Attending university can stimulate interests and is crucial for developing a deeper understanding of subjects. However, with a myriad of options, it can be difficult to select which program is the right fit for you. Applicants interested in Masters programs often have an opportunity to choose among tracks, including coursework, research training or a combination of both. Other important factors to consider when applying include language requirements, entrance tests, pre-admission interviews, selecting a host laboratory, funding opportunities and adhering to all deadlines in the graduate application process. In a Master's degree program, you obtain more research experience, which can subsequently lead to better PhD opportunities. Furthermore, applicants have the opportunity to explore interdisciplinary coursework or, if necessary, switch major fields of study.
This article will provide information on how to select graduate programs based on learning methods, eligibility criteria, funding sources, and the opportunities available outside of the USA. This guide was written for Masters programs, but some points will also apply to PhD programs outside the USA as well. Following are the three primary bases for selecting a graduate program.
1. Mode of Learning & Duration
Applicants will encounter many abbreviations such as MSc, MRes, and MPhil (or MRes, especially in the UK) while looking for postgraduate courses outside of the USA. These three commonly used titles for Masters programs are categorised based on the mode of learning, which is not exclusively defined. While Masters of Science (MSc) is a coursework-focused program, Masters by Research (MRes) and Masters of Philosophy (MPhil) are more research-oriented (Figure 1).
Generally, MSc programs offer an option to finish the program in one year or to include a thesis project, making it a total of two years. MRes programs may consist of compulsory coursework for the first year and continued research for 1 - 2 years after (similar to a MSc including the thesis). Many universities offer MSc programs structured similarly to MRes programs (e.g. University of Geneva, McGill University). MPhil programs are analogous to PhD programs, except they are shorter in duration and the research project is comparatively concise. Some universities provide options for accelerating the MSc with a thesis and MRes or MPhil programs into a PhD, based upon the student’s choice.
Applicants that may later be interested in applying to PhD programs should consider the length of the Masters programs they are applying to because some PhD eligibility criteria may specify preference for a given Masters program duration. This often applies to international students. For example, check out the international degree equivalencies for University of Toronto.
Figure 1. Difference in title and duration of various Masters program in Europe.
2. Eligibility criteria
Applicants must carefully assess the program’s eligibility requirements for universities outside of the USA. Two important eligibility conditions are language and academic requirements, which you should consider before applying to a masters program.
If the university offers international admission, they usually require English as one of the languages of instruction. But specific courses within the program may be taught in the host country's language, so it is important to check the course language instructions within a program thoroughly.
Universities specify some courses as compulsory for the applicants during their Bachelor's program. In contrast, other courses may be recommended for a student to prove their proficiency in the chosen subject for the master's program. For example, see UBC's Biochemistry and Molecular Biology masters program requirements.
Some universities ask applicants to undergo a qualifying exam or an interview. See the Molecular and Cellular Biology master’s program entrance test at LMU Munich. Also of note, some schools like Berlin School of Mind and Brain may have dropped test requirements due to COVID-19. In such cases, make sure to allow sufficient time for exam preparation in addition to working on the application.
If applicants are interested in integrated PhD programs (5-year course, Masters and PhD degrees awarded), then research proposals are expected requirements for the application.
One of the most crucial and commonly observed eligibility criteria is based on the duration of the Bachelor's degree. Some universities prefer four years of Bachelor's degree, while others don't have a preference. It is important for applicants to carefully check their eligibility based on this criteria.
3. Funding opportunities
Financing a Masters program can be a challenging task. Applicants should be aware of the possibility of receiving either partial or full funding throughout the program's duration. Three different types of funding may be available depending on the university, the country of the university, and the applicant's nationality. Below are further details on these three categories.
3.1. University-specific funding
There are three ways in which funding is available for Master's students from their university, including directly through the host lab/university, university-based scholarships, and graduate teaching (GTA) or research assistantships (GRA). Applicants are more likely to encounter the host lab/university, GTAs and GRAs based funding in research or thesis-based Masters programs. In contrast, merit-based scholarships are mostly awarded in (but not restricted to) coursework-based programs.
Host lab/University "Acceptance into the Program is dependent upon a prospective student receiving written agreement from a faculty member that he/she will be their research supervisor." This a sample statement from the University of British Columbia's Cell and Developmental Biology Masters program. A funded Masters program is where a host lab or university offers you a fixed stipend/year (the amount highly varies among universities). For instance, the funding at UBC's Cell and Developmental Biology program covers the entire expense, including tuition fees and costs of living, whereas funding in the Biochemistry Masters program at McGill University only partially covers the expenses for international students.
Excellence/Merit-Based Scholarship There are various universities in the UK, Germany, France, Switzerland and more that provide excellence/merit-based scholarships to selected students based on undergraduate performance, relevant research experience, letter of motivation, letters of recommendation, GRE/TOEFL scores, and other relevant information (see the University of Geneva and the University of Paris-Saclay). Such funding may or may not cover all expenses for the entire Master's program.
Graduate Teaching Assistantships (GTAs) and Research Assistantships (GRAs) Masters programs may have options for teaching assistantships available for graduate students upon admission. Teaching assistantships may be full- or part-time, varying in the number of hours of work per week. Responsibilities include preparation, lecturing, and laboratory instruction to assist supervisors/professors. Many professors offer Research Assistantships from their research grants to support admitted Masters students with similar research interests. Responsibilities in this position often overlap with the Master student’s thesis/research project work. The stipend/work-per-hour rate for such assistantships are often fixed for a university or within a country and may depend on the field of study and the type of research grant. Such assistantship opportunities are not usually offered with admission. Therefore, it is recommended to search in advance for these opportunities before starting the program in order to secure funding.
3.2. Host country-specific scholarship
Scholarships are also provided by the government/embassy of the country to applicants of all nationalities based on their selection criteria. There are certain foundations and organizations associated with different universities within a country (see ThinkSwiss Research Scholarships: Asia-Pacific, SCS Foundation, Rhodes Trust, Commonwealth Master's Scholarships) or multiple countries (see DAAD, Erasmus). Such scholarship's amounts are varied in nature; some may aid solely in tuition fees or living expenses, while others may cover the entire cost of a masters program.
3.3. Nationality-specific funding
As an Indian applicant, I came across multiple scholarships offered by the Indian government for studies abroad. Many of these awards are specific to a country (Charpak Master's Program), area of study, type of Masters program, or underrepresented communities (NOS, Lady Meherbai D Tata Education Trust scholarship). Applicants should thoroughly explore the eligibility criteria for scholarships offered by their government or other administration, such as the Department of Education/Overseas Studies. Applicants should also make sure they are searching ahead of time for these opportunities because in some cases they may not have the same deadline as the Master's application. Comparing the monthly scholarship amount with monthly student expenses in a given country is always beneficial.
Científico Latino’s fellowship database has some nationality-specific fellowships, but students are encouraged to consider the following resources to find nationality-specific fellowships.
Visit the international student section on the prospective university website. You can either directly find the guide to nationality specific scholarships or find home-host country tie ups/alliance (home country is where you are coming from and host country is where you are applying for graduate studies).
Check out the host country’s embassy website.
Look up the Department of Education/Overseas Studies website associated with your country. It may provide scholarship information for underrepresented communities (Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Class as per Indian category system) existing in the country.
Check with the student center of your current affiliated university.
Contact a potential/prospective supervisor who has worked with international students. This can also be useful in terms of nationality specific scholarships. Don’t hesitate to ask them.
4. Things to consider during the application process
While selecting universities based on the learning mode, eligibility criteria and funding opportunities, be sure to note deadlines for all the selected university programs. We recommend using a spreadsheet or similar method to keep requirements and deadlines organized. Unlike most US universities, where the deadline is often between the 1st to 15th of December, there are a wide range of deadlines for universities outside of the USA. Some deadlines as early as December and some as late as June. Most of the deadlines specifically provide cutoff times with the date, so be careful about the time differences and contact the prospective student administration if necessary.
Another important point is to contact a potential host supervisor in the department where you are applying for Masters studies. On the website for a program, it will be mentioned whether it is necessary (such as a letter of acceptance from the research director needed in the University of Montreal) or recommended (UBC's master's program encourages contacting supervisor) to find a potential supervisor before or post-admission (for thesis/research masters). However, it is highly suggested to reach out to supervisors even before applying to their affiliated programs. As an international student, not only will you get additional guidance during the application process from your research supervisor, but making such contact will also allow you to explore possible funding opportunities beforehand.
Based on the regulations of student visas for certain countries, incoming international students may not be allowed to start working (on- or off-campus jobs) until after six months of arrival (this period may vary) at the university. Applicants should keep this in mind before considering job opportunities as a source of funding during a Masters program.
Finally, just believe in yourself and enjoy the journey of your application process!
Jyoti is an aspiring PhD student in the area of Cell, Molecular Biology and Genetics. She began her career as a Zoology undergraduate and received research training at Institut de Génétique Moléculaire de Montpellier - CNRS. While studying in the capital of India and spending summer vacations in her native village, she recognized the deficiencies and barriers faced by students in rural schools. As a first-generation student, Jyoti is deeply inspired to work on improving graduate application guidance for different URM communities after participating in Científico Latino's GSMI program in 2019. As part of the Científico Latino team, she brings knowledge of the nuances of Europe's higher education system.