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