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Postgraduate Study in the USA | The Careers Service Postgraduate Study in the USA – Oxford University Careers Service
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US universities and courses on offer

Students choose the States for many diverse reasons – you may want to discuss your motivations with your tutor or a Careers Adviser before taking the plunge.

There are over 1,700 US universities offering postgraduate degrees, so choosing to study in the USA opens up a huge number of choices – and decisions to make. There are two main types of university in the US:

  • Public (state) universities, which are state-funded. Public universities are usually large institutions and often have a higher proportion of in-state residents. Tuition fees are often less than those at private universities, and the large numbers of taught courses can open up more opportunities to fund study through teaching. Examples are Penn State, UCLA and the University of North Carolina.
  • Private universities are funded through private donations, tuition fees and grants. Private universities are usually smaller and more expensive to attend than public universities, but may have better facilities and a greater number of scholarships on offer. Examples are Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.

You may also have come across terms such as Ivy league which refers to a group of eight of the oldest private institutions with a perception of prestige. While many of them do feature highly in rankings note that there are many other equally well-respected universities in the USA. Fulbright produce a useful overview of these, and the other types of university in the USA.

The range of postgraduate courses offered in the USA are similar to that offered in the UK, i.e. Masters and doctoral (PhD) degree courses. Masters degrees may be academic or professional and typically last two years, PhDs typically take at least 5 years to complete (more on this below). Note that Law and Medicine courses result in professional qualifications that are only recognised in the USA, and are not often internationally transferable.

Differences between courses in the US and UK

  • Course flexibility – US courses are often flexible with elective modules that allow you to tailor your study to suit your academic interests.
  • PhDs take longer in the US – US doctoral programmes follow taught courses for one to two years, followed by research leading to a dissertation. Exemptions from taught courses may be possible. PhDs are difficult to finish in less than five to six years.
  • Special Student Status – unique to Harvard University, it offers one year’s study without the award of a degree. Funding is available only through scholarships or self-funding.
Choosing where to study

First decide on a subject and level of study that interests you through discussions with tutors, careers advisers and others. If you are considering a professional course, such as Law, check with the relevant professional body that a US qualification is valid in your home country if you might ultimately want to return and work there.

It is straightforward to generate a list of institutions that offer your chosen subject using online university search engines – such as Petersons, or Hotcourses Abroad. You will then need to refine your list to a manageable size. The US education experts, the Fulbright Commission, suggest considering the following:

  • Suitability of the course
    Consider faculty expertise, the course structure on offer, the size, and the atmosphere. The best way to identify a good course or research group is by talking to academics who are active in that subject area. Start with your tutor and other members of your department and ask for their recommendations. Contact US departments directly to talk to academics about the nature of the course, likelihood of funding, and career prospects afterwards. Building a relationship with potential supervisors is particularly important for those wanting to study for a PhD.
  • Location and campus setting/size
    Would you prefer the East Coast with its cultural and social similarity to the UK, the laidback, lower cost of living in the South and Midwest, or the more liberal lifestyle of the West Coast? Climate and natural surroundings are diverse. Campus settings can be urban, suburban or rural and as an international student you could be one of many, or a rarity depending on your choice of institution.
  • Competitiveness of admission, reputation and accreditation
    You might want to consider the reputation of the institution – possibly by consulting published rankings – but remember, the US doesn’t have a system of published ‘league tables’. Rankings are usually published by companies with commercial interests (i.e. selling magazines), and may have more ‘brand-name’ cachet than substance. Not all fields/programmes will have rankings – humanities courses are generally given short shrift in these types of rankings. The Carnegie Classifications are used by higher education researchers, and might provide some data to help in your decision. Consider a well-rounded shortlist of institutions – perhaps one to two highly competitive universities and three to four universities where your academic credentials are towards the upper end of typical entrants. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation hosts a database of accredited universities and colleges.
  • Costs and funding
    The likely availability of funding could be a key factor. This is explored below.
Application process

There is no central clearing-house for applications to US universities. Each university has different requirements, which you must check!

There is no limit to the number of courses you can apply to, but applications are time-consuming and costly, so aim for a final shortlist of 3-5.

A typical application consists of:

  • Statement of Purpose (or an Admissions Essay) – Often a 500 to 1,000-word essay on why you want to study that subject at that university. These take time to perfect, expect to go through many drafts and ask for feedback from relevant academics, peers and from a careers adviser. Consider attending the information session on Writing Applications for Graduate School held at the Careers Service each Michaelmas Term. There are many books and websites available offering advice on writing admissions essays – see the resources listed below for details, and see our further information on personal statements.
  • Standardised Test Results (e.g. GRE, GMAT, LSAT) – Most US (and many Canadian) universities ask for results of tests that you can arrange to sit in the UK. You need to register in advance, and pay a fee for each test you take. See the information below about Standardised Tests; and make use of the resources listed below.
  • Recommendations – References carry great weight in your application, and are worth discussing carefully with your chosen referees, usually Oxford tutors who know your academic abilities well.
  • Official Transcripts of your university exam results. For Oxford students these are available from the University online shop.
  • Application fee – A non-refundable fee of $50-$125 for each institution you apply to.

GPA Conversion

We are often asked by students how their UK degree classification compares to the US Grade Point Average (GPA) system. The translation is not exact, and you will find that different organisations give slightly different guidelines on comparative scores. As a very rough guide a UK First class degree is broadly equivalent to a GPA of 3.7-4.0; a 2.1 roughly 3.3-3.6; and a 2.2 roughly 2.7-3.2. Fulbright Commission GPA conversion guidelines has useful information on the US GPA system. Foreign Credits have a free GPA calculator which allows you to enter your exam results to get an estimate of your equivalent GPA score. In the unlikely event that you need an officially endorsed comparison try NARIC.

Applications timeline

Deadlines for applications and funding for postgraduate study in the US can be as early as October of the preceding year. It will take a considerable length of time to put together all the components of your applications. Realistically you need to start thinking about your choices in the summer preceding your final year at Oxford (if you want to move straight from Oxford to the States).

Summer preceding application: Find out about and choose courses. Explore funding; research application deadlines for funding opportunities. Take a GRE practice test to help you to determine how much test preparation you will need to do.

Late summer, early Michaelmas Term: Finalise choice of universities; start putting together application materials (including ordering transcripts). Register for tests if you haven’t already done so, and sit them.

  • Late Michaelmas Term, Christmas vacation: Submit applications (including funding applications if applicable).
  • Hilary Term: Attend interviews if applicable and make choices. Submit and follow-up any outstanding applications for funding.
  • Trinity Term: Apply for visas to study in the US and finalise practical arrangements.
Standardised tests

Results from standardised tests usually form part of the admissions criteria for US universities. Most courses require you to sit the general GRE, but there are also subject tests and other specialist tests such as the GMAT (for many MBA applications), LSAT (Law), MCAT (Medicine) and TOEFL/IELTS (English language proficiency). If you are applying for courses in Biochemistry, Biology, Chemistry, Maths, Physics, Psychology or English Literature then you may need to take a subject test as well as the general GRE.

A word of warning about subject tests…

Check test date availability well in advance as subject tests are only offered on handful of dates a year in some locations. Don’t sit a test unless your chosen institution specifically asks for it. You need to check the admissions requirements of your chosen course to determine which tests you need to take.

GRE

The GRE General Test is a computer-based 3hr45min test on verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing, taken at a test centre. The nearest test centres to Oxford are in London and Birmingham.

  • Most students sit the test over the summer or early in the Michaelmas term prior to submitting applications for Dec/Jan deadlines.
  • Register for the test (and choose your test date) on the ETS website
  • The cost of the test ($205 in 2017) includes sending scores to up to 4 institutions. Scores can be sent to others for a fee.
  • Scores take 10-15 days after the test date to reach each institution.
  • Retakes are allowed only once every 21 days.

Preparation for the GRE

  • Kaplan offer free practice tests on specific dates at their London test centre, as well as on the Kaplan website
  • Download a practice test for free from the ETS website
  • Many organisations offer GRE information and advice online. The GRE Guide from GoGrad is particularly comprehensive, and includes an overview of the test, preparation tips and links to practice tests and other resources.
  • Many books are available (we have a good selection in the Resource Library – see below).

A vast industry has grown up around test preparation offering courses online and in person, private tuition, access to test papers and feedback, examples include Kaplan, Princeton Review and ETS (the official administrator of the GRE).

Funding your study in the USA

Study at US universities can be expensive, and it is your responsibility to ensure that you will have the money available to take up an offer of a place. As well as your tuition and living expenses, you will need to also take into account transport to and from the USA and private health insurance. Other than self-funding, there are two main sources of funding for US postgraduate study: financial aid from universities, usually in the form of teaching or research assistantships, and scholarships from grant-awarding bodies such as trusts or charities.

Costs

  • Application and visa expenses
    Admissions tests – most people will need to sit the GRE, costing $205. Some may also need to sit a subject test at $150.
    Application fee – payable to each university you apply for, $50 – $125.
    Visa costs – typically $200.
  • Tuition fees
    Vary enormously according to the type of institution, and the course. Private universities are generally more expensive than public ones, and professional courses such as MBAs or JDs are much more expensive than academic programmes. Range typically $6k – $45k.
  • Living costs and other expenses
    Factor in room/board, books, transport, insurance, flights home, spending money etc. Most institutions give an example of a typical budget for graduate students to consider on their financial aid webpages.

Funding Sources

Graduate Assistantships

Around a third of international graduates in the US take on teaching, research, administrative or other responsibilities for up to 20 hours a week on campus, in return for a stipend and tuition fee waiver. The allocation of assistantships usually occurs annually, so for a course lasting more than a year it is unusual to have guaranteed funding for the whole period of your study. Your success in obtaining funding in this way will depend on your academic performance or on a competition. Note that at some institutions the application deadline for financial assistance is earlier than the application deadline for the course.

To find out more about the availability of paid work within the university, contact university departments directly: the departmental selection committee is mainly responsible for identifying which students will receive assistance. This is another reason to make sure you make contact and network with academics in your intended department.

Scholarships and other awards

Many organisations offer financial support to graduates of UK universities wanting to undertake postgraduate study in the US. These may be charities, trust funds or organisations whose purpose is to promote international exchange and understanding. Each awarding body sets its own eligibility criteria, which may be based on your nationality (e.g. Saint Andrew’s Society Awards), subject of study (e.g. Fulbright Awards) or US university (e.g. Kennedy Scholarships).

Applications for scholarships are usually separate from applications to universities, and many have earlier closing dates. The process typically consists of an application form (including a personal statement and study/research objective) followed by a panel interview. When writing applications it is important to keep in mind the ethos and objectives of the scholarship provider. Many expect you to become effective ambassadors for the programme and actively seek the qualities that they wish to promote.

A list of the major awards follows, but many more exist. Look at the funding pages of your chosen institution in the first instance, and the search engines – listed below under External Resources – to find others.

Major scholarships for study in the US

This information is given as a general guide; it is your responsibility to check deadlines and relevant information for each scholarship.

  • Fulbright Postgraduate Awards: Awards covering tuition fees and a living stipend offered to UK citizens for the first year of postgraduate or doctoral study, or for ‘special student research’, in any subject at any accredited US institution. Also subject-specific awards for journalism, medical studies, public policy, public administration, international law and human rights, risk analysis, biology, chemistry, physics, anthropolgy and more. Fulbright also offer a number of awards for study at specific universities, including Tufts (international law), U. Minnesota (Public policy), U. South Florida (various subjects), NYU (EMPA programmes) and Harvard (MBA). Note, these may have different closing dates. Non-UK citizens should apply through the Fulbright Commission in their country of citizenship. Deadline in 2017: 5 November.
  • Thouron Awards: 6-10 awards of $31,500 per year, for up to two years, for any graduate subject at the University of Pennsylvania for UK citizens who have graduated (or will graduate) from a UK university. Deadline in 2017: 1 November.
  • Kennedy Scholarships: 12 awards of $26,000 for any graduate programme, visiting fellowship for a PhD student or special status (non-degree programme) study at Harvard or MIT. Those applying must be UK citizens who are ordinarily resident in the UK and wholly or mainly educated in the UK. Deadline in 2017: 26 October.
  • Frank Knox Fellowships: 6 awards to cover tuition fees and living expenses for up to two years of graduate study (including special status) at Harvard for students from the UK, Australia, Canada or New Zealand. Deadline: late October.
  • Knight-Hennessey Scholarships: 100 (50 in first year) scholarships providing full funding to pursue any graduate degree at Stanford University and develop leadership and communication that will “empower you to work across disciplines and to scale creative solutions for complex challenges”. Students who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2013 or later are eligible to apply to the pioneer class of Knight-Hennessy Scholars. Deadline: 27 September 2017.
  • St Andrew’s Society Scholarships: 2 awards of $30,000 for graduate study at a US university in any subject for candidates who are Scottish by birth or descent and who have current knowledge of Scotland and Scottish current affairs and traditions in order to be good ambassadors for Scotland. Open to applicants who have just, or will, graduate from their first degree at Oxford, Cambridge or any Scottish university. Deadline: February.
  • Michael Von Clemm Fellowship: Awards to cover tuition fees, travel and subsistence for one year of study as a Special Student at Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Science. It is not intended for those wishing to study vocational subjects such as Business Administration or Law. Deadline: early November.
  • AAUW (Association of American University Women) Fellowships: Awards of $18,000 – $30,000 for graduate study in any subject and any university in the USA, for women who are not US citizens or permanent residents. Recipients are selected for academic achievement and demonstrated commitment to women and girls. Deadline: mid-November.
  • Henry Fellowships: Awards of $34 000 plus tuition fees to support study as a Special Student at Harvard or Yale. Deadline: early-February.
  • Proctor Fellowships: Awards of $28 333 plus tuition fees to support study at Princeton University. Deadline: early-February.

Got a place but no funding?

There are other options left, even if you have missed the deadlines for the sources of financial aid mentioned above. In the first instance contact the department that has offered you a place, to see if there are any untapped sources of funding. Alternatively, if no funding is forthcoming, you may want to consider deferring your entry for a year or carefully consider the pros and cons of taking out a loan such as a Career Development Loan. Some loan schemes are specifically aimed at international students studying in the USA (see, for example, Sallie Mae, Global Student Loan Corporation).

Have a look at the UK Fulbright Commission website, which might give you a few ideas. It not only lists US postgraduate scholarships and awards, but also has an excellent section on US postgraduate funding. You are also always encouraged to come and talk over your plans with a Careers Adviser.

Note that, before travelling to the US to undertake your study, you are likely to need to provide proof of funding for at least your first year of study, in order to obtain the necessary visas. The Careers Service does not provide visa advice. All necessary information can be obtained from the US Embassy or your US study institution.

Our resources

Books

The following books are available to read in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road.

  • Is Graduate School really for you?
  • Uni in the USA, the Definitive Guide to Universities in the USA
  • Applying to American Colleges and Universities, general information and advice on how to go about applying.
  • Road Map for Graduate Study, a short but useful book offering an overview of the application process from the perspective of former postgraduate admissions officers.
  • Getting into American Universities, this has an undergraduate focus but has a useful overview of the US University system.
  • International Handbook of Universities, complete list of degrees and diplomas at university-level institutions worldwide, including contact details, admission information, description of faculties.
  • Grants Register, complete guide to postgraduate funding worldwide.

Books on preparing for standardised tests

  • GRE – Practice Tests (McGraw-Hill)
  • Verbal workout for the new GRE (The Princeton Review)
  • Math workout for the new GRE (The Princeton Review)
  • 1,007 GRE Practice Questions (The Princeton Review)
  • GRE Premier 2014 (Kaplan)
  • GRE Strategies, practice and review 2014 (Kaplan)
  • Cracking the GRE – 4 full length practice tests 2014 (The Princeton Review)
  • The Official Guide to the GRE revised tests (McGraw-Hill)
  • GRE & GMAT Exams Writing Workbook (2005)
  •  Kaplan Test Prep Centre in London offer a free GRE diagnostic test once a month; visit their website for more information and booking.

Books on writing applications

  • Graduate Admissions Essays, guide to producing effective statements of purpose.

Relevant Events

Check for dates on CareerConnect.

  • Postgraduate Study in the USA, general session, usually runs in Trinity Term. Powerpoint slides are available to download.
  • Standardised tests for admissions to US universities, usually runs in Trinity Term.
  • Writing Applications for US Postgraduate Study, advice on writing effective application essays and personal statements, running in early Michaelmas Term.
  • Insight into Academia: a programme of lunchtime seminars on accessing graduate study and careers in academia.
External resources

General

  • US Educational Advisory Service at the Fulbright Commission – set up to advise UK citizens about education in the USA. They are open all year round, and often run seminars which are well worth attending if you miss out on the Careers Service talks. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter for up-to-date news, events and reminders.
  • Education USA – a US Government site with information about graduate study.
  • Petersons – one of the best-known postgraduate directories; this site includes a searchable database of postgraduate degree courses, allowing search by degree level, subject area and/or location.
  • Gradschool – an easy-to-navigate site, which allows you to search for courses by subject area and region of the US, with contact details and links to university websites.
  • Carnegie Foundation: Classifications – a research source used by academics containing empirical data on US higher education institutions.
  • The Grad Cafe – discussion forums and blogs covering the admissions process.
  • International Student guide to study in the USA.

Applications & tests

  • ETS: GRE – webpages for the GRE tests, the most commonly requested, including information on subject tests.
  • MBA – GMAT tests, for management and business courses.
  • LSAC – LSAT tests, for law courses.
  • AAMC: MCAT – webpages for the MCAT tests, for courses in medicine.
  • ETS: TOEFL – webpages for the TOEFL tests, for non-native English speakers to test proficiency at English – check with your intended institution whether you need to do this; a degree from a UK university should provide exemption.
  • US university career services often provide useful advice on writing graduate school admissions essays. See for example: MIT, UC Berkeley, UNC, and Yale.

Funding

Examples of specific scholarships

This information was last updated on 15 August 2017.
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