It’s been nearly four years since moving to London for grad school and a over two years since finishing my degree. And let me tell you: I have a lot of thoughts, some extremely positive and others not so much.
As you may know, I moved to London in 2018 to pursue an MSc in Politics. I had long hoped to move abroad for my Masters for a variety of reasons. For one, I wanted to get out of the US and go anywhere with universal healthcare. Also, I wanted a more international focus to my degree, something I knew I wouldn’t necessarily get back home.
I considered universities in Sweden, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, and England, before eventually choosing SOAS, mostly for the Conflict, Rights and Justice program that I ended up doing. SOAS is a university with a problematic name and an even more problematic origin story, yet nonetheless one that has in recent history become more or less committed to decolonizing academia. This was key for me.
- Pros & Cons of Moving to London for Grad School
- The Downsides:
- The Upsides:
Pros & Cons of Moving to London for Grad School
There were significant ups and downs to the experience of moving to London for grad school.
Ultimately I made the absolute most out of my year-long program, and spoiler: I don’t regret the decision at all. I wouldn’t change moving to London for grad school, and I honestly don’t even really regret the loans that it took to get me here.
Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t take issue with a lot of what studying outside the US entailed, things I absolutely did not expect coming into the experience. At the end of the day, as similar as Europe and especially the UK may seem to the US, there are major differences in lifestyle and educational norms. If you’re considering choosing a European university for higher education, then this one’s for you. I’ve pulled together my best pros and cons: the ones you won’t find on the message boards. Let’s get started with everything you didn’t know you needed to know about moving to London for grad school!
Unexpected frustrations with moving to London for grad school
1. London is an awful city to be a student in.
Everything is expensive but you and all your friends are broke.
This is true about student life in many major cities both in the US and abroad, but even more true about moving to London for grad school. It’s a wildly spread out city and the tube costs a fortune. There’s no such thing as late night/drunk food in central London, which is conveniently where all the universities are. So, whether you’re living central and traveling to cooler neighborhoods on the weekend to go out, or living somewhere more vibrant and commuting into central London for class, the cost is going to add up quickly.
And that doesn’t even account for the cost of eating out, drinking, or shopping, all of which will quickly drain your bank account. Sadly, it’s also not super easy to make money while studying here either (more on that down below).
Additionally, if you’re thinking about London I would seriously urge you to consider your tolerance for big cities. Before moving to London for grad school I had lived in San Francisco, New York (Manhattan no less), and shortly in Madrid. I can say with absolute certainty that London is the most overwhelming city I’ve lived in. It is extremely sprawling and there are so many people constantly streaming about. Even worse, they don’t move nearly as fast as I was accustomed to in New York. It’s really quite a lot, and this is coming from someone who thinks Amsterdam is a bit too small-town for me.. so truly know your limits.
On the other hand, you should absolutely remedy this situation by getting out of central (where you’ll likely spend lots of time as a student) to explore the rest of London. My guide to the 6 best neighborhoods to visit in South London is a perfect place to start!
2. The grading system is very different.
So you’re going to want to sit down for this one, and maybe grab a pen and paper. It’s by far one of the most confusing things about moving to London for grad school.
The grading scale in British universities is out of 100, just like in the US. However, the similarities end there. If you score 49 or below, you fail. If you score 50-59, you pass. 60-69 is ‘merit,’ which is actually quite good. (Yes, the 60s are good.) Anything above a 70 is ‘distinction,’ which is the highest grade classification you can receive.
I know what you’re thinking—that wasn’t hard at all. But that’s because we aren’t done! You can only feasibly score up to an 80. Some professors may give you scores into the 80s, if you turned in a paper that’s essentially ready to be published in an academic journal. But other than that, 80 is the cap.
So I’m sure you’re wondering about that leftover 20 points. Well, yeah, interestingly so am I! Still. A year later. Why do they mark out of 100 if it’s impossible to come anywhere close? And why is there a range of 10 points that all have the same classification? Why is a 68 not a merit-plus?
It doesn’t make any sense and I’ll never get over it.
Also, for nearly all assignments there is a huge emphasis put on “answering the question,” which at first seems fine enough. However, at the post-graduate level I expected to be challenged to ask my own questions, push back at the parameters of traditional questions, and take things in different directions as my own research interests dictated. To me it feels like undergrad is the place to ensure that students can “answer a question” to the letter. So to have to play this game of “student” and “academic gatekeeper” felt very antiquated to me… Which brings me to the next point:
3. The relationship between student and professor is extremely hierarchical.
The weird game of question answering and a grading scale designed to telegraph that there is always more room for improvement might all be a symptom of the generally weird dynamic I felt existed between student and professor. I think this may be an English thing rather than a postgraduate thing, but either way it didn’t vibe with me.
In undergrad a lot of my classroom experiences felt like a collaboration between professor and student. There was an understanding that while the professor is the expert in the topic, they aren’t the gatekeeper of all knowledge. Thus, we as students were expected and encouraged to explore new ideas and learn from one another. The majority of my professors often began or ended the term by telling the class that they expected to learn from, or had learned from, us as well.
In the UK it feels like there’s a much more defined barrier between you as the person who must receive knowledge, and the professor as the one who holds access to it. There were certainly moments in which this didn’t always prove to be the case, and some professors definitely upheld this status quo much more than others.
Still, the issue felt very pervasive, resulting in many students not contributing at all. Even in seminars where the entire point is to talk, discuss, and try out ideas, many students seemed uncomfortable engaging. This led to an obvious lack of stimulating discussion. A huge bummer considering I had come to grad school to talk about things for a year… not to listen to gatekeepers and have only a handful of classmates contribute every once in a while.
4. You’ll be one of the older people there.
This is really more of a strong observation than a proven fact about moving to London for grad school.
Undergraduate degrees in Europe work pretty differently than in the US. For starters they’re generally only three years. As a result, you already should subtract a year from most of your classmates, who will have gotten their Bachelors degree at 20 or 21.
The shorter time that people stay in undergrad seems to drive them en masse into grad school immediately, something that will be less familiar to most Americans. For one, I think these days people aren’t generally super prepared at 21 to go become working adults who leave student life behind completely, which is extremely fair. Also, it’s like, crazy cheap by American standards for Europeans to get a Masters. Specifically, they pay half of what you as a non-UK/EU student will pay.
For example, my degree cost me, an American, roughly £20,000 total. UK and EU students would pay only about £10,000 for the same degree.
The stakes are just… different.
That is, they’re not quite as high for most of your classmates. If you want to go to grad school in America, it may feel like you have to be ready to lay down your life for your area of study. (Because, to be honest, your total loan amount may actually take over your life.) However, in Europe and elsewhere, it can be seen more like the natural next step of education. Just a fourth year of more specialized study that also happens to award you a Masters.
So, because of all of this you’ll end up studying with a lot of 21 year-olds. Which is fine—seriously, I have nothing against young people—but it does change the dynamic a bit from what I was expecting. Like I said, it can tend to feel a bit like college 2.0.
5. You really won’t be treated like an adult.
Internships, part time jobs, full time jobs, other commitments? Your university won’t care. It should be clear by now, but the general vibe of grad school here is: you’re a student first. You’re here to learn, we have the knowledge, and studying is your job. Your schedule will be given to you and that’s that.
At SOAS, after selecting your classes (which, by the way, you do for both terms, including spring, in the summer before the school year begins), there are no more choices to be made, no ability to shift things around, nada. The day(s) and time(s) each lecture meets aren’t even published until the school year begins, at which point you’re already locked in.
Then, in the second or third week of the ten-week term you’ll be randomly assigned to tutorial (seminar) groups. If you’re a part-time student, you might be able to switch things around to work with your job, but full-time students are out of luck. This can make it extremely difficult to find work, unless you’re able to find something super flexible like a pub or cafe job that doesn’t mind your erratic schedule.
Make sure to ask questions about these things if you plan to work!
I had fully planned on taking on a part-time job or internship while I was studying, which (at least in my undergrad experience) was super normal. All of that went straight down the drain after moving to London for grad school.
I wish I had been able to know this information ahead of time as it would have seriously helped with planning financially for the experience. In the end, it was kind of nice to be able to really just focus on my studies without that added pressure, but it did certainly make things… interesting in a way I didn’t necessarily want!
Why moving to London for grad school was still worth it, despite my frustrations (I promise!)
1. I completed a masters degree in only one year.
I mean, this feels kind of self-explanatory. Moving to London for grad school was a lot cheaper because of this. (If we’re comparing just sticker prices, because financial aid from American universities can change this.) More on this in the next point.
While on the one hand I wanted it to last forever, and I could have lowkey spent 5 years talking about politics with my peers, trust me when I say that unless you’re a very specific type of person who’s lifeblood comes from the academy….you’ll feel pretty ready to be done after a year. More than focusing on the amount of time your program lasts, it’s important to focus on how to make the absolute most out of the time you spend there.
2. THE COST.
So you already know that I paid about £20,000 in tuition. I also took out loans to pay my rent and living expenses while I was in school and unable to work. All said and done I completed my Masters with about $40,000 in loans (note the currency conversion).
In my opinion, that was pretty solid. Especially considering that I would have had to take out loans to assist with living expenses regardless of where I was. And actually, things like rent in London ended up being cheaper for me than back in New York.
Now, as I mentioned, you may get incredible financial aid from grad schools in the US, in which case DO THAT. But if you don’t—and unfortunately many of us won’t—grad school abroad just makes a lot of sense. I could barely even find information on the prices for equivalent US programs to mine, but the average of $36,000-$40,000 per year that I found while looking at American University was pretty much what I expected.
A US Masters would have cost me at least double what the SOAS degree did, and that’s just for tuition and fees.
That price is not even the whole story though. First, moving to London for grad school helped make my living expenses significantly cheaper because things like groceries and medicine are just less expensive across the board outside the US. That’s not to mention the free medical treatment in Europe, which is literally priceless in my opinion. (Though, the UK does charge a fairly hefty insurance fee when you apply for your visa.) I should mention too that visa fees can add up, so that’s something to be aware of.
On the other hand, I didn’t have to take the GRE to study in the UK, and SOAS didn’t expect students to pay for textbooks, so I saved there too. Then, if you factor in the myriad student discounts that exist in the UK and across Europe (for things like trains, museums, etc.), there are a lot of opportunities here and there to save.
I would encourage you to do your own math, factoring for these types of things and your lifestyle—it’s how I decided that the UK just made the most sense for me!
3. Lots of time to travel!
I didn’t study abroad during undergrad, but I know enough about it to know that it’s essentially one long joke term where you drink and maybe study once. To be clear, grad school isn’t that.
But I will say there are a lot fewer assignments. In fact, in my opinion, there’s also a lot less reading than I had even in undergrad. The terms are only 10 weeks long as well, so there’s actually a lot of time off.
When you’re based in Europe you have easy and cheap access to travel not just around Europe, but even parts of North Africa and the Middle East! I went to Morocco on a £26 flight—round trip!
4. There are bars on campus.
This is sort of a joke but actually also one of my favorite parts of grad school. In addition to the on campus cafe you know and love from your US undergrad university, there is just something so perfectly ‘grad school’ about going downstairs to the bar after a lecture, getting a pint, and arguing about socialism.
5. I got to live outside of the US.
Again, this one is kind of priceless if that’s your goal.
I miss my friends and family in America, but I hated living there (even though I love New York). There is a constant base-level anxiety that comes with living in a country that routinely sees people going into debt for medical emergencies, being shot at in any public space, and being surrounded by the overall ignorance and rugged individualism that America loves to peddle. It was just too much for me.
The UK isn’t even that much better in a lot of ways, and actually is arguably even more neoliberal than the States. But, as I always like to point out when the argument inevitably goes down about which is worse: if I get stabbed at the mall in the UK and I live, I can move on with my life. If I get shot at the mall in the US and I live, I may be in medical debt for the rest of my life.
You will probably only go to grad school once, so please make it count.
I leave you with this. Don’t just go moving to London for grad school because everyone else you know is doing it. Don’t go to grad school at all if that’s the case. Or because you feel lost. Or because you don’t know what you want out of life.
Go because you have a clear idea of what you want to study and what specific things you want out of a degree and where you want to be—personally, professionally—once it’s over.
If you’re feeling directionless and sad, you will most likely still feel this way after your degree. You’ll just be sad and directionless with a new level of education and a new mountain of debt.
Research your options extensively, check the different classes every program offers, reach out to professors and former students. I found that most people were super willing to help, and if they aren’t, it’ll probably give you a good idea of how welcoming the actual experience will be as well.
Whether you’re moving to London for grad school or considering somewhere else in Europe, I hope this perspective gave you some useful things to think about as you prepare for the change!