The Pros and Cons of international degree programs, or: “Should I do a German Master’s degree?”
I started out wanting to write about Pros and Cons of having done my Master’s in Germany, but the more I think about it, the less relevant I think it actually is for most of you. Sure, I can tell you that paying less than a month’s rent for a year’s worth of tuition was thrilling, or that my first taste of German bureaucracy was… less-thrilling. But I think it’s more helpful to think about how I would tackle the “Should I?” if I had to do it again. To answer that, I’m going to be a pain and answer one question with another: “Why do I want to do this in the first place—and is that reason good enough?”
For me, that reason boiled down to one specific criterion: I wanted to work with a group of scientists whose research interested me, and who seemed interested in my ideas. It had nothing to do with the university itself, or the country, or my personal relationships (if anything, the best reason not to go). I think this is a really important distinction for graduate studies, which are really all about becoming a full-fledged researcher. Especially for Master’s students, whose whole focus should be about getting meaningful and informative research experiences, even if the scale of the study is small, or the results are unsurprising. That is not to say a Master’s project shouldn’t be publishable work—it should be—but that the result is less important than the process at this level. Maybe we can phrase this question another way: “If everything else goes to sh*t, will the real work I’m here to do keep me sane?” In my experience, even when all the other frustrations of being a stranger in a strange land came to bear, I could just build up an impenetrable barrier of fun and interesting work and everything else eventually sorted itself out. So, if you’re debating a big move for your studies, maybe try asking yourself Who you’re moving to work with, rather than Where.
Culture shock in academia
It is an un-enlightening truth that academia is an ever-more diverse world where a culturally-homogenous research group is far rarer than its opposite. It’s a similarly-basic truism that every culture comes with its own norms and that, for better or worse, academia is not immune to their resulting biases. Yet, for many young researchers, it can still be shocking to go from being part of an international research community where you don’t really see the struggles of others trying to keep up with your culture to suddenly finding yourself in their shoes on the other side of an ocean. So, for those of you have made it past the “Should I?”, let’s talk about how to navigate some of the culture shock that comes with working in a new environment.
There are many difficulties that come with international studies. For me, I found the sudden lack of structure—going from homework and multiple tests per semester to a totally hands-off system where a single final determines your whole grade—hard to accept. It became even harder to stay motivated when I started to feel like my fellow students weren’t as invested in their education as I was. I couldn’t shake the idea that many of my peers were just doing grad degrees because they are “free” in Germany and because they didn’t have anything better lined up. This was, of course, mostly me projecting my stress and discomfort onto others, and totally unfair, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel that way. In the second year of my degree, I found myself running headfirst into regulations that made it clear that students in my position weren’t really taken into account when the rules were written. When bringing these concerns to administrators, it was also made clear that these rules weren’t about to change any time soon.
So, what can be done? It depends. The first, biggest step is to do some soul-searching and figure out what parts of your discomfort come from your own biases. This is undoubtedly the hardest thing. Even if you still find yourself disagreeing with something, try to understand why that problem exists, and be willing to admit that some things are just always going to feel a bit alien. If you can be certain that the problem isn’t with your own biases, then don’t be afraid to demand the representation that was promised to you (as happened to me, when a professor didn’t translate their slides in a course that supposed to be taught in English). Science doesn’t work if we aren’t inclusive, and it certainly doesn’t work if our exclusivity gets in the way of educating the next generation. This can feel like beating your head against a wall sometimes, but never forget that you’ve made this jump for a reason, and that everything outside that goal is just a side-effect of what you need to do for your own growth. As you climb the academic ladder, you’ll only find more (and harder) obstacles, so an optimistic take is that learning to deal with these barriers early on is useful experience.
The most important advice I can give is this: when in doubt, forget everything else and focus on the essential. For me, that meant that everything else came second to the research I was doing, and that everything I was doing at the university was just in service to that larger goal. However, it also meant that sometimes I had to set boundaries within the lab group in order to give myself the time I needed to tackle those secondary distractions. This is a balancing act that grad students everywhere face, and it’ll largely come down to your lab environment and how you manage yourself.
Is it worth the trouble?
I hate to sound like a broken record here, but it really all comes down to the Why again. If you have the right motivation for wanting to do a graduate degree, and to follow the pathway into academia, then none of the other distractions really matter. Maybe this is why I didn’t really want to write a Pro-Con piece about international studies; because it’s not really about whether you go overseas or stay in your home town as long as you find the best place to get the experience you want. I’m seeing this now with the new students joining our lab. Some of them are coming from greater distances and are overcoming greater cultural differences than I ever had to, but they’re doing it because they’re seeking something very particular, and the Where doesn’t matter as much. For me, it’s all been worth it. I’ve found an amazing group of friends and collaborators, become a bona-fide published scientist, and I get to be part of an incredibly diverse institute that’s really pushing the boundaries of our field. Oh, and I got a Master’s degree out of it too, but that’s not why I did it.