Grad School in the UK: My Two Pence

Apparently I was totally lying in April when I said I was going to get back into blogging. I find other blogs to be a useful resource, untainted by the cut-and-paste tactics more mainstream outlets increasingly employ, and using this space has been a nice way to connect with likeminded people. So: welcome back to my self-indulgent rambling.

Are you from the US and thinking of applying to grad school in the UK? With the full benefit of retrospect, I can now give you some pros and cons of going to grad school in the kingdom of EIIR:


-This will of course depend on the type of program you’re looking at, but in my case a graduate degree at a British school with a good international reputation cost somewhere between 1/3 and 1/7 what it would have cost at any of the American schools that accepted me, even once I factored in the need- and merit-based scholarships the American schools offered me (that the British schools did not– international students are cash cows for UK unis because they can charge them a higher fee).

-The cost difference is partly due to the length of the program. British graduate programs tend to be one official full year while American ones tend to be one and a half to two years. In my case, earning a master’s degree more quickly and intensively made sense because I’m an older student with several years of professional experience who was looking for a quick CV and expertise boost.

-The exchange rate hasn’t been this good in years. I remember visiting the UK not so long ago and having to multiply all the listed prices by two. It’s hovered around 1.3 the entire time I’ve been here. A very narrow and selfish silver lining to the geopolitical nightmare that is Brexit is that I got a massive tuition discount…imagine me, sitting at my computer as I watched the pound plummet, then hitting “submit payment” on my tuition transfer when it bottomed out.

-Several of my classmates have been able to use their student visas as launchpads into longer-term, visa-sponsored work in the UK. This is definitely not a guarantee, but it is a possibility.


-The shorter length of the program also meant that it was an absolute whirlwind. Consequently I had less time to build relationships and accomplish academic goals, and at times the course felt a bit like a degree machine: there just wasn’t as much of the personal attention I was used in the States. If you’re my age (I know all the words to “Everybody” aka “Backstreet’s Back”), with an idea of what you want and how to get it, this isn’t crippling because you can make the program work for you and be more proactive in seeking opportunities. If you’re younger or inexperienced, you might want a bit more hand-holding.

-Teaching and assessment is very hands-off. In most classes, the result of just one assignment determines your final grade. I think that this is ridiculous.

Visa rules on what work you can and can’t do as a student are very strict and confusing. It can often feel like the UK is telling you, “hand me your money, and get the hell out.” If you don’t have some savings, it can, frankly, be tough to finance your day-to-day. I used a combination of personal savings and student loans to pay my way, and eventually got a part-time job here. Other people seemed to have better luck navigating the system, but I found it pretty obtuse. I do understand that there need to be restrictions on foreign workers– however, paying tuition and health insurance surcharges can be prohibitively expensive without an income…

-I come from a pretty analytical background in the social sciences, so was surprised by how much of a focus on theory there was in my MSc program. I would have preferred a bit more of an empirical grounding to some of the concepts we covered, a bit more practical application. However, this may actually be a pro depending on your goals.

Did I make the right choice? 

I’ve dreamed of living in the UK for a long time. Having worked in France for several years, I was ready to experience a new place where my native language wasn’t such an obstacle. As much as I loved the challenge and excitement of tackling life in a second language, I was curious about what it would be like to be an expat without this filter (there are of course other cultural filters, but language is a particularly strong one that can dominate the others). Plus, the UK has long occupied prime real estate in the landscape of my imagination. I’m not sure you can consume the amount of British or British-inspired media that I did as a child and not feel an eerie connection to London’s enchanting tangle of streets, visit Scotland as a young adult with a penchant for myths and mist and not feel your heart would never beat quite as well elsewhere.

Adjacent to this secret wish to live in the UK at least once was a desire to go back to school, one I’d put off for a really long time because it’s so insanely expensive to fulfill in the US. I was never going to work in finance, so I always figured it would be absolute madness to take out loans for graduate school to the tune of as much as $100K. Although the wait was somewhat unintentional and some of my youngest classmates made me feel like an ancient human ruin, there were some bonuses to going back to school as a haggard old woman: I was less shy with my opinions in class, I was able to better contextualize what I was learning, and I had a more informed idea of how I might be able to use my graduate work in the future.

A year on, I’ve (unofficially, barring any dissertation marking disasters) got my degree, for significantly less than it would have cost in the US. I have a number of academic writing samples I can use in applications for future opportunities, and I learned some new research techniques. I met people from all over the world and made London a little bit my own. For me, the gains well outweighed the losses.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Rosie says:

    I spent the summer crossing my fingers that the EUR-GBP exchange rate would stay favourable, as it meant my earnings in France were worth more when converted back into pounds! Now it’s not quite so convenient, as travel outside the UK is more expensive, but such is life… Interesting to hear your perspective on post-grad courses in the UK – even at undergrad it’s not uncommon to have entire modules assessed by just one assignment/exam.

    Liked by 1 person

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