Graduate Study Abroad

  | James Innes

Study abroad is often a very rewarding experience - it can also be very challenging. So it makes sense to spend some time carefully considering whether it is the right path for you to take. It is also a good idea to bear in mind that the application procedures can be time consuming and you may need to begin to plan your post-graduate study abroad towards the beginning of your penultimate year of study.

What Are Your Aims?

Before you begin to research the type of study you would like to undertake abroad, it can be very useful to ascertain exactly what you would like to achieve while you are abroad. Are you motivated by the opportunity to undertake research with leading experts in your field, to gain further academic qualifications, skills and languages, or are you primarily searching for a cultural experience?

All of these points will of course affect the country you choose to go to, the nature of the study you undertake and the duration of your period abroad. Once you have narrowed down your objectives it is then time to embark on some thorough research to try to make sure that your time spent abroad meets your criteria.

Research Student or Further Qualifications?

When undertaking post-graduate study abroad, you may find that you have the opportunity to study either as a research student, (in which case you are unlikely to gain any formal qualifications from the period spent abroad) or you may have the opportunity to enter into a formal course of post-graduate study. If you are considering taking formal qualifications abroad, it is usually a good idea to make sure that the qualifications you hope to attain will be formally recognised within the country in which you intend to work after your studies - and of course by recruiters in the field in which you plan to be subsequently employed.

Location or Expertise?

In an ideal world, the leading light within your subject would also be located in the destination of your dreams... unfortunately this isn't often the case! It can therefore once again be very useful to consider your objectives carefully. If language skills and the cultural aspects of your destination play a significant role in your plans and future career path, then your choice of country may well take priority over your choice of supervisor. However if you are focussing on increasing your knowledge in your specialist area, then it may be far more appropriate to plan your choice of location and institution around the availability of experts in your field, or based on the facilities available in different locations. Consider discussing the possibility of further study abroad with your undergraduate lecturers to see if they can suggest appropriate supervisors abroad.


The duration of your trip abroad is also likely to be governed by your objectives. A period of study, which does not involve formal qualifications, is likely to be more flexible in terms of duration, especially for shorter periods abroad. If you are working towards a post-graduate qualification you are likely to need to spend at least a year abroad. It is also worth considering to what extent language skills will be necessary to make the most of your studies abroad, and whether you need to allow time for language lessons abroad before your course begins.


It is, of course, also important to consider how your trip will be funded - do you intend to apply for grants and scholarships, or would you be able to cover the cost of transport, living expenses and university fees yourself? If you are planning to apply for funding, consider contacting the embassies of the countries you are interested in studying in. Embassies are often able to provide comprehensive lists of university contact details along with information regarding the range of grants and scholarships they administer. It is particularly important to plan ahead when organising funding, as application deadlines can be more than 18 months in advance of the beginning of the period of study abroad.

Culture Shock!

A case study based on the experiences of a Japanese Mext Scholarship recipient.

The Japanese Mext Scholarship is open to graduates from a wide range of disciplines as long as they are under the age of 35. Contact the Embassy of Japan for further details.

Alex Blum took a BA in Fine Art at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and decided to follow her interest in Japanese visual arts by applying for a Mext research scholarship for post-graduate study in Japan.

In the April of her penultimate year of study, she checked the application procedures and deadlines with the Japanese embassy in London, and then wrote to several fine art departments in Japan enclosing a study plan and slides of her work. In the meantime she set about completing the extensive application forms, which required a detailed study proposal as well as proof of academic results. Her undergraduate lecturers advised her to try to come up with a very specific study plan and one which would follow on from the work she had been producing at undergraduate level. In response to the information she had submitted to the fine art departments in Japan she received several replies which stated that they would be pleased to accept her as a student, if she managed to gain the Mext scholarship.

Her plan was to take up research studies in fine art for 18 months. However she also knew that with this particular scholarship there would be an opportunity to remain in Japan for longer than 18 months and to enter a Masters course in the future. The deadline for the completed application forms to reach the embassy was in the June of that year and she received notification during the summer holidays that she had been selected for interview at the embassy in London.

The interview was rigorous, but she was fortunate enough to be awarded a scholarship to begin in the October of the year she graduated. The terms of the scholarship did not dictate that you needed to be able to speak Japanese before you applied for the scholarship, however it did stipulate that the first five months of the scholarship would be mainly dedicated to language lessons. This was a great help as it made the subsequent year of study in the fine art department at Kyoto University of Arts much more rewarding. Over the New Year period, of the first year she was in Japan, she enrolled for a 2-week home-stay program which also improved the proficiency of her spoken Japanese. It certainly made life a lot easier once her Japanese language skills were improved.

Life in Japan was constantly interesting and surprising and being a fine artist she was particularly interested in the culture of the country. She had selected Kyoto as the city she wanted to be based in because, in contrast to Tokyo and nearby Osaka, it still retains many temples and other traditional aspects of Japanese life. Fortunately many of the trials and tribulations of everyday life (renting accommodation, opening a bank account, etc.) were dealt with by the exchange student liaison officer at her host university, as part of the terms of her scholarship. However there were of course the usual stresses and strains of everyday life, which often seem to be magnified when living in a very different culture - not least the fact of being very far away from home. Of course these added challenges also made it a very exhilarating experience!

After a very productive year, continuing with her own work in the painting department of Kyoto University of Arts, learning Japanese and studying the history of Buddhist art and architecture she embarked on a project to mount an exhibition in Kyoto of her work with a fellow Mext scholar and architecture student. This was not a requirement of the scholarship, but certainly a very worthwhile project in terms of experience and career progression. As the end of the initial 18 months came closer she needed to decide whether to convert her research studentship into a masters course or whether to return to the UK. After much thought, she decided to return to the UK to pursue her career as an artist in London. Enriched by the experience of study abroad she returned to the UK and gained a studio residency award in London, which enabled her to continue to expand upon the work she had begun in Japan. She still maintains her links with Japan and Japanese painting and architecture continues to inform her work. After having spent 5 years in London she teamed up with two other former Mext scholars in 2004 to produce an exhibition of their recent work at the embassy of Japan in London. In Alex's case 18 months study abroad was certainly an enriching experience and one which continues to impact upon her career.

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