An American perspective of astro graduate school outside the US I: Masters

This post is the first of two guest posts contributed by Dr. Abbie Stevens, who completed her Masters at the University of Alberta in Canada and her Doctorate at the Universiteit van Amsterdam in the Netherlands. She is now an NSF Astronomy & Astrophysics postdoctoral fellow at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. In her second post, she will discuss attending a PhD program in Europe.

Many US-based students considering their options for graduate school may not realize that there are many strong astronomy graduate programs outside of the United States. Pursuing graduate education abroad can help broaden your horizons, both personally and professionally. Making new connections and fostering collaborations internationally can have far-reaching, positive effects on your career. Here is my story about why and how I decided to pursue my graduate studies abroad.

I decided that I wanted to try my hand at grad school when I realized how much I liked doing research in my undergrad senior research project. I got my Bachelors of Arts degree from Bard College, a small liberal arts college with quite a modest physics program at the time. Though I had a year-long senior research project under my belt, I worried I didn’t have as rigorous a physics coursework background as students from larger research universities. Also, the Physics GRE (PGRE) was a significant barrier for me as the prep courses and exam fees (on top of US grad school application fees) were a large financial burden. (The PGRE should be less of an obstacle for current applicants since many US programs no longer require it.)

At the recommendation of one of my mentors in the math department, I looked into astro Masters programs in Canada. I was a little unsure about astronomy, since my only experience with astro was via mathematical physics, general relativity, and differential geometry. Graduate programs in the US often require a commitment to the PhD from the beginning, and I didn’t want to commit five to six years to a program in the US when I wasn’t sure if that was what I wanted. Canadian Masters (MSc) programs are two years, and MSc students receive paid teaching assistantships, just like in the US.

I did my MSc in Canada at the University of Alberta. At U. Alberta, I did one year of coursework and one year of research, and I wrote and defended an MSc thesis project, which we later turned into a nice paper! I think most Canadian astro MSc programs follow a similar outline. It’s possible to “fast-track” to a PhD in most of them after your first year in the MSc if you’re doing well and your committee agrees. In this scenario, you would skip the MSc thesis and go straight into the PhD program — this takes five years in total, instead of two for the MSc + four for the PhD, so it’s more like the US system.

If you think pursuing a Masters outside of the US is the right choice for you, here are some practical questions you should ask:

  1. How are graduate students paid while attending the program?
  2. In my experience, you don’t make much, but it’s roughly the same standard of living as grad programs in the US (though this can vary between universities and provinces). Many Masters programs in Europe do not pay you to be a teaching assistant, but some have scholarships available for international students.

  3. Will you have to provide your own health insurance?
  4. At the University of Alberta, health insurance was included in the taxes and fees.

  5. Do you have to pay for tuition?
  6. While I did have to pay tuition myself, it was to the tune of about CAD$2-3k per year (in 2012), and it came out of my teaching assistant stipend. Crucially, I needed to make sure that someone else (e.g., the department, my advisor) paid the “international difference” fee for non-Canadian students, which just about doubled the cost of attendance. Check with your proposed advisor and other international grad students to see how it’s handled in the programs to which you are accepted.

Though my path was non-traditional for a US undergraduate, going to Canada for my Masters was absolutely the right choice for me. I went to a top-ranked university, took a mix of interesting classes, expanded my research horizons, and made great friends with my colleagues. Having a positive experience in my MSc is what encouraged me to go for a PhD! My PhD experience in the Netherlands will be the subject of the next post in this series.

For readers not from the US, did you choose to pursue graduate studies in your home country or in another country? What were the benefits and drawbacks for you? Is/was your graduate program in a language other than the language(s) you grew up speaking? How did you prepare for and handle that challenge?

3 comments… add one
  • Hannah Dalgleish Nov 19, 2018 @ 11:28

    Great article! (And thanks for the link!) It’s also great to see that GRE requirements are becoming less mandatory.

    In response to your last questions, I am from the UK and took part in the AstroMundus Masters programme. I studied in Austria, Italy, and Serbia and couldn’t speak any of the languages (I did try to learn but failed miserably). I never encountered any major problems, the most difficult challenge was buying bus tickets in Belgrade. The main advantage is that we were never alone, everyone on the programme figured out how to do things together (like finding accommodation) and knowledge was always passed down to the next generation. Whilst it wasn’t easy moving country every 6 months, it was an incredibly eye-opening experience and much to my mother’s disdain, reinforced my addictions for travelling and living in other countries! If you have the opportunity to study abroad (whether at undergrad, masters, or phd) I suggest that you take it. Although it is challenging and stressful at times, you are all the stronger and better prepared for (academic) life as a result. You simply never know where it might lead.

    • Abbie Stevens Nov 19, 2018 @ 14:50

      Thank you! ? Some of my friends from my PhD participated in erasmus (like AstroMundus) during their MScs and had a great time. I also fully recommend studying or working abroad for a least a few months — it can be hard, but also really fun.

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