(The Free Press Journal publishes articles by study abroad consultants, Consulates, foreign universities, international students, and much more every Saturday to give its readers a glimpse of the world of overseas education.)
Students who are aspiring to study abroad face a particularly difficult dilemma in deciding which course or college they should go for. The course and college you choose can make a significant difference to your career trajectory and programme your long-term personality. Given the plethora of universities and courses that have mushroomed in the last decade, here are some essential metrics that will help you to make an informed decision:
1) Is the starting salary equal to the one-year fee? A good heuristic I've developed to judge courses is to evaluate if the salary you'd get after graduating equals to the one-year fee for that course. This will allow you to get a good return on your investment and you'd be able to pay off any loans without burdening yourself financially. In a baseline scenario, you are likely to save 33% of your salary in a foreign country. And that would enable you to pay off your student loans in 6 years (for a 2-year programme). A course should not demand an exorbitant fee if it can't equip you to earn well enough.
2) Network, Network, and Network: I am surprised by how little students network with the alumni of the universities they wish to attend. LinkedIn has opened up a new world today where all of us have access to people who've attended every imaginable university. Suppose you are interested in studying at London School of Economics (LSE) for an MSc in Economics. I would implore you to follow people who have attended that course at LSE and see whether their profile is aspirational to you or makes you more ambitious. I spoke to at least 10 people from my target universities. Simply drop them a well-crafted cold email and request a 20-minute phone call. Ask them how their experience was, what they learned, and whether the course met their expectations. There is no better source of information than a firsthand conversation with the people who have already attended the course you aspire to get into. It is as simple as that.
3) Avoid cash cows: Many courses are simply ‘cash cows’ for the respective university department. Because universities often have to attract and fund PhD students and dole out research grants, they will often use some courses to bring in their cash flows. The simplest way to assess if a course is a cash cow is to see if they offer any scholarships. If they do not, the department probably does not care much about the academic quality of that course. [My course at Yale offered no scholarships, but it had other qualities that made up for that such as visa sponsorship, world-class faculty, and brand value.]
4) Assess the credibility of the curriculum and the faculty: Give yourself three hours on a Saturday morning to closely scrutinise the course catalogue. By using smart keywords on Google search, you should easily find the entire course catalogue with the detailed syllabi. See if this resonates with you and whether it looks intellectually challenging to you. Similarly, check the CVs of at least 3 professors of that department. Look at their journal publications and see the impact factor of that journal. See if that university has good research centres, and whether the professors are accomplished or not. You'd be surprised to see how many less-famous US universities have stellar faculty, and how much their students succeed in the real world.
5) Visa sponsorship: No university or course is worth it if you do not get a visa sponsorship to work in that country after graduating. It is often a depressing signal if a high proportion of students have to come back to their home country after finishing a course. I would encourage you to even email the admissions committee or department helpline asking for visa sponsorship prospects after you graduate from the respective course.
6) Conventional wisdom: I am not going to go deep on this one because this is conventional wisdom. Of course, brand reputation, location, and the alumni track record matter. For some fields like Computer Science, these matter less. But for an MBA or Master's in Economics, it truly matters.
You must be thinking that you don't have the mental bandwidth to undertake so much effort. But think of these measures as a way to future-proof yourself and to take a much more informed decision than your peers. You are going to miss out on home-cooked meals, the warmth of your family, and spend significant monetary resources; you better undertake all these sacrifices only for something worth it.