Food for thought for soon-to-be graduate students

By Annie Rose Stathes, edited by Valeri Boyle
Published February 19, 2014

More and more students opt to attend grad school abroad. Some do so for the duration of their programs and complete their master’s programs in one to three years; others do so for a portion of their programs and complete their master’s programs between a college abroad and a college or university in the United States. Either way, attending graduate school abroad can be a wonderful and empowering experience.

Ask yourself the following questions to determine of graduate school abroad is right for you:

Is there experience that you can gain in another country that you cannot gain in the United States?

Depending on your program, there might be valuable experience to be gained abroad that simply cannot be gained (or easily accessed) in the United States. If you are studying European history, for example, it will be easier to access certain documents and visit certain sights if you spend time studying in Europe. Or, if you’re studying political science and focusing on communism and capitalism, for example, it makes sense to spend time in a country that is or has been communist and embraces or has refused capitalism. Consider your major, your emphasis, and your research and ask yourself, “is there valuable experience that I can gain in another country that I cannot gain in the United States?” If the answer is yes, consider spending a semester or more earning your graduate degree abroad.

Will having international experience make you more competitive in your field?

Some fields, such as international affairs, international business, political science, public health, sociology, and journalism, seek employees who have had meaningful experiences abroad. This makes sense since many of these fields examine theories, processes, events, and circumstances that cross international borders. Other fields, ones less obviously affected by international conditions, also benefit from professionals with international experience. In our increasingly globalized world, more localized fields, such as speech pathology, psychology, nursing, social work, and marketing, benefit from the experiences professionals glean from international exposure. Many professionals within these fields work with people who have emigrated from other countries and serve diverse populations. Having gained cultural exposure through international experience could therefore make you more competitive in your field. Also, many employers may look for employees who demonstrate tolerance, mental and emotional strength, and a capacity to honor and appreciate diversity; adding a semester or more of graduate school abroad to your resume could help illustrate to your employer that you have this unique skillset.

Do you need to know another language to be competitive in your field?

If you plan on working with people who speak different languages or one language in particular, it makes sense to attend grad school abroad. Immersing yourself in a language, and giving yourself multiple months or years to do so, can be an excellent way to learn a language. Also, spending time in another country allows you to learn the cultural nuances of a language in a way that U.S.-based language programs don’t. And, if an employer sees that you have spent time in the home country of the population you serve, you may likely be more competitive for the job.

Are you willing to spend one to two years in another country?

Sometimes when people consider attending school abroad, they forget that they will also be living abroad. They forget that they will be making friends, dating, grocery shopping, paying bills, potentially working, and doing other every-day things in a foreign country. They forget that while they’re school or program is based in English, the rest of their lives is likely not, and that it is in fact based in an unfamiliar language (or at least one less practiced than their native tongue), an unfamiliar culture, and ultimately, an unfamiliar society. This can be stressful and disorienting. Prior to committing to a graduate program abroad, consider what life will be like outside of school. Keep in mind that you might be separated from friends, family, and other comforts in the United States for a year or more. If spending a year or more in another country doesn’t sound like a fit for you, but you think you can handle several months abroad, consider spending just a semester abroad.

Can you balance the mental, emotional, and sometimes physical challenges of living abroad and going to graduate school?

Living in another country, no matter how wonderful, can be stressful. Attending grad school, no matter how exciting, can be stressful. Pair the two together and you have on your hands a situation that can be mentally, emotionally, and physically trying and draining. Prior to making the decision to attend graduate school abroad, consider whether or not you’re ready to work with the many challenges that are sure to arise. Make sure you have a support system, ideas for dealing with breakdowns, and the necessary capacities to work with challenges as they occur.

Annie Rose Stathes is a Colorado-based writer, teacher and political scientist. Her background is in international affairs and she holds a Master of Arts degree in Political Science.