Postgraduate Study in the USA

The types of postgraduate course offered by US graduate schools are similar to the UK, i.e. masters and doctoral (PhD) degree courses.

Masters degrees may be academic or professional and typically last two years.

PhDs commonly take at between five and seven years to complete.

US courses in law  and US courses in medicine result in USA-specific professional qualifications that are not automatically recognised internationally.

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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 are funded by the government. Public universities are usually large institutions and often have a high proportion of in-state residents. Tuition fees can be less than those at private universities, and the large numbers of taught courses can open up more opportunities to fund study through teaching. Examples include 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. However, they may have better facilities and a greater number of scholarships on offer. Examples are Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.

“Ivy league” 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.

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 at Harvard University offers one year’s study without the award of a degree. Funding is available only through scholarships or self-funding.

First decide on a subject and level of study that interests you. Our advice on why study further may be helpful. For professional courses, such as law or medicine, check with the relevant professional body that a US qualification is valid internationally unless you plan to remain in the US.

Generate a list of institutions that offer your chosen subject using online university search engines such as Petersons, or Hotcourses Abroad. The US education experts, the Fulbright Commission, suggest considering the following to refine your list to a manageable shortlist:

  • Suitability of the course
    Consider faculty expertise, the course structure on offer, the size, and the atmosphere. Identify good courses or research groups by talking to academics who are active in your 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 apply 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
    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. 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
    For many the availability of funding will be a deciding factor. Explore funding possibilities early.

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

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.
  • Recommendations – References carry great weight in your application, and are worth discussing carefully with your chosen referees. Universities usually ask for written comments from three referees. These could all be Oxford tutors who know your academic abilities well.
  • Official Transcripts of your university exam results. For Oxford students these are available from the e-Document service.
  • Application fee – A non-refundable fee of $50-$125 for each institution you apply to.

Degree class conversion to GPA

We are often asked by students how their UK degree classification compares to the US Grade Point Average (GPA) system.

Many American universities are familiar with the UK grading system. However, a few could ask for your degree score expressed as equivalent GPA. You might also find this useful in understanding the typical entry standards for each course.

Translation to GPA  is not exact. 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.

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 UK ENIC.

Applications timeline

  • 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.

Results from standardised tests often form part of the admissions criteria for US universities. For some courses these are a compulsory part of the application process, for others they may be optional or not required. Where a test is optional consider carefully whether it is likely to significantly add value to your application and worth the considerable investment of time and money that sitting the tests will require. Talk things through with a Careers Adviser if you are unsure.

The most commonly required test is the general GRE. There are also 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 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.


The GRE General Test is a computer-based 3hr45min test on verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. These can be taken at a test centre or at home. 

A new shorter, cheaper GRE test is also available from late September 2022. Check carefully which GRE your chosen institutions require.

  • Most students sit the test over the summer or early in the Michaelmas term prior to submitting applications for winter deadlines.
  • Tests are administered by ETS. You will need to register with ETS for the GRE test (and choose your test date).
  • The cost of the test ($220 in 2023) 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.
  • Scores are reportable for five years following your test date.

Preparation for the GRE

  • Download a practice GRE test for free from test provider ETS.
  • Many organisations offer GRE information and advice online. The GoGrad's GRE Guide  is particularly comprehensive.It includes an overview of the test, preparation tips and links to practice tests and other resources.
  • Many books are available.

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 Princeton Review and ETS (the official administrator of the GRE).

Study at US universities can be expensive. You need 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 factor in 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.


  • Application and visa expenses
    Admissions tests – most people will need to sit the GRE, costing up to $220. 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 graduate students at universities in the USA 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: All-discipline awards covering tuition fees and a living stipend offered for the first year of postgraduate or doctoral study, or for 'special student research' 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, anthropology and more. Fulbright also offer a number of awards for study at specific universities. Note, these may have different closing dates. Fulbright Commissions can be found in a number of countries and may each run award programmes for citizens of that country. The deadline for awards for UK students going to the USA is currently end of May (i.e. May 2024 for 2025-26 entry).
  • Thouron Awards: up to 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 usually the beginning of November.
  • Kennedy Scholarships: 12 awards to cover tuition fees plus a means-tested bursary of up to $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 usually in 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 usually in October.
  • Knight-Hennessey Scholarships: 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". Deadline usually very early in October.
  • 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 usually February.
  • 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 usually mid-November.
  • Henry Fellowships: Awards of $34 000 plus tuition fees to support study as a Special Student at Harvard or Yale. Deadline usually early-February.
  • Proctor Fellowships: Awards of $28 333 plus tuition fees to support study at Princeton University. Deadline usually 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).

The Fulbright Commission guide to funding your studies in the USA 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.

Relevant Events

Check for dates on CareerConnect.

  • Postgraduate Study in North America, general session on applying to graduate courses in the USA and Canada, 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.


  • The Fulbright Commission – set up to advise UK citizens about education in the USA. They often run seminars which are well worth attending. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter for up-to-date news, events and reminders. Recordings of webinars are available on the US-UK Fulbright YouTube channel.
  • 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: MITUC BerkeleyUNC, and Yale.


Examples of specific scholarships

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