What You Should Know About Going to Grad School in the UK

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I used to think our neighbors (sorry, “neighbours”) across the pond in the UK were pretty much the same as us. Sure, they have what appears to be an illogical obsession with baked beans, drink A LOT more tea than we do, and say unusual things like “lorry” (is that a type of forest-dwelling elf?) and “blimey,” but basically we speak the same language and share the same culture… right? Well, yes and no. (More on that later.)

If you’re American, the UK is an ideal place to experiment with living and studying abroad. And if you didn’t get to travel as an undergrad, grad school can be a great way to get yourself over there without having to worry about finding a company to sponsor you or getting a working visa.

My experience living in the UK as a high school student, my love of McVitie’s Digestives (trust me: they’re much more delicious than they sound!), and the promise of international travel lured me to study at the University of Bath, where I went for an MA in Translation and Professional Language Skills.

Going to grad school in the UK remains one of my favorite periods of my life so far, but still it wasn’t all English roses and crumpets with the Queen. Here’s my advice for anyone considering going to grad school in the UK.

pulteney bridgeIconic Pulteney Bridge—one of the views I could enjoy every day when I studied in Bath.

Why go to grad school in the UK?

The Pros

  • You don’t have to take the GRE

This was a big one for me. I majored in Literature for my undergrad degree and the last math I’d had to do was in my “Physics for Poets” class—and I’m pretty sure I only passed that because of the hours of help I received from my excellent tutor. I was terrified of taking a standardized test with a math component to apply to grad school. Luckily, it’s not a requirement for UK universities.

  • Many programs are only one year instead of two

Generally speaking, I have always loved school. (Yes, I’m a big nerd who loves school. Deal with it.) But when it came time to apply to grad school, two years seemed like an incredibly long amount of time. And two years of tuition seemed like an awful lot to pay. I liked the fact that I could be in and out of grad school in a year. I realized that life in the UK would be more expensive than most places in the US, but I figured a single year there would probably still work out to be cheaper than two years at a US graduate institution. (Was this a financially sound prediction? Probably not. Hey, I just told you math is not my strong suit!)

  • International student body

Have you ever heard of Erasmus? If you haven’t now, I can guarantee you will after spending just a few days at any UK university. The Erasmus Programme basically allows students who live in the European Union (EU) to attend any other EU university for a year. This means that no matter where you go to school in Europe, you’ll have the opportunity to meet students from throughout the EU. Since I was studying Spanish and French, this was awesome for me because it was super easy to meet (and practice my language skills with) students from Spain and France (and Germany and The Netherlands, and… well, you get the picture). I also found that it was much easier to befriend Erasmus students because they were also living abroad for the year and looking to make new friends.

melissa and makiko picadillyPosing in Picadilly Circus on a day trip to London.

  • Travel opportunities

A flight from San Francisco to Paris takes about 13 hours and can easily set you back $1,000 (if not more). You can take a train from London to Paris and be there in less than two and a half hours and only down about $100. The opportunities for traveling within Europe are pretty mind-blowing, and the idea of being able to head to France or Spain to brush up on my language skills was a big reason why I chose to study in the UK.

melissa pragueIf you study in the UK, you, too can have the chance to wear silly hats and drink gigantic beers.

  • It’s easy to get a student visa (compared to a working visa)

Now I’m no immigration attorney, so please don’t take this as solid legal advice, but in my experience, getting a student visa for the UK was pretty simple. Getting a working visa, on the other hand? Not so simple. For a student visa, you basically need to have a letter from the institution you’ll be attending, some money in the bank, a few passport photos, and an application form. For a working visa, you need a company that’s willing to sponsor you, and they need to be able to prove that your knowledge and skills are so specialized that there’s no one else in the UK who could do that job. Since I was a recent grad with a few years of teaching English under my belt, I didn’t think my experience would really lend itself to a working visa.

I should mention that going as a student is a totally different experience from working somewhere. As a student, you’ll have a lot more free time and the built-in social network of classmates and other students, which is great for your social life. However, you will also have restrictions on how much you can work (if at all), which is not so great for your bank account. Which leads me to some of the reasons you might not want to study in the UK.

The Cons

  • Cost of living

Folks, the UK is expensive. The pound is stronger than the dollar, and yet many things cost the same number of pounds that they would in dollars. This means that if you’re converting your dollars into pounds, you’ll be going through them much faster than you’d like to. And you know what I was just saying about living abroad as a student? Yep, when you’re a student, you are spending the majority of your time studying, going to class, partying (I mean… “expanding your cultural horizons”), and basically doing things that are not earning you money. The high cost of living and the fact that you’re not contributing to your income in a significant way can quickly take their toll on your finances.

With my student visa, I was allowed to work part-time, but the amount I earned in a week only put a small dent in my living expenses. My advice if you’re going to study in the UK? Save up as much as you can ahead of time, and prepare yourself to make sacrifices along the way.

Remember what I said earlier about all that travel I was planning to do in Europe? Well, it turns out I could barely make it to London (the one-hour train journey cost about $50), let alone jaunt off to Paris or Barcelona.

  • It’s hard to stay in the UK after you finish

If you really enjoy your time in the UK, you might decide that you’d like to stay there after you graduate. Unfortunately, if you’re from the US and you don’t have any specialized and in-demand skills, you might find this practically impossible due to UK immigration laws. This is disappointing in and of itself, but there’s more.

One of the big reasons that people go to grad school in the US is to build their network. (This is especially true at Ivy League schools, but I think it holds true for most institutions and programs.) If you have to move away from the country where your alma mater is located, it really dilutes the power of that network. You may stay in touch with your close friends and be able to attend the occasional event that’s held near where you live, but you probably won’t feel as in tune with the school and its alumni as you would if you lived nearby.

melissa bath cathedralHey, look! It’s not always raining in England! Here I am on a warm day enjoying the view of Bath Abbey from across the river.

  • Cultural differences can make it hard to make friends

I’m a little embarrassed that I managed to live in the UK for several years without fully realizing this, but Americans and Brits are very different in the way that they relate to each other. For example, when two Americans meet for the first time, we generally get to know each other by asking questions about where the other person is from, what they do, etc. Brits tend to dislike these types of questions because they find them rude and intrusive. They’d much rather talk about a neutral topic (like the weather) and slowly share pieces of information about themselves on their own terms.

To learn more about this (and prepare yourself for socializing with Brits), I highly recommend Watching the English by Kate Fox. One of my British friends lent this to me toward the end of my year in Bath and I was kicking myself for not finding it sooner. It explained so much about all the mis-steps and faux pas I’d been making without even realizing it!

A Few Surprises

One of the pleasures (and frustrations) of living abroad is all those discoveries you make about things that are just not the same as they are back home. Here are a few of the surprises I experienced during my time in the UK as a grad student.

  • How different UK and US English are

I knew that there were some obvious differences between UK and US English like “color” and “colour” and “center” and “centre,” and even that some everyday words were different, like “lift” instead of “elevator.” But I had no idea about all the subtle differences in expressions and usage (did you know that Brits say “in future” rather than “in the future”?). Depending on your major, this might not be too much of a concern. In my case, though, I was studying editing and professional language skills, so these small distinctions came up frequently. I don’t think any of my professors counted it against me, though some of my classmates did enjoy schooling me in “proper” English.

  • Where you shop/what you like says a lot about you

One day I went to a friend’s house and his mother offered me a cup of tea. She asked me what type I would like and offered Earl Grey or chamomile. I don’t like either of those, so I asked her if she just had plain black tea. It was as though I had spit on the kitchen floor. “You don’t want to drink that,” she explained condescendingly. “We call that ‘builders’ tea.’” Here I thought I was being agreeable by asking for something plain and simple, but she thought that my preference wasn’t sophisticated enough. I think this was an extreme example, but in Watching the English, I learned that classes are much more distinct in the UK than they are in the US, and what you eat or drink and where you shop is a strong indication of what class you belong to.

  • The power of the “fancy dress” party

If you get invited to a “fancy dress” party in the UK, there’s no need to break out your tuxedo or ball gown. A fancy dress party is what we’d call a “costume party” or “theme party” in the US (or just your average Tuesday here in San Francisco). And like the original carnivals, where everything got turned on its head, a fancy dress party seems to provide a setting where people in the UK can finally let go of their inhibitions and the normal rules do not apply. Definitely a highlight of the UK experience!

Homework time! If you’re thinking about going to grad school (in the UK or anywhere else), make a list of your priorities. What is most important to you about the experience? What are things that you would enjoy but be willing to compromise on? Once you come up with your list, you can research your options and see what makes the most sense for you.


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