The postgraduate guide to studying abroad

Studying abroad
If you want to study abroad, where do you start? This guide will help you find your way.

Our guide to studying abroad explains what you need to do to secure a place on the course you want. We'll steer you through the process, from finding the right course and institution and exploring your funding options to preparing your applications.

As you research your options further, check out our country guides to studying abroad. For each country, you'll find out about the different types of postgraduate course on offer and get advice on how to apply, as well as information about fees, scholarships and visas. We also give you a brief overview of the universities in each country and the different kinds of institution you can choose from.

What qualifications do you need for postgrad study abroad?

You'll need to check whether your academic qualifications are acceptable to the institution you wish to apply to. A first, 2.1 or masters degree will meet most eligibility requirements for both further study and awards competitions. However, British first degree programmes can be shorter than elsewhere, and overseas universities may vary in how they interpret British qualifications and what level of study they see them as equivalent to. You can find out more about European qualification standards and equivalencies from the ENIC-NARIC website.

Find out if you need to take a Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). If so, you will need to submit your grade with your application. You can find sample questions and test preparation booklets on the relevant websites.

To make sure your new qualification will be useful back in the UK:

  • Check that your chosen institution is accredited. Use QS Top Universities or Times Higher Education (THE) to see rankings of universities worldwide.
  • If you are considering a professional qualification, make sure it is accepted in the UK (if you plan on returning).

How do you find the right course?

You can research your options and identify institutions and courses using the following resources:

  • Specialist careers fairs such as the TARGETpostgrad Study and Funding Fairs, which take place at locations around the UK between autumn and spring each year.
  • Your university careers service. Check if your university is offering any postgraduate fairs, which may include representatives from organisations that deal with postgraduate study abroad.
  • Individual institution websites.
  • Lecturers, tutors and other researchers in your department.
  • Some universities have strong relationships with particular universities overseas, and may even offer exchange programmes. You could find out about this from your department or the careers service.
  • Research journals and other specialist publications.
  • Fulbright Commission – institutions and courses in the USA.
  • Study Options – for Australia and New Zealand.

How much are tuition fees?

Overseas tuition fees vary widely between institutions, even those in the same country. Public education is heavily subsidised in much of Europe and as an EU citizen you should pay no more than domestic students. However, applying for courses in some other parts of the world can be very expensive, even just to apply. You will also probably have to pay for a visa application. Remember that outside the EU you will be classed as an international student, which often means higher tuition fees.

You should also take into account your living expenses, accommodation, books and resources, travel including airfares, personal expenses and health insurance (which some universities require you to purchase). It is important to consider all these possible expenses in advance. Expense estimates can be found on some university websites.

How do you find funding for postgrad study abroad?

Many awards and scholarship schemes are specific to a particular institution or country. Find some common sources of funding by contacting the institution you are considering and through the following organisations:

  • Association of Commonwealth Universities – provides scholarships, awards and fellowships.
  • Fulbright Commission – awards are available for the first year of postgraduate or doctoral study or for special student research in any subject at accredited US institutions. Approximately 30 scholarships are offered each year.

If the costs of undertaking a PhD overseas seem prohibitive it may be worth considering spending short periods abroad as part of a PhD. The Wellcome Trust offers a collaborative PhD with the National Institutes of Health in the USA.

Networking can help you find out about opportunities, so be sure to join any relevant professional or subject associations, as these may have international contacts and affiliations.

How do you apply for postgraduate courses abroad?

You may be asked to provide some or all of the following during the application process:

  • CV and covering letter
  • Application form
  • Academic transcript and degree certificates
  • Letters of recommendation (references)
  • Results of aptitude tests or language ability tests
  • Essays, statements of purpose or research proposals
  • Health certificates
  • Evidence of financial support
  • There may also be other background checks, such as a criminal records check.

Most departments will ask why you have chosen a particular subject and institution. Make sure you include evidence of thoughtful consideration of how your move fits in with your long-term aims, as well as your current academic strengths and interests. There is likely to be tough competition, especially for awards and scholarships.

When should you apply for postgrad study overseas?

An early start and thorough preparation will maximise your chances of both an offer of a place and funding. Familiarise yourself with the closing dates for applications as these can vary enormously. Even where there is an academic year system, courses may begin and end at different times from those in the UK. Below is a suggested timetable for preparing and making applications:

24–18 months in advance: research your options and plan ahead

  • Identify possible areas of study and appropriate institutions.
  • Attend your nearest TARGETpostgrad Postgraduate Study and Funding Fair.
  • Attend open days, such as postgraduate study seminars offered by the Fulbright Commission.
  • Check if your careers service has scheduled any talks or events on overseas study.
  • Browse your careers service website and check notice boards, including those in your academic department.
  • Investigate eligibility, degree or qualification equivalence, and any language or visa requirements.
  • Research the financial arrangements you'll need to make and plan a timetable of action to meet application deadlines.
  • If applicable, find out what level of language proficiency you will need and allow time to acquire this before beginning the course. Some countries offer short language courses for foreign students.

18–12 months in advance: finalise your choices

  • Speak to staff members in your department who have experience in your proposed areas of study or research, or who are familiar with the country where you hope to study.
  • Confirm that referees can provide the references you need.
  • Apply for any required standardised tests, such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT).

Final 12 months: apply for places and funding and finalise arrangements

  • Continue your research and make applications.
  • Familiarise yourself with application procedures and closing dates. Make sure you allow enough time to collect any references, transcripts and standardised test results.
  • Apply for funding.

AGCAS editors, April 2014