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Graduate School: Overseas or at Home?

Picking the right graduate program is critical to a successful experience, and as our work becomes increasingly global, there are many more options than just the traditional programs in our home countries. How do you decide where to attend graduate school? Ultimately, you want to learn the research process, expand your job-applicable skills, and improve your technical skills. Some key considerations might be your family’s location, your financial situation, your language skills, and the job you’re interested in post-grad school.

If you already know that you want to live and work overseas, or even work for a global company, having had the experience of studying in another country may give you a leg up on your competition, in addition to the skills necessary to navigate cultures different from your own in the workplace. We offer the following food for thought.

Why I Pursued a Graduate Degree in the U.S.

By Emily L. Ongstad, Ph.D., SWE Editorial Board

As I was nearing the end of my bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering at Michigan Technological University, I began looking for Ph.D. programs in engineering. After several years of research experience as an undergrad — at Michigan Tech as well as summer programs at other universities — I had developed a passion for research. Through my searching and discussions with professors at my university, I learned that selecting a graduate school was entirely different from selecting an undergraduate program. The key to success in grad school depends on who your advisor is: Can they mentor students; will they challenge you; and do they have the skills, expertise, or at least the connections to help you make a successful post-degree transition (whether into an academic position or otherwise)? Do I stay in the U.S., or go overseas? While there were certainly many benefits of pursuing a degree abroad, I preferred to stay in the U.S., where my family was.

So, I dug into the details of U.S.-based programs.

A major draw of U.S.-based programs was that, at most institutions, I could enroll directly as a Ph.D. student without the requirement for a master’s degree first. The reputation of the faculty at U.S.-based universities, as well as the prominence of the universities themselves, were also big draws. As for timelines, I knew I was likely in for a long haul — while a master’s degree might be completed in two years in the U.S., science and engineering Ph.D.s often take six years. While a shorter timeline would have been preferable, there’s also a length of time required to master the research process.

The financial aspects of U.S. Ph.D. programs in STEM were also appealing. Having taken loans to fund my undergraduate education, I was hoping my graduate education would be more affordable. Research-based engineering programs in the U.S. are often fully funded by your advisor’s grant funding. This was true for some research-based master’s degree programs as well. So, not only would I not need to worry about paying for graduate school, but I would also likely receive a small stipend to complete my Ph.D.

Not knowing exactly where I wanted to end up after graduate school, it seemed smart to ensure that I had contact with both industry and academic options. A few of the programs of interest were located near medical device, biotech, and pharmaceutical company hot spots. Ultimately, I narrowed it down to a handful of U.S.-based faculty and graduate programs that fit the bill. By the time I completed graduate school, I had received excellent training all around and successfully transitioned into a position in the pharmaceutical industry.

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“Why I Pursued a Graduate Degree in the U.S.” was written by Emily L. Ongstad, Ph.D., a cardiovascular research scientist at AstraZeneca, PLC. She is a biomedical engineering honors graduate of Michigan Technological University and holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in bioengineering from Clemson University. Dr. Ongstad has served as the SWE MAL president and as a member of the SWE editorial board since FY18. This article appears in the Winter 2020 issue of SWE Magazine.


Pursuing a Graduate Degree Overseas

By Rishelle Wimmer, SWE Editorial Board

Veronika Haaf has a skill set that is “like the Swiss army knife of data science analytics and machine learning,” and she puts her talents to good use at the Salzburg, Austria, data science startup Cognify.

Haaf completed her MSc degree in applied image and signal processing at the joint study program sponsored by the FH Salzburg University of Applied Sciences and the Paris Lodron University of Salzburg. When asked about her decision to do her graduate studies in Salzburg, she explained that while completing her BSc in applied computer science and media informatics, she began looking for a graduate degree program that would address her interests in media informatics (how digital signals are collected, used, transformed, stored, and organized).

One day when looking through the newspaper at the Bauhaus University in Weimar (former East Germany), she stumbled across an ad for the applied image and signal processing master’s degree program in Salzburg. The program is offered in English and attracts many international students. The concept appealed to her desire to study abroad and have an international experience, but still keep within her budget. The tuition costs of many European universities are offset by public financing, keeping fees low for the students.

The degree program was especially attractive because of the class size (fewer than 20 students), with a low ratio of students to professors.

Haaf offered the following reflections and observations, hoping to offer insight into her decision and the benefits she experienced:

  • “Primarily I was looking for a graduate program that would best address my subject interests. I figured you could make any place your home, and if you didn’t like it, you could leave. Of course, Salzburg has a great deal of natural and cultural beauty, but that wasn’t my main focus. I’m a hands-on person, who is interested in solving problems and becoming more proficient in my area of study.
  • Although Germany and Austria share a common language and border, I was still out of my comfort zone, but that was why I’d chosen to study in another country. Living so far away from my family and familiar surroundings, I got to learn a lot about myself and other people and cultures.
  • Changing countries and universities also gave me a new perspective on my subject area and how much I know (or don’t know). Being in an international graduate program also gave me a global perspective on knowledge and understanding in my field. Each international student brought a different view of similar topics.”

Cultural Differences and Expectations

“While doing research and writing my master’s thesis, I had the opportunity to study for a semester at the University of Massachusetts Amherst,” Haaf said. “Studying or working abroad also gives you the chance to gain new perspectives on simple, everyday things — like greeting people. At home and even in Austria, when people asked, ‘How are you?’ they actually expected you to give them an answer because they were interested in your well-being. But in the U.S., this was more like a hello. Simple things like that made me more aware of cultural differences and expectations from both my viewpoint and the other person’s perspective.”

Haaf added, “I have to say, I did become more aware of how I navigate through a new environment, compared to when I’m in familiar territory. After these intercultural encounters, I tried to be more cautious and sensitive to how people do things and what they expect of me.”

In conclusion, studying abroad has many advantages and unique learning opportunities, including the chance to grow beyond your comfort zone. You have the opportunity to develop intercultural awareness and competence in relationships, gain global perspectives in your research field, and expand your professional network. Pursuing a graduate degree in another country provides opportunities that just can’t be replicated at home.

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“Pursuing a Graduate Degree Overseas” was written by Rishelle Wimmer, a senior lecturer in the information technology and systems management department of the FH Salzburg University of Applied Sciences. She studied operation research and system analysis at Cornell University and holds a master’s degree in educational sciences from the University of Salzburg. She currently serves on the SWE editorial board and the research advisory council and has been the faculty advisor for the Salzburg SWE affiliate since FY17. This article appears in the Winter 2020 issue of SWE Magazine.

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