When graduate student John Robbins celebrated Thanksgiving last year, he wasn't with relatives and neighbors. He didn't follow the meal with a football game: The sport would have been foreign to most of his companions. When guests had to choose between white and dark meat, several didn't know the difference. And while everyone had an opinion about politics, some expressed it in English, some in Italian.
That's because Robbins's university is in Rome, nowhere near his hometown of High Point, N.C. As a grad student, his experience is surprisingly rare. Although the number of American students who study abroad for at least a semester has quadrupled in the past two decades, many students weighing their graduate school options don't consider earning an advanced degree entirely overseas. Attending a school abroad brings challenges, from the exchange rate to the transition back home. But for the right candidate, a foreign diploma can be an asset—particularly for students who want a career that's not limited by borders or geography.
Studying abroad can allow students to learn a new language, adapt to cultural differences, or globalize a résumé. Yet American students often have misconceptions about language requirements, financial aid, or employment status that prevent them from considering graduate schools abroad. For example, not all programs abroad—and outside Australia and the United Kingdom—require fluency in a foreign language, since faculties from Hong Kong to Barcelona teach in English. Also, federal loans can be used abroad, as long as the school meets the U.S. government's eligibility requirements. And many student visas allow employment, typically part time during terms and full time over vacations.
That said, one challenge is almost impossible to avoid: being far from friends and family. Technologies like Skype, which lets users video-chat with one another at their computers without charge, make communication easier. But technology can't solve everything. Two of the 40 students initially enrolled in Robbins's program—a master's in international relations at the St. John's University campus in Rome—eventually left because they were homesick, he says.
Adapting to a new culture isn't easy, either. But students say it's one of the experience's most rewarding aspects. A few weeks into his medical studies at Tel Aviv University, Morgan Kellogg's academic calendar gave him a taste of Israeli flexibility. His year will now end nine days later in July than originally planned. While the change was frustrating, that laid-back approach means the faculty is more relaxed with the students, too, he says. And, he adds, it has been a good reminder not to sweat the small stuff. "Sometimes in the States, it can be easy to fall into the trap of [thinking] our way is the best way to do things or the only way to do things," says the White Plains, N.Y., native.
Lower costs. It is often assumed that a degree earned abroad comes at a pricey premium. But tuition fees at foreign universities are often much lower than at American schools, even when the cost of room and board is included. At $27,000 a year, Kellogg's medical degree costs him half what he'd pay at comparable U.S. schools. For a master's in creative writing at Trinity College Dublin, Ryan Huntley is paying 7,250 euros a year, a quarter of the $42,000 he'd spend at Columbia University in his former stomping grounds of New York. And San Francisco native Sophie Perl's master's degree in public history from Berlin's Freie Universität is practically, well, freie. In fact, at 250 euros per six-month semester, her tuition is half the cost of passes for six months' worth of public transportation. Even so, it includes city transport.
Plus, many master's programs abroad are just one year, while a full doctorate might be three or four. "It's sort of like half price," says Peter Dunn of Atlanta, who is working on a one-year master's in urban design and social science at the London School of Economics. "I get to get in and get out."
Still, that hardly makes finances stress free. Dunn says he's always watching, and fretting over, the exchange rate. In Dublin, Huntley pays 2.50 euros—about $3.50—for a pint of milk. But students say that even with higher living expenses and the costs of travel home, their programs are cheaper than domestic options.
Employment advantages. A foreign degree may save money upfront, but the real question is whether it holds its bang for the buck back home. The degree's value may be based largely on the perceptions of hiring managers or, if a doctorate is the next step, admissions officers. Both groups emphasize that much depends on applicants' motivations for studying abroad and how the experience fits their long-term goals. "I'm less concerned about where and more concerned about why," says Rosemaria Martinelli, associate dean for student recruitment and admissions at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. "There is no right or wrong answer. Everybody's on a different path."
It is tricky to generalize about the quality of schools overseas. While, say, Oxford and Cambridge may not boast the financial endowments of Harvard or Yale, they take academics as seriously. And while many M.B.A. programs overseas may be shorter, they also can be more rigorous.
What is certain is that learning styles abroad often differ. Cambridge and Oxford, as well as many schools elsewhere in Europe, tend to be more focused on independent study. In some universities, even reading lists—an American norm—can be considered taboo, regarded by students as condescending. However, many universities are moving more toward an American model, leading their students to report few differences between their experiences and those related by peers who are in similar programs in the United States.
For those hoping to work abroad, the international experience can be a real asset. And American companies want globally minded workers, as well. "Since so many companies are going global, it really helps," says Pat Schwallie-Giddis, president of the National Career Development Association. That's particularly true if the degree involves a new language or if the program is in an industry hot spot.
Although technology has eased the difficulties of conducting the job search from afar, geography matters. Most employers still focus their recruiting efforts on their home markets, so students getting a degree in Hong Kong will find themselves recruited mainly by Asian, rather than American, firms. And a job seeker's network, crucial to the job hunt, will develop wherever the most time is spent.
On one hand, that can make a foreign degree particularly valuable for students interested in careers that span continents. Chicago native David Gleicher finished his master's in public policy at Berlin's Hertie School of Governance on a Friday last May. The following Monday, he started a new job as a project officer at nonprofit think tank Global Health Europe in Geneva, where he works to strengthen European engagement in global health policy and governance. "If I was fresh off the boat, they most definitely wouldn't have been interested in me. It's the fact that I have experience on both sides of the pond that is an asset," says Gleicher.
Students returning home, however, face the challenge of hiring managers who generally would recognize a small school in Alabama more readily than one in Argentina. "A confused mind says 'No.' If someone doesn't know what kind of school it is, they'll go to what they do know," says Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, a career expert for Vault.com. Much of the problem is mitigated by recognizable foreign schools such as Cambridge or Oxford, she says, but not all of it.
One way to improve your chances is to frame the university for the hiring manager. For example, you might state the school's ranking or acceptance rate high on the résumé. And to avoid any hiccups with qualifications translating back to the United States, particularly with more technical degrees, students should contact companies they might want to work for before going abroad to make sure their credentials will be accepted.
In the end, career consultants say that what makes or breaks any application is not whether a degree was earned abroad or at home but why the choice was made—and if it's compatible with the individual's personality and goals. For students who want to live outside of their comfort zones and learn more than the contents of their textbooks, heading abroad just might be the right decision.