When we refer to “graduate study” we generally mean any study you do after finishing your bachelor’s degree programme. In other words “graduate study” is the same as what Kiwis call “postgraduate study.”
There are two levels of graduate degree programmes in the US – a master’s degree and a doctoral (PhD) degree.
The master’s degree usually takes one to three years of full-time study. There are two main types of master’s degree programmes – professional master’s degrees and research master’s degrees.
Professional master’s degrees are certificates of competence in specialised fields and often have some type of internship or fieldwork component. They provide a specific set of skills needed to practice a particular profession and generally lead directly to employment. The MBA (Master of Business Administration) and MEd (Master of Education) degrees are two examples of this type of master’s degree.
Research master’s degrees are generally part of the progression to a PhD programme. They provide experience in research and scholarship and may involve writing a thesis or taking a comprehensive examination. Academic performance in a research master’s programme can determine whether a student is likely to be allowed to continue on to a PhD programme. Examples of research master’s degree programmes are the Master of Arts (MA) and the Master of Science (MS) degrees.
Doctoral (PhD) degree
The main purpose of a PhD programme is to train research scholars in a particular field. The doctoral degree typically involves both coursework and a major research project. It usually takes four to six years of full-time study to get a PhD. Some doctoral programmes include a master’s degree programme, with students beginning directly after they complete their bachelor’s degree. Some doctoral programmes require the completion of a master’s degree before the beginning of doctoral studies.
The first two years of a PhD programme involve classes and seminars to give the student a comprehensive knowledge of an academic field. Following this period of study, students take written and/or oral examinations to test their knowledge. Successful completion of the exams and approval of a research project leads to “candidacy.”
The research project involves original research and, depending on the field, should take one to three years to complete. Faculty members guide the process of formulating the research project and evaluate the resultant thesis, but the student carries out the research independently.
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Admission requirements vary significantly depending on the university and department. Some institutions are very selective, while others accept most applicants.
Graduate student applications are generally reviewed with an emphasis placed on the last two years of their undergraduate study programme. In general, the following four factors will be key in assessing your application:
- academic record (you generally need to have an honours degree and a minimum of a “B” average in your undergraduate studies);
- personal statement/application essay;
- scores on standardised tests such as the GRE, GMAT, and if applicable the TOEFL.
Financial aid for graduate study in the US
A graduate degree from a US university can cost as much as US$40,000 per year. You need to explore as many possible avenues for funding assistance as you can. It is also important to note that you will almost certainly be required to meet a portion of the cost of graduate study in the US. Very few scholarships pay a student’s entire costs, and many granting agencies are more inclined to give partial financial aid to students who will be able to contribute something toward the cost of their own education.
A good starting point for your financial aid search is Fulbright New Zealand’s library where we have a number of books listing sources of financial aid for graduate study in the US. We have also compiled a spreadsheet of complementary scholarships available in New Zealand which may be held concurrently to a Fulbright award, and a booklet on Funding for Graduate Study in the United States.
The not-for-profit Funding Information Service provides the searchable BreakOut database, which is New Zealand’s primary source of funding information about scholarships, awards and grants for students and researchers. The Institute of International Education’s Funding for US Study website is an extensive American database of scholarships, fellowships and grants.
Applying for financial aid – start now!
The average turnaround time – from initial application to offer of funding – takes from six to nine months. Deadlines for funding applications often occur up to 12 months before the actual date of enrolment. This means you should start identifying sources of aid and requesting applications starting in July and August of the year before you wish to commence your studies.
You need to identify important deadlines early on in the process and work towards meeting them. All forms of financial aid (including university-based aid) have deadlines that are independent from entrance application deadlines. It is not uncommon for financial aid application deadlines to occur before admission application deadlines. Try to avoid the all-too-common dilemma of being offered admission to the programme of your choice without having secured adequate funding.
There are three main sources of funding for international students: university-based sources, private sources, and government sources. The general rule is that there is more money available in the hard sciences and social sciences than in the arts, humanities, and education, and there is more money in the humanities, arts, and education than in business and law.
The most common funding source for international students is from the university. There is generally more money available to PhD students than to master’s students. Common types of university-based funding are teaching assistantships, research assistantships, lab assistantships, tuition and fee waivers, and stipends.
University-based aid often comes from the academic department. It pays to do some in-depth investigation into the research interests of the departments to which you plan to apply. How well you match your research goals with those of the department is directly related to whether they offer you funding. It is important to show a clear understanding of the department’s research and to demonstrate that you have some new and innovative approach to contribute to their work.
Private sources of funding consist of grants, fellowships, and scholarships. There are many private sources of funding that offer aid to international students (even if they don’t specifically state it in their information materials).
These sources may be from New Zealand, the US, or elsewhere. Universities usually have resource materials listing private donors to help you research funding.
Private sources of funding can be useful for students at two stages in their graduate careers: the very beginning and the very end. Funding opportunities for first-time master’s degree and PhD students often come in the form of fellowships (money for tuition and/or living expenses). For those nearing the end of their graduate study, funding often comes in the form of grants (money to cover research or project-specific expenses).
There are many smaller awards that you may not consider. This is a mistake. Although an award in the $250-$1,000 range may not put much of a dent in your total costs, it will help defray the costs of books and supplies for a semester, and it is an invaluable investment for the future. Potential sponsors look favourably on past grant winners – these awards, even small ones, may help you secure other larger awards later on in your educational and professional career.
US government-supported financial aid is normally reserved for citizens or legal permanent residents of the US. The one notable exception is the Fulbright programme, which receives both US government and New Zealand government support. Check out the range of awards for New Zealand graduate students offered by Fulbright New Zealand.
Other sources of funding may include bank loans from either New Zealand or the US, working on campus or voluntary bonding to a sponsoring employer, trade body or community organisation. See our Funding for Graduate Study in the United States booklet for details.
New Zealand Fulbright grantees and alumni Paul Burnaby, Gareth Farr and Lucila van Dam discuss their experiences of graduate university study in the United States of America in these videos: