5 Things Nobody Tells You About Getting a Degree Abroad

by Mary Ellen Dingley

We’re sorry to report that pursuing your degree abroad is not all Animal House style bedsheet toga parties and tomfoolery, but did you honestly expect it live up to Jim Belushi’s collegiate fantasies? Getting a degree abroad is an amazing and valuable experience, but it comes with its own unique set of challenges. No matter how prepared you think you are, some of those challenges will surprise you, from the molehills to the mountains.

The good news is you’ll be able to take anything and everything life throws at your from here on out, and who knows? Maybe you will get to perfect your own line DIY toga designs. Whether you are going for your undergraduate or masters, read on to familiarize yourself with what might be in store!

Girl sitting at a laptop computer

You might have to hit the books a little harder because of different academic expectations.

1. Differences in academic expectations.

This one certainly hit me like a ton of bricks. You’re well aware when you decide to get your degree abroad that there will be some differences, especially in language or vocabulary. But no one tells you how deep those differences go, and how subtle they can be! They might explain to you at orientation that “here we focus on short answer essay exams at the end of the year rather than projects throughout the year,” but no one sits you down to tell you that essays are structured differently, that titling conventions are entirely different for your papers, or that even what is expected in an informal conversation with a professor is different!

Not only do conventions of academic structuring differ, deeply ingrained educational pedagogies do as well. This is most easily explained through an example, so let’s take the United States and the United Kingdom, and myself as anecdotal evidence. I studied the same subject in the U.S. as I did in the UK, anthropology, and they not only categorized it differently, but the teaching methods and priorities varied widely. In my admittedly limited experience, in the U.S., anthropology is a humanity and is taught through hands-on research and cultural immersive case studies. In the UK, anthropology is a social science, the concept of “culture” is itself in question, and it is primarily taught via theoretical discussion. I thought I was stepping into a subject I knew well, but found myself entirely lost for the first month!

In some countries you are allowed and encouraged to question the professor, in others that is anathema to the academic culture. In some, essays are a reiteration of classroom teaching, in others they are looking for you to present a new theory. The hardest part of all of this is that more often than not these differences aren’t ones that are explained to you in your welcome packet; it takes trying and failing a few times before you get it right!

British currency laid out on a table

It can be tricky to navigate financials. Stay on top of your budget!

2. Finances can be rough.

Getting a degree abroad gets tricky financially. For the most part, if you are not a citizen of the hosting country you will not receive any financial aid. So if you need financing, try your hand at crowdsourced fundraising with FundMyTravel in addition to applying for private scholarships or ones from your home government!

On the other hand, if your degree abroad is shorter than you might be actually saving money! But, if the living expenses abroad are higher you may be losing money. How do you know?! Short of hiring an international financial forecaster, it can be hard to tell. Check out living expenses calculations online, ask lots of questions about financial aid, and compare and contrast with your home universities. Take into account moving expenses, especially if you’re bringing over a lot of stuff!

3. Culture shock intertwines with class work.

You’re probably all prepared to face some culture shock. Different vocabulary? Got a dictionary! Different manners? Memorized my etiquette book! Different foods? Stomach of steel! But you might not be ready for how cultural differences will intertwine with your studies and success in the classroom. Group projects and study groups with people from other cultures is awesome, but also really hard. Expectations are different, there may be language misunderstandings, and everyone might have a different idea of what “on time” to meetings mean. Lay out expectations early.

It can be very frustrating when you’re trying to accomplish a group project and you’re butting heads over the appropriate way to format documents, or even how to best resolve a group disagreement. How groups form and negotiate is definitely cultural, and also something that’s hard to study from afar.

What also hard makes adjusting to life abroad is not having your usual study treats or habits in place. Do you always have that one go to study snack to get you through the long nights? Well, it might not be available there. Are you used to a library with 24 hour coffee? Some cities aren’t up all night!

Students around a table with notebooks and laptops

Cultural differences can make dreaded group work that much harder.

4. Not being able to go home as much.

Alongside the tricky finances is the cost of flights home. Depending on how far away you go, that could eat up your entire living expense budget for a month or more! It can be really rough to not be able to go home for the holidays, especially when your classmates are leaving. Some universities with large international student bodies host holiday gatherings or do trips together, but not all.

Even if you’re used to traveling and being on your own, homesickness can hit you hard out of nowhere. And during a stressful academic course, when you’ve had to hide in the library for days on end, it can be especially emotional to not have family around. If seeing your family frequently is important to you, take that into consideration when looking at getting your degree abroad.

5. It might be hard, but it will be twice as educational.

What’s more difficult, but also better than a little education? Double that education! Especially learning inside and outside the classroom by immersing yourself in another country and culture.

Getting a degree abroad means you graduate not only as an expert in your field of study, but also as a more global citizen.

You’ll be able to write a killer essay in multiple formats. You’ll be able to have an academic debate in different cultural contexts and maybe in different languages. You’ll know that a “fancy dress party” in the rest of the anglo-sphere actually means “costume party” and can plan accordingly!

Students throwing graduation caps into the air

It’s going to be hard, but worth it in the end.

A degree from another country is also a signal to future employers that you are a well-traveled, cross-cultural, academic ninja ready to face any challenge! They’ll be impressed by your tenacity and courage in going abroad. It’s also a good conversation starter at a networking event or on a first date, just don’t humblebrag about it.

Getting your degree abroad might seem scary and daunting, and maybe you just want to throw your hands up and stay home. But don’t give up if this your dream! Earning your degree internationally is hugely rewarding, and I’ll bet you’re up the challenge. Prepare and research as much as you can, contact alumni and read reviews, and arrive ready for surprises!