree later) in the United States. Be especially conscientious of degrees, leading to licensure, that are required to practice in certain fields, such as law, teaching, social work, and medicine.

Action steps:

  • If you plan to pursue a masters degree abroad and return to the States for a doctorate, check with the U.S. schools you are interested in to see if your degree will count towards your doctorate.
  • Ask potential employers how getting a degree abroad may affect your future marketability in your chosen field.
  • Talk to alumni in your field who have gone abroad and returned to the States.
  • Create a portfolio or save work from you graduate program abroad to provide potential professors or employers samples of what you have done.

Scholarships

Some U.S. scholarships are not applicable to overseas degrees. Schools that don't charge tuition or fees may not have a way to process scholarship funds, while the scholarship-granting organization may be required to remit scholarship awards to an institution, rather than to you personally. This Catch-22 is something to be aware of in your financial planning for school.

Action steps:

  • Before you apply for scholarships, verify that the funds may be used overseas. The AmeriCorps Education Award may be used with some programs in countries outside the United States.

Personal contacts and network

"My biggest challenge was that all the connections made during my masters program did not carry over to when I came home," says Ash Shepard, a U.S. student who received a Masters in Environment and Development from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Keep in mind that your network of contacts may not be as accessible when you return to the States.

Action steps:

  • Connect with contacts made abroad through email, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks.
  • Keep in touch via Skype or phone.
  • Set up informational meetings with contacts prior to leaving your host country to discuss your academic and career goals.
  • Return to your host country to visit friends, professors, university staff, and other contacts.

Adjusting your expectations

Paris syndrome

It is quite easy to idealize a place prior to arriving, and fall into something akin to the Voyager or Paris syndrome shortly after arrival. The reality of the place often does not live up to its representation in film, literature, and popular culture, or you have much more trouble fitting into your new location than you ever expected.

Action steps:

  • Remember to keep your focus on the specific program rather than the place in which it is located.
  • Bear in mind that life abroad may not be as romantic or beautiful as you hoped it to be. Be realistic about what your experience will be like.
  • Maintain a positive outlook.
  • It's fine (and sometimes fun) to compare where you are presently with back home from time to time, but avoid making a persistent habit of it. Part of feeling settled in is accepting that some aspects of life in your new location are just different.

Differences in the educational systems

Your higher education experiences in the States will not be the same as your experiences abroad, and make sure to factor in the differences when applying for schools. For example, if you are thinking about pursuing a degree in the United Kingdom, bear in mind that there often is less coursework, class time, and grade inflation than in U.S. schools. "The grading system in the United Kingdom is notoriously difficult compared to the United States," notes Pema Domingo-Barker, a British-American who received a masters from the University of the Arts London. "For example, a C is more like a U.S. B+ and an A or better is a near perfect assignment. This was mentioned by the administration and professors before the program started, and every semester, just to clear everything up because of lots of past problems!"

Action steps:

  • Research educational differences between the States and your host country by talking to professors, students, and administrative staff.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Observe and if possible adopt the positive academic habits of local students.
  • Do not take anything for granted.

Thesis and dissertation requirements

Bear in mind that the research expectations, faculty advising, writing guidelines, and academic policies for a thesis or dissertation can vary considerably by university, and even more so by country. Especially if you are typically geared to a hands-on approach, check to see if your final project can take the form of a non-textual medium. Some graduate programs are fairly conservative and do not permit students to replace their masters dissertation or thesis with a more practice-based project.

Action steps:

  • Thoroughly research graduation requirements. Ask professors and local students when you are in doubt about the best way to proceed.
  • If possible, examine the dissertations of former students in your program. This can be a great way to assuage your concerns about the preferred styles and approaches.
  • If the program does not allow non-textual formats, inquire if they may make an exception.

Fewer university resources and services

If you are attending a university abroad, the minimal number of resources and services available may surprise you. For example, the library hours or the opportunities for practical experience and career transitioning may seem limited in comparison to U.S. schools.

Action steps:

  • Investigate resources and facilities prior to applying.
  • On the flipside, take advantage of resources that are rarely offered to U.S. university students, such as discounted tickets for transport and cultural events.

Reverse culture shock

"Culture shock upon return was the hardest because after two years of living the international student experience, nobody wanted to hear about it," says Nicole Merrill, the U.S. student who received a masters in Denmark. "While it's a typical reaction, it's hard to readjust when a two-year period of so much excitement and learning comes to an end."

Some of the hardest challenges take place upon return. You may be surprised how quickly or how much you adapted to the culture of the country in which you were studying. It is often more difficult learning how to re-adjust to life back home. However, you may mitigate the effects of reverse culture shock by applying many of the skills and strategies you use abroad.

Action steps:

  • Maintain a positive, open mind.
  • Adjust your expectations; your experience in your home country will not be the same as when you left.
  • Immerse yourself in the activities and people of your home country.
  • Keep in touch with new professors, classmates, friends, and contacts via email, Facebook, Twitter, and Skype.
  • Join your alumni network to get in touch with other study abroad kin who have returned to the States.
  • Plan a return visit to your host country.

Conclusion and further resources

The challenges of pursuing a degree abroad may seem daunting, but the benefits more often than not outweigh these challenges. Solid research and preparation in advance can ensure a great experience when you arrive in your chosen destination.

Also, be sure to visit your prospective universities' websites.