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Picking a Graduate Program Overseas: A cross-cultural, cross-sectoral journey

This blog is part of PCDNetwork’s career in change 2017 series. Click here for information on all the activities, webinars, blogs and ways to participate.

This month’s career series is sponsored by Rotary’s Peace Fellowship program (more information is below)

A bit of background … I decided to switch over from the corporate sector to the social sector in Summer 2012; at the time I was working in financial consulting (with EY). Unsure of where exactly I was going with this socially-oriented aspiration, I first talked to my friends before starting to research any programs. Over the next couple of years, gaining some incredible experience at my full time job, I decided to pursue at Master’s degree in Sustainable Development Practice at TERI University, India. I started the program in 2015 and graduated in June 2017. Below are a few pointers I would like to highlight from my experience about picking a Grad program overseas.

 

  1. Geography: Whether your field is sustainable development, peace and conflict resolution, international relations or something similar, having a geographical focus is critical in the beginning few years in order to first ‘master your art’. Once one has gained a level of expertise, it can be applied in other areas or geographies. My focus was to work on the social / sustainability issues in India; therefore, picking a program that includes India / South Asia as the focus was top priority for me. I looked at several programs in US, Europe and (of course) India. It was soon clear that a program in India would provide me with the contextual understanding required to work here; this includes learning from local case studies, field trips, connecting with NGOs here, acclimating to the policies and political climate etc. Other international programs focused a few courses or at most 1 semester on India/South Asia, which seemed insufficient to me. Moreover, being immersed in the culture where you are going to work helps tremendously (I had some advantage here since I am from India).

 

  1. Syllabus and Professors: It is extremely critical for a program to be academically strong, in terms of the syllabus / pedagogy covered and Professors involved. This may prop up some discussions of the role of ‘brand name’ of the University, as its brand and academic robustness may not always be synonymous. If this is the case, I give more weight to the latter, and hence have highlighted its importance here. During your review, assess the courses offered, theories covered, practical / field work component (if applicable), as well as the skills you can gain during the program. Eventually, honing a couple of skills or developing competencies will help boost your career in the long-run. Additionally, check books/academic articles published by the Professors and try to gauge how accessible they are from a student’s perspective (of course you will need to know people personally to extract this information, hence, networking!)Draw up a list of things you think are important and assess whether your target programs adequately cover these.

 

  1. Financials: It does come down to money at some point, doesn’t it? Assessing the cumulative costs of the program (tuition, cost of living, etc.) and your options to pay for it (loans, savings, etc.) is critical while considering a program overseas. Firstly, program costs differ significantly from one region to the next (for instance, my program cost at TERI U was about 1/8th of its equivalent in the US). Secondly, depending on the country you choose / your country of citizenship / your nationality, financing options will vary quite a bit. For instance, hailing from India provides me an edge while applying for students loans here; however, I cannot avail any of the grants/Federal loans from US for a Master’s program in India (disclosure: I have an OCI card in India and a US citizenship). In terms of planning, I would strongly suggest to layout your cash flows for the two years (or more) that you are planning to be enrolled in Grad school, preferably on a quarterly basis. This will help in figuring out how much capital you need (tuition + cost of living), at what point (say, semester start for tuition), from where can you inject it (your savings, fixed deposits etc.) and so forth.

 

Apart from the three major areas above, here are a few other considerations that should be made while selecting an overseas Grad Program.

  • Recognition – Other than checking the University / program rankings, talk to people from your target country; make connections, find friends of friends etc. in order to find people who would be knowledgeable about your program of interest.
  • Placements – The Program’s placement record is a great place to start, but also check out their Alumni, news coverage about them (if available), and speak to them if possible. Making a few connections never hurts.
  • Affiliations – Check whether the University, its programs, departments etc. are affiliated with other organizations / companies / Govt. departments related to your area of interest. This can help gain some leverage in that region in the future (for internships and jobs).

 

Finally, it is important to operationalize all the knowledge you are gathering on program selection (such as this blog and several other sources) into something that is directly usable in selecting a course. For instance, start by writing down the purpose of pursuing Grad school, dream out a few years to envision yourself and what you would be doing, draft a few ‘areas of growth’ for yourself, then list down a bunch of criteria for each area and assess Grad programs against these criteria. Blogs like this one can help you strengthen your selection criteria and help select the right program.

 

Concluding note: It is worthwhile to assess whether a Grad degree is even needed at this stage in your career. As Musk says, a “well thought out critique” of what you are doing is always useful. So make sure that the program you are pursuing really helps you shift or transform your current capabilities into better ones, to help achieve your professional goal. It may happen that another alternative (such as switching your job or taking a sabbatical in the Far East) is better and cheaper than committing yourself to two years of academia.

 

About myself: I was born and raised in India, and have lived in US for 8 years, before moving back to India in 2015 for a Master’s program. During this transition phase from a corporate job to the development sector, I have worked with PCDN as a part-time consultant for almost three years now, in the space of business development, strategy, and operations, I am currently working in Economic Development with Swades Foundation in the interior areas of Maharashtra, India. Feel free to reach out with any questions.

 

 
The fully funded Rotary Peace Fellowship increases the capacity of current and emerging peace leaders through academic training, field experience, and professional networking. Up to 100 leaders are selected globally every year to earn either a master’s degree or a professional development certificate in peace and conflict studies at one of six Rotary Peace Centers at leading universities around the world. Applications go live in early February and the application deadline is 31 May. Learn more today by visiting www.rotary.org/peace-fellowships

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