[BioFilter] - Seeking graduate school, will travel. Good idea?
November 10, 2016 5:22 AM   Subscribe

Does it look bad to universities if an applicant obtained their Masters (or other higher degrees) abroad? I know that medical students who study in the Caribbean and then return the the US can be looked down upon. Is this similar in the biological/wildlife sciences?

I'm a citizen of a country I don't recognize anymore, and also happen to be pursuing a masters in the biological sciences (specifically conservation genetics/genomics and applied conservation). Painfully recent events make me even more stirred up about the conservation part due to the US rolling back their environmental and energy policies another 30 years. I was already nursing a crush on New Zealand, and their admirable conservation focus has only made it more acute :)

I feel very selfish for considering bailing at this time, but I also wonder if there is another part of the world where my career could do more good overall. Having recently worked on a research project funded by the National Park Service, it became apparent that this park was funding conservation research only to have a veneer of being a scientific entity, ended up plucked a random figure from our unpublished study design, and continued on their merrily nonsensical style of wildlife management. I know that's one data point but it's disheartening, and not something I want to contribute to again.

If you employ biological PhD students at a major research university, would you look down on someone who did their Masters internationally? If you joined a graduate school lab internationally, do you think you vetted the advisors/lab well enough before agreeing to work with them for 2+ years?

Money situation is flexible.

If anyone recommends specific schools, that would be awesome. This morning I'm drooling over Norway. I'm pretty open to all suggestions since this is all still very emotional. Research gives me life so this is not a decision I take lightly. If it matters, I'm a late-20s white female, fluent in English, functional in Spanish, have lived abroad before, and would prefer the language of instruction in English because otherwise I feel like a bumbling fool.
posted by Drosera to Education (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm an American social scientist, but in general foreign MAs aren't considered as good when we are considering PhD applicants merely because of lack of familiarity with the program and the faculty. The exceptions are when a faculty member in the department can personally attest that a foreign program is good. This happened to me with a UK MA, applying to US PhD programs and I see it happen regularly as a faculty member.
It used to be that OxBridge was the exception here but nowadays there are so many self funded MA programs that have pretty lenient acceptance, that can't be trusted.

I'd also note that your frustration with the Parks Service is not unique to the US nor to that organization. Funders of research - government, private, whatever - aren't actually all that interested in the actual research that often. Oh well.

As someone who went abroad for an MA, I say go if you want the adventure and you absolutely have the funds. Do not take out loans for an adventure. If you want an MA (and perhaps a PhD) and a career in research, you're far better off going to a funded American program.
posted by k8t at 5:57 AM on November 10, 2016

In the USA, our bio departments are flush with people who earned ms or PhD abroad. In many non-USA countries, degrees from the USA are looked upon favorably: there is a reason the best and brightest of China, Italy, India, etc. come to mid-level state schools in the USA to get their degrees. This is sort of hand-waving general trend as I've seen it, culture at specific schools/departments/schools will of course vary.

At any good place you want to be, your experience/grades/pubs/letters of rec should count far more than the country of origin or country of prior education. The overall prestige of your prior school/program is also probably more important than county.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:57 AM on November 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

PhD focus here: IMO the biggest challenge is likely to come when (if) you're ready to come back, if most of your PhD advisor's professional network and collaborators aren't in the U.S. This is surmountable, especially if you plan for it from the beginning, but you want to make sure you build some connections in countries you might want to work in after your PhD, especially if you're thinking of staying in academia.

And as always, as much as you're focused on geography right now, choose a great advisor, not just a great location. Your PhD advisor will make or break your experience.
posted by deludingmyself at 6:14 AM on November 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

I would also note that it is worth exploring the academic and especially advising culture in the country that you're interested in. In my experience, it appears that in Germany, the academic system is much more like an apprenticeship and that quite often the advisees are more like administrative employees for the advisor. They are legally treated like employees as well. In the UK, PhD students generally don't do coursework and show up with a dissertation proposal in hand.
I'm not saying that the US model of coursework -> exams -> dissertation proposal -> proposal defense -> dissertation -> dissertation defense is perfect, but if it is what you are used to, you will really want to look into what model is used abroad.
As deludingmyself mentions, the networking is a big issue too. While of course with the Internet and cheaper travel, this is less of an issue than it used to be, but in my experience, the Europe and Asia-based academics in my field have to work a lot harder to be present at conferences, workshops, etc. in order to establish and maintain the important ties that are the lifeblood of academia. Jobs, publishing, etc. are really heavily based on these ties and while merit plays a role, ties trump more often than not.
posted by k8t at 8:42 AM on November 10, 2016

I have graduate degrees form two countries. It's fine if you do good work and honestly getting a master's abroad makes so much more sense and is much quicker. Go for it.
posted by fshgrl at 10:26 AM on November 10, 2016

It's fine. I'm Canadian and got a PhD in the US with my Canadian MSc. I know graduate students and post-docs from around the world who work in the US on conservation/wildlife management/biology who have been accepted with foreign credentials. I know fewer Americans who left and came back and a lot of that is, as mentioned above, it's hard to keep your network when you leave the country. I know that's the biggest barrier to me going back to Canada.

As for you vetting a situation in another country, it would be the same for any academic position - Skype calls and emails or flights and in person if you're lucky. Some times it's hard to reimburse or fund non-citizens so they might rely the former methods. Make sure to call former and current students so you can get the 'off the record' details. Ask how their university handles foreign students - Is there an international student office? Who handles their visa requests? Do they have information or resources on getting rentals (it can be difficult to get lines of credit) or paying taxes?

There are differences in academic culture that may have an effect. Grad school outside the US can be much more rigorous and involve more field/lab work and fewer classes. That may mean you are in a situation of being both behind and ahead of your peers. In Canada, both MScs and PhDs involve very minimal coursework and getting accepted into a program requires the sign-on of a supervisor (i.e. you don't apply to the school, get in, find a supervisor and money. You find a supervisor, get money, apply, get in). Also check the length of the program because it varies a lot by country (and get the actual time to graduation, not the years funded).

I guess one last caution. As a outsider, it's often harder to effect change with your work. You might be in a place that has a ton of potential for effective conservation efforts, but because you don't have the cultural ties, you only get lip-service buy-in to your project. For example, I worked in the Southeastern US and my supervisor there got some amazing things done on conservation. He just fit in with everyone and everywhere in a way that I never could. It's not that people disliked me but I didn't have the ties; I was an outsider. So much of conservation is slow, incremental changes based on personal ties. Moving around means you have to re-form those ties and you might not get the things done you want. Conservation biology is about managing the people, not the animals.
posted by hydrobatidae at 12:05 PM on November 10, 2016

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