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U.K. vs. U.S. Master’s Degrees

By Indhika, IvyWise Graduate Admissions Counselor

If you are considering applying to master’s programs, you may have debated the merits of attending a program in the U.K. vs. the U.S. Depending on where you completed your undergraduate studies and your career ambitions, both locations offer exciting opportunities and benefits. Below are some factors to consider when choosing between master’s programs in the U.K. and U.S.

Type of Degree

In the U.K., there are two main types of master’s degrees: taught master’s degrees (MA, MSc) and research master’s degrees (MRes, MPhil). Taught master’s degrees and MRes degrees generally take one year to complete, while MPhil degrees may take up to two years. Taught master’s degrees are comprised of several months of instructor-led courses followed by an independent research project in the final months. Because they are highly specialized, taught master’s degrees are geared towards professional pathways rather than academic pathways.

MRes or MPhil courses for research master’s degrees focus more on research techniques and methods. Most, if not all, coursework is individual research, and the few taught courses emphasize research training. As such, these degrees are tailored towards those interested in pursuing PhDs or careers with intensive research components.

In the U.S., the difference between a professional-focused master’s program vs one that’s research-oriented is not denoted by the degree title, but instead varies based on disciplinary and institutional approaches. If you are interested in a terminal master’s degree or practitioner-oriented programs in the U.S., the U.K. equivalent would likely be taught master’s degree programs in the same field, rather than research master’s programs.

Duration of Study

A major difference between U.K. and U.S. master’s programs is the length of time that it takes to earn the degree. A taught master’s program in the U.K. can be completed in 9-12 months, whereas an equivalent degree in the U.S. would be completed in two years. U.K. master’s degrees are short in duration because they are often viewed as standalone degrees facilitating highly specialized fields of study. Rather than offering a degree in an overarching discipline, U.K. master’s programs focus on sub-fields or niche areas of expertise. U.S. master’s degrees, on the other hand, provide broad, foundational coursework with an opportunity to specialize further through elective courses.

If you already have undergraduate training in the field of study you would like to pursue for a master’s, a U.K. master’s degree can provide a shorter, more focused course of study. Just make sure any U.K. programs you are applying to have relevant areas of specialization and faculty expertise. Be prepared to direct your studies through research projects and one-on-one tutoring with a mentor.

Cost of Study

Not only are U.K. master’s programs shorter than those in the U.S., thereby reducing costs, but living expenses and course fees in the U.K. are often considerably lower.

That said, there is great variance in program cost across U.S. institutions. For example, public universities offering in-state rates may be significantly more affordable than private institutions that charge the same fees to all students — whether in-state, domestic, or international. In the U.K., programs charge one rate to domestic students and a higher fee to all international students.

Regarding funding, U.S. institutions tend to provide more overall financial aid than U.K. institutions for both domestic and international students. When applying to U.S. master’s programs, be mindful of early deadlines for scholarship consideration.

Factoring in the variance in program fees for public vs private institutions and the availability of funding, the per-credit difference in cost for U.K. vs. U.S. programs may not be as significant as it would seem based on duration of study alone. Make sure you carefully examine course fees, living expenses, and funding opportunities at all programs you are considering.

Admissions Requirements

Unlike undergraduate admissions requirements, master’s admissions requirements for the U.K. and U.S. are quite similar. Programs in both countries require a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, relevant transcripts, a CV or resume, a personal statement, program-specific essays (if applicable), letters of recommendation, and TOEFL/IELTS test results (if applicable).

Most U.K. schools require a 2:1 degree (upper second-class honors) which is roughly equivalent to a 3.3-3.7 GPA range at U.S. universities. (This aligns closely with the average GPA of competitive U.S. master’s programs, which is 3.5.) Extremely competitive U.K. schools, however, may have a higher GPA requirement – often closer to the US equivalent of 3.8.

It’s also important be mindful of the difference between a CV and a resume. U.K. master’s programs often prefer a CV, which emphasizes academic qualifications and achievements over professional experience. In this case, applicants should draft a CV with a robust academic section at the top. CVs tend to be two to three pages in length, whereas US resumes tend to be one to two pages.

Finally, U.S. master’s programs have traditionally required standardized testing, such as the GRE or GMAT. That said, many schools have temporarily paused their test score requirements due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While some schools will begin requiring test scores again, others may permanently move to a test-optional application process.

Post-Graduation Work Options in Country

International students who have completed a master’s program in the U.K. can remain in the country for up to two years after their studies — known as the U.K. Graduate Route. It’s important to remember this route is unsponsored, which means that staying in the U.K. for up to two years is not tied to securing employment. Graduates can work, look for work, or freelance with no restriction on employment skill level or salary.

In the U.S., the path to domestic post-graduate options for international students is less straightforward. International students pursuing a master’s degree in the U.S. generally have F1 visa status, which enables them to stay in the US for 12-36 months after graduation — Optional Practical Training (OPT). The time frame depends on the area of study (12 months for non-STEM programs and up to 36 months for STEM programs) as well as when and how students utilize OPT — either pre- or post-completion.

Pre-completion OPT allows students to use their OPT during academic study, whereas post-completion OPT is specifically for work after graduation and comes with specific work requirements, (i.e., a graduate must work at least 20 hours a week). Pre-completion OPT cannot be utilized immediately, however. Students must complete one full year of full-time enrollment in a program before they can use it. Further, pre-completion OPT is rarely used as most students prefer to save their 12-36 months of OPT for post-graduation.

An important caveat for OPT is that work with recognized international organizations may be exempt from requirements. For example, students undertaking work with an international organization can generally do so immediately rather than waiting to complete a full academic year. Additionally, work with international organizations is not deducted from the OPT period.

The specificities of the U.S. visa system for international master’s students make it crucial to check in with your institution’s International Student Services office to ensure you approach OPT strategically and are in compliance with visa rules.

Applied Learning and Industry Hubs

Studying in an industry hub can play a pivotal role in enhancing academic coursework and bolstering professional experience. For example, major metropolitan cities like New York, Boston, Washington DC, and San Francisco in the U.S., or London in the U.K., are hubs for the financial, public, and energy sectors as well as international and multilateral organizations. Researching the best industry hub for your area of study will not only provide a better learning experience, but also more abundant co-curricular opportunities within your field.

Co-curricular involvement is often as important as academic study, particularly for professional and practitioner-oriented degrees. From semester-based internships to networking events, the options available while studying in an industry hub can be key to securing post-graduation employment. When researching master’s programs, make sure you consider what types of professional development opportunities will be available to you.

Deciding between programs in the U.S. and U.K. necessitates in-depth research into costs, duration, educational and pedagogical approaches, and co-curricular opportunities. While both countries offer exciting graduate options, make sure you thoughtfully and strategically select schools that best fit your academic and professional goals.

At IvyWise, we work with students through every facet of their educational journey, including applying to graduate degree programs in the U.S. and abroad. Our counselors can work with you to craft outstanding applications that will set you apart during the admissions process. For help deciding which master’s programs and locations are the best-fit for your career aspirations and goals, contact us today.

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