Masters in the US: Pipedream or possibility?
July 21, 2010 2:54 PM   Subscribe

Uni Filter: Just graduated from the University of Cambridge (UK) with a Bachelors degree. Wish to pursue a Masters degree in the US. Any advice?

Here's the twist: Unfortunately I made some costly mistakes in my final year and ended up with 3rd class honours (don't know the US equivalent but it's effectively a 'pass'). I have always wanted to do a Masters in the States. I suspect that my class has severely dented this possibility. However I'd like to give it a shot if it's still possible.

The plan is to look into this further but the topic is so wide I'm not even sure where to start. Is there a central system to apply to (similar to the UCAS system in the UK) or do I apply to each institution individually? How much would tuition fees be? Am I too late for the 10/11 year? Any advice on which institutions to look into?

Any help/advice/links would be greatly appreciated! As a final note, I'm interested in Masters outside chemistry as well (eg. management or finance).
posted by dragontail to Education (19 answers total)
As long as you have an okay GRE and can pay for it, I wouldn't worry too much. American MA programs, for the most part, are money generators for universities.
posted by k8t at 3:11 PM on July 21, 2010

1. You apply to each institution individually. Each school (and each department) will have their own set of application instructions.

2. Tuition and fees will depend on the institution. This can vary widely, so check the university websites. In some schools, tuition and fees will be different for different graduate programs within the same school. For example, tuition and fees for an MBA may be higher than those for a Masters in chemistry within the same school.

3. You are not too late for the 10/11 year - generally applications will be due in November - February for Fall 2011 admission, again depends on the school. Note that some schools have different deadlines for international students than for U.S. students, so pay close attention.

Although there is no central system to apply to, depending on your field of study you will have to take either the GRE (most academic disciplines) or GMAT (management, finance, or other business-related disciplines). The department you are applying to will specify which one they require. Taking these tests and sending the scores to the schools you are applying to can be quite expensive.

In general, don't expect financial assistance for Masters degrees in the U.S. Research or teaching assistantships (covering tuition, a stipend and possibly health insurance) may be available in fields such as chemistry, but as doctoral students have funding priority, it may be quite difficult to obtain an assistantship as a masters student. Don't expect any financial aid for masters in management or finance. People generally self-fund, through savings or loans.

As this could turn out to be quite an expensive venture, I would suggest clarifying for yourself why you want to study in the U.S., and which discipline you want to study in particular. This will help you narrow down the list of schools to investigate.
posted by needled at 3:13 PM on July 21, 2010

To quickly answer a couple of your questions: in most (all?) subjects in the US, there is no central point of application; you have to apply to each department individually.

I have no idea whether a not-great record at Cambridge would be good enough to get you in to a reasonable PhD program in the US. I suspect that this would mostly depend on your recommendations and GRE scores -- if both are stellar, many programs (in my field, at least) would overlook a poor/middling undergrad record (especially from a top school).

Also: in some of the sciences, good departments do not admit many (or any) students who have professed a desire to earn "only" an MS. In other words, nearly all admission slots are taken by students who are aiming for the PhD; often you will pick up an MS along the way (e.g. after passing a comprehensive exam), but it's not the stated goal. I don't know whether chemistry works this way or not. (Physics and astronomy generally do.)

My probably-overly-general advice is that grad school is great if you are so passionate about a subject that you are okay with the idea of working at it for a few years and then maybe having to do something else with your life -- if, in other words, you can't stand the thought of ending your education in a particular subject. You probably shouldn't do it (again, overly general, but...) a) as a holding pattern from the rest of your life, b) if you aren't basically in love with the subject, or c) if you have to pay for it. (Good PhD programs in the sciences in the US should fund you completely; paying to go through it would be nuts imho.) Just my 2c.

Humanities programs are a whole different beast, and I won't presume to speak about them.

Good luck!
posted by chalkbored at 3:15 PM on July 21, 2010

You've got a lot of questions, but I can answer a few of them.

Central application: No, you'll apply separately to each school

Tuition will vary widely from school to school but you should be aware the students from outside the US are often a source of extra cash for US schools... i.e., they love you because they feel they can screw you over! You mention Business or Finance and those tends to be some of the more expensive programs.

For example, I'm in the DC area and the closest state school is George Mason University. The total tuition for its MBA program is $61488 (that's for two years, so over $30k per year) for out-of-state students. At Georgetown (a top-tier private school) the MBA tuition is $96,028 ($48,014 per year).

AKA, a TON of money! Other masters programs can be much, much cheaper - but business and finance is in high-demand and good programs attract people from all over, so they cost a lot.

Which leads us to applying and getting in... it really depends on the program. But sticking with business and finance, grades and test scores (GMAT usually, though GRE is becoming more accepted at biz school) are very important - as is your work history. MBA programs don't like people straight out of undergrad, they like to see real-world experience. But the bottom line is that top business schools are very expensive and very hard to get into.

In terms of which schools to apply to, there are tons of lists of the best business schools - USNEWS & World Reports as well as BusinessWeek have annual rankings.

I don't know about graduate chemistry programs, so hopefully someone else can provide insight to that.

Finally, it depends on why you want to come to the US, but it might make sense to check out Canadian schools as well. I'm looking at a masters at the University of British Columbia and tuition for international students is less than in-state tuition at the state schools near me! So I'd certainly recommend checking out the big schools up north as they can be a great value.
posted by alaijmw at 3:17 PM on July 21, 2010

Probably too late for most programs. Many have a deadline in the spring for fall admission. You will have to apply to each institution individually. I would suggest doing a google search for the type of program you are looking for i.e. "Masters Chemistry Admission". This should bring up some databases of programs and might even rank them in quaility. After you have some options, go to their website and look under admissions to the specific department. That will tell you all the steps you need to apply. Most schools will require you to apply to the school and a seperate application to the program's department. It's a lot of work to get in and can be competitive.

Although your grades may limit your options, I think being an international student gives you an advantage over local students. Most programs like diversity and pulling people from all over the world.
With all that being said, I think your first step might be figuring out what you want to study. Most people in the US don't get a masters because it's convenient. They earn one because they have a very specific job in mind that requires the degree. Do you have a job in mind?
posted by WhiteWhale at 3:18 PM on July 21, 2010

I heard, you apply individually to each university, paying each time, and take some kind of test, whose name i forget but is quite famous, (GMAT?) usually failing the first time, and paying a lot. Plus apparently you must study the answers too, which costs. If you're rich, lets face it, you can probably go anywhere, or somewhere. My chinese mate had the gmat book to apply to chinese business school, it was a combination of general knowledge, logic and maths: if you swat your maths hard (AS level at least) you can't fail, i thought.
My mother, in sixties america, was never believed that a Bachelors degree was a real degree, they always believed it just meant she'd finished school at 18, not done a degree: as a result she could only get unskilled manual jobs. Thanks to the internet and wikipedia you should avoid that problem.
Financially, i believe most places offer work-instead-of-pay studentships/equivalent to most/all poorer students, better as there are more of them, worse as they might be cleaning/etc.
This information is based on a presentation about doing a masters in the usa that i attended at the london graduate conference/name forgot. It seemed to cost about £30,000 to do a masters there, i just thought i'd rather buy a crap house if i had that kind of money.
From the school of real life, i would say, apply for unpopular/technical subjects, or lower grade unis: try to find out which courses where have little demand.
The Bahraini in my laundrette told me his nephew was doing law at Olomouc university (gorgeous cheap mini Czech city and uni, went to a linguistics summer school there) as no unis in Bahrain and all over europe/world economics and law are taught in english, at a cost of (£100/week? or i think) £50 week, accommodation and everything. Admittedly the vast towerblocks they use for Halls have unpotable water, beds made of wood with some fabric on top and dodgy lifts, but i could have saved a load of money going there. Alternatively, study business masters in Dalian or other remote (therefore cheap - forget famous Chinese unis, v expensive) chinese uni for £2000, study in english, get business masters, get basic fluent chinese during spare time - as a german i met there was doing. I think it's like here if you're a foreigner: you're paying our fat fee? You're in.
posted by maiamaia at 3:31 PM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Umm, maiamaia has some information, but a lot of it questionable.
posted by k8t at 3:33 PM on July 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

Some more things to think about:

- How are you going to pay for this? To get a student visa you'll need to demonstrate that you have enough funds to pay for tuition, rent, living expenses for 2 years. If it is family money, you need to get some sort of bank statement. Assume that tuition may be $20,000-$40,000 per year of study + $500-$1000 per month for rent. Each university/city will be different.

- You'll want to find some programs that interest you. Keep a spreadsheet of the admissions deadlines (you're too late for fall 2010) and fees. It can get quite expensive to apply. The applications will generally requires that your transcripts from undergrad be sent, GRE scores be sent, a personal statement, and a financial statement that proves that you can pay for it.

- You'll need to take the GRE and pay for it. You may want to call up Kaplan Test Prep (Charing Cross Road in LDN) and ask if you can take a practice one to see how you do and to determine if you'll need to study more.

- Apply, hopefully get in.

But as others have said, what's the point of this degree? This is going to be a TON of money spent on a degree that may (probably?) mean absolutely nothing.

MAs are pretty meaningless in America for most Americans, much less a Brit in the UK.
posted by k8t at 3:38 PM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, i met a german with a heavy german AND australian accent who did his masters in australia because 1 he was too lazy to get a good degree 2 that was because he spent all his spare time surfing. Might be a bad choice longterm but i could see where that dude was coming from. Btw commiserations on the final year, i tanked due to spending most of the time in bed convinced i'd failed and ought to commit suicide (not my normal life, just a weird blip), i tried to get help but was denied on the grounds i hadn't tried suicide - great. Finally did all my work in the last four weeks. Really annoyingly dumb reason to have failed, yours cannot have been so stupid! Hopefully it involved fun. But Cambridge is far harder than a normal british uni, is there somewhere teachers who would know that? Or just be snobs? When it would help.
Also, could you use it to get a year's experience somewhere good that would get you in? A lot of places only hire from Cambridge, so use their careers service??? Bad times, i know.
I'm doing an open university p/t ESRC recognised masters in research methods because i'm incapable of filling out application forms for taught masters (more mental blip), but i'm only earning £500/month and it's £120/month, plus takes four years. But it's always there as an option, starts november forget enrollment date..
posted by maiamaia at 3:40 PM on July 21, 2010

Much of what maiamaia said is incorrect. I'm an incoming student in a masters program beginning this fall, and I have a number of foreign friends. You'll be taking either the GRE or the GMAT, and they're hardly as difficult as all that: I prepared for my exam using a couple books on my own and managed just fine. Feel free to memail me if you'd like help with that.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 3:45 PM on July 21, 2010

The short answer is yes, you can probably find somewhere in the US that will take you for 1 or 2 years. This will allow you to live in the US for longer than 90 days, which may be all you're looking for from this experience. If you're determined to research the system and do the paperwork (there is a lot) and not too proud to attend somewhere that doesn't have much of a reputation then you can certainly get as far applying. The show-stoppper, which you may not realise, is funding. You'll need to demonstrate access to a very large amount of cash before you'll get an offer for a masters degree.

My impression is that the implications of a third from a UK university are understood by a very small fraction of US academics. Admissions offices, particularly at the top Ivy League colleges regularly see UK applications though, and they will likely be more familiar with that classification, understand it's the rough equivalent of a GPA of 2.0 (and reject your application as a result).

But if your final classification isn't understood or doesn't create problems, there may be other academic hurdles. Depending on the course, your undergraduate transcripts (i.e. a breakdown of your marks for every examined paper you sat in every year) may be relevant (and problematic, depending on why you got the third). Getting a transcript from a UK university can be non-trivial. Start with your Cambridge college secretary/registrar. You'll probably need academic letters of recommendation.

Start reading about the GRE. Yes, you're much too late for the 2010/11 academic year (which starts in a couple of weeks at many US universities). No, there is no central system like UCAS. The Cambridge careers service will have databases of funding resources, but don't count on any help for a masters, particularly if you're coming from outside the US without a stellar academic record and extracurriculars. Which institutions you might want to look at depends entirely on what (specific) field you're interested and why you're interested in studying in the US.
posted by caek at 4:08 PM on July 21, 2010

And if you're really determined to do this, and the reasons for the third were things that you can fix by just taking the year again, look into retaking the final year. Now that you have your classification it may be too late, but worth a shot. I know it's possible at a lot of UK universities, including the one place that's even fustier and inflexible than Cambridge.
posted by caek at 4:13 PM on July 21, 2010

As a UK resident who applied to a US masters program last year, I can tell you that it's too late for this year. Not just because most US departments have deadlines (UK postgraduate departments are far more flexible with deadlines), but because you need time to gather all the info, budgets, plans, references and tests necessary to apply.

Your degree will translate to pretty low GPA, but if you ace your GRE I doubt any uni would dismiss you without consideration. BUT, the GRE is really difficult for non-US citizens. We've often never had this kind of standardised test. I ended up taking it twice. Revise it every single day, especially taking practice tests in timed conditions.

Also, money... My course was asking for about $30,000 in fees alone!

I intended to apply for funding, but in the end I was on the course's waiting list for so long that the deadlines passed. However, I had applied for a small, extra specialised, competitive program in NYC.

I've since decided to give up my waiting list place in favour of a UK MA, largely because of finance.

Before you do anything, be honest with yourself - do you really want to study the subject of your dreams in the best institution you can, or do you just want to live in the US? Why not pursue study/employment at home and use your savings/experience to relocate in a few years?

It was a sad day when I finally gave up on that course, but I'm glad I did. Hopefully, if I play my cards right, my MA will propel me into a dream job, just in time to be poached by a better one in New York!
posted by dumdidumdum at 4:26 PM on July 21, 2010

Finally, it depends on why you want to come to the US, but it might make sense to check out Canadian schools as well. I'm looking at a masters at the University of British Columbia and tuition for international students is less than in-state tuition at the state schools near me! So I'd certainly recommend checking out the big schools up north as they can be a great value.

Absolutely terrible advice. Unless OP is talking about something like an exec MBA, no Canadian MA program will touch him. International students are not seen as moneymakers here, and there is no GRE to take to make up for what's effectively a gentleman C average. I happen to disagree with this fact (the lack of a standardized exam) but so it goes; in Canada, grad school is all about undergrad grades and letters of reference. And for an MA in my department, we didn't admit anybody with less than around a 3.75 either of the last two years.

We don't admit MA students in my department unless we can fund them. We do not make a penny off our grad students.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 6:12 PM on July 21, 2010

Hey, I am a fellow Cantab and I got full funding (tuition + living costs) for my 2 year masters in the US, from the US university itself (not a scholarship but an assistantship - you get a research job with the program. There are certainly many more masters programs with no funding and or limited funding aid but there are also masters programs with more complete financial aid, and you could try for international scholarship schemes (US or UK-based). Many or perhaps even most master's programs are money-spinners for the universities but many aren't. Wealthy universities are more likely to have more complete financial aid but that doesn't mean all their programs are generous and provisions vary widely by department and course e.g. the biggest "scholarship" in the Harvard's Masters of Education program is only a few thousand dollars.
If you try for a MBA or Masters in Finance or something lucrative like that, you should consider taking out a bank loan - many MBA students do. At a UK bank, ask about a MBA loan - its a scheme overseen by some UK national management/business association which helps MBA students (even those going to the US) with cheaper loans.

Unfortunately your 3rd class degree is going to make things much more difficult for your attempt at getting some of this funding (or even admission to programs which don't offer much funding, but are still competitive to get into). Many grad school funding and scholarship programs will reject you at the first cut simply because of the low class degree (and it will be widely understood what the GPA equivalent is at the better schools), even if you get a good GRE / GMAT score. On the other hand - there are program admission committees which will consider GPAs and GREs secondarily (many will ignore GRE completely really). If you have STELLAR references - glowing, enthusiastic references from high-status professors who know you well... these are really really really important - you will have a fighting chance. Solid RELEVANT work experience in industry or NGOs or otherwise outside of academia will be a big help too (RELEVANT programming and language skills are a major plus).

Good luck!
posted by Bwithh at 7:16 PM on July 21, 2010

OK - I just thought of another possibility.
in our last few months at Cam, a friend of mine started dating another student (both British) who was going to do a year-long internship at a law firm in a big city in the US. My friend was desperate to go with her to the US somehow but didn't know how, especially at such short notice. He was a physicist (a good one though not outstanding perhaps, but I'm sure he got excellent references and he didn't pretty well in exams) - I convinced him that he should write to professors at physics labs in major universities in or near the same US city - ask them if they have any research assistantship jobs attached to any big grants. Why not - he had nothing to lose. I was actually surprised myself but this worked! He ended up spending a year in the US with his girlfriend in the same city while on a work or research (J-1 maybe?) exchange visitor visa with a university physics lab. Note that this is NOT a master's - just research assistant/associate experience and I doubt he was paid much.

It shows it can be done though outside of the grad school route.
posted by Bwithh at 7:31 PM on July 21, 2010

Oops typo --- I meant to say that my friend DID do pretty well in exams, not didn't.
posted by Bwithh at 7:32 PM on July 21, 2010

You are much too late to apply to the 2010-2011 academic year for US universities.

You say you are possibly interested in an MA in business/management or finance. Do you have any idea which universities you might like to attend for this? It is not like the UK; you cannot apply centrally and find a list of course vacancies.

Let's have a look at some of the US MBA schools.
  • Chicago's Booth b-school: the very last deadline for 2011-2012 is in April, and I think it's safe to assume it was this past April for the 2010-2011 year. They require GMAT scores along with your school transcript or official records. (Note they have a section for international applications, so I think it is safe to assume they will know how to read your degree class.)
  • Northwestern's Kellogg school of management: you must request an interview by March of next year at the very latest to enter during the 2011-2012 year. They also require the GMAT. They are also familiar with international applicants.
  • UPenn's Wharton MBA program: Deadline early March at the very latest. GMAT or GRE. Familiar with international applicants.
I'm sure I could keep on going down the list of top business programs (and I left off the very top Ivies like Harvard), but I think you get the picture. Basically, while you have this dream, it seems you have not put much effort into actualizing it as yet - or if you have, you did not include it in your question. I think perhaps you'd be better served spending the remainder of the summer and this autumn doing your research about the schools you'd want to attend, the programs you want to do, what your goals are (these will be important in the application process; American grad schools have an emphasis on understanding what you hope to achieve by attending their programs), etc. You need to start studying for the GMAT or GRE.

And unlike a few of the commenters here, I will go ahead and put it bluntly: every US school you apply to is going to understand what your degree class means in terms of grades. Some won't put much weight on it, especially if you can adequately explain yourself in your application essays, and some will take you anyway because they see you as a cash cow. If you are hoping for the school to finance your degree, though, the rest of your application has got to be positively glowing.
posted by asciident at 11:47 PM on July 21, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks guys for all the help. FWIW this looks about as difficult as I imagined it would be, but I'm willing to give it a shot if it looks possible.
posted by dragontail at 4:14 AM on July 22, 2010

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