Friday, 5 July 2013

5 things I wish someone had told me about graduate school abroad before I moved here.

I've had lots of American friends talk to me lately about how they're thinking they might want to go to graduate school in other countries. And my first reaction is always,

But I think it's time for a little bit more thought into my response than that. As wonderful as my experience has been here, it's definitely had its challenges. I admit I wasn't expecting those challenges as much because, well, I'm a bit snooty about study abroad. Having spent a semester in France, I always felt that studying in an English-speaking country was sort of like cheating. That it's easy. In some ways, I was right. The UK definitely gets a decent amount of American culture, via TV, music, and food. You'd be surprised how many Scottish people have said to me, "Well, I've seen it on an American sitcom..." 
Living here is not as big of a culture adjustment as France was. Add to that the fact that I can understand people here (for the most part), and you get a situation that's a bit easier from the get-go.

But I was wrong about it being easy.  
Scotland may not be connected to the continent, but it shares a lot with its European friends. Absolutely, there are challenges to living here that make me frustrated or confused. Some of them delight me--custard creams and tea, anyone?
 But there are things that I wish someone had told me before I left, not because it would have changed my mind about coming, but because it would have aligned my expectations a little better. 
Are you ready for some hard-hitting journalistic truth? 

1. People will not respond to emails. 
It usually takes several days for people to respond to emails here. I'm not sure if everyone's busy or if they just really hate the internet, but it can take up to a week before you hear a peep. And that's if you're lucky. I've sent emails with the word "URGENT" in the subject line, and not heard anything for days. And that email was about possibly getting my visa revoked by traveling. IMPORTANT STUFF. Stuff I needed an answer to, urgently. For the first few months, this drove me insane. It still does, to be honest, but I've realized that being angry about unanswered emails will not magically force the person on the other end to respond. Like so many other things, you just have to learn to let go and accept that there are different standards. 

2. Things tend to be a bit disorganized.
And that's putting it kindly. Take getting your grades, for instance. I turned in a 140-word assignment in December. When did I get my grade for it? Two weeks ago. It took six whole months for my measly 140 words to get graded. There's very little information communicated to students, and often, it's too late by the time someone tells us something. You will have questions about things. And it will be nearly impossible to figure it out for yourself. When I signed onto this program, I didn't even get a list of what classes I might be taking. I found that out three weeks before I left the States--along with when classes started, what books I'd need, and that I'd been approved for accommodation. It was stressful, and it's only gotten easier with the realization that worrying about it won't solve it.

3. You may be in class much less often than you thought you'd be.
My first semester here had me in a total of six hours of class a week. Having come straight from undergrad, with a full class load and a billion activities, this was easily the most bizarre thing for me. I didn't know what to do with myself. I had class two days a week! I'd spent all summer preparing for a hellish year ahead of me, and my first semester felt very anti-climactic. School picked up in the spring semester, but I wish they had balanced my courses a little bit better so as to keep us all from going insane.

4. The grading system is weird. And wrong.
Pardon my snarkiness about the grading system here. I'm sure it's perfectly comprehensible to people who grew up here, even though my English friends are confused, too. They have a letter grade system, but each letter has different levels, and not all of them have the same amount of numbers...B1s and A5s and all sorts of nonsense. I'm still not sure I understand what grades are good and what ones are bad. I did eventually manage to find a chart for students who are coming back from the States on study abroad and want a conversion for their American grades. But for the most part? If it's a C or higher, I'm not going to question it.

5. Grad school is hard, and it isn't made easier by living in another country.
Despite all of their disorganization, professors here are still tough graders. Staying on top of things takes a lot of work. And sometimes I don't want to do my work, for a multitude of reasons. Like because it's raining outside. Or Judge Judy is on TV. Or because I'd rather go to the Highland Games than write. It's difficult to balance wanting to see everything Scotland has to offer with doing the work that brought me here in the first place. And that's on top of the distractions of friends, boyfriend, the internet... Finding the motivation to do work is even more of a challenge because there's so much here that's new and exciting, and I feel like I should take advantage of it while I can. It's really hard to say no when your friends are going on a weekend trip and invite you along, but you can hear the library whispering to you.

Come and write your paper, Mary...You have less than two months...Now is not the time for fun...

Yes, I've reached the stage in my paper that I'm now hearing the library from far away. Is that a problem?

I'm sure that I'm going to think of a million more things I wish I'd known before I started grad school as soon as I post this. Maybe I'll write a sequel if when I finish my dissertation.



  1. Hi Mary, did you have to take out student loans for your masters degree? Was it difficult finding work afterwards? I'm a U.S. student hoping to do a masters in Scotland (and eventually live there)... just a little worried about the money situation! Thanks!

    1. Hi Jane! I didn't have to take out any loans for my degree because I had family help. Most of my friends did take out student loans, though, so it's fairly common to do so. I just don't know anything about it! If you send me an email, I could forward it onto one of my friends who would know more about it.

      It is difficult to find work here afterwards. Like the US, the UK is trying to curb immigration and there are a lot of barriers thrown up for people who want to settle here. That being said, it totally depends on your field! Certain professions are high in demand here and those people are much more likely to get a work visa. I'm in Arts and Heritage, so I'm not wanted as much as someone like an engineer. I guess the short answer is that it's difficult, but not totally impossible!


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