As the world's most popular study abroad destination, the USA has plenty to offer you as an international postgraduate. You'll be one of over 900,000 overseas students, many of whom study on the country's renowned graduate programmes.
But America isn't just the most popular choice for international study. It's also one of the biggest. With 50 states, 9.8 million square miles and over 4,300 higher education providers, there's a lot to take in when considering a Masters study in the USA.
That's where this guide comes in. We've put together detailed advice on everything you need to know about postgraduate study in the USA, from course structure and grading to applications and visas.
Postgraduate opportunities in the USA – what’s on offer for 2021?
There are over 4,300 universities and other higher education providers in the USA. Only around 1,700 of them offer Masters-level degrees (which narrows things down slightly). But there's still a huge variety of institutions to choose from.
American graduate programs are world-renowned for their comprehensive approach to postgraduate education, combining enhanced subject knowledge and research opportunities with the development of a suite of transferrable skills.
Here are some of the best reasons to consider a Masters in America this year:
- World-class universities – American institutions dominate the global rankings for universities – out of the top 50 in Times Higher Education’s league, 24 are based in the US. Find out more about postgraduate rankings in the USA.
- International outlook – America is by far the most popular destination for international students, and with good reason – its institutions offer an unparalleled breadth of qualifications to choose from.
- Funding opportunities – It’s true that Masters in America won’t necessarily be cheap, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of funding opportunities for talented overseas students.
What's different about postgraduate study in the USA?
But there are a few things that make postgraduate study at American universities quite unique.
'Graduate' vs 'postgraduate'
First things first: Americans don't tend to use the term 'postgraduate'. At least not in the same way as universities and students in other countries.
Rather than studying as a 'postgraduate' in the USA, you’ll probably be enrolled onto a 'graduate' programme. This may also be organised within a specific 'graduate school' (or 'grad school') at your university.
The word 'postgraduate' (or 'post-graduate') is still sometimes used at American universities. But it normally refers to someone who has completed graduate level training up to PhD level.
Such a person would probably be looking for a post-doctoral or early career academic position, not a Masters degree. So be careful not to accidentally promote yourself up the academic ladder!
For the sake of simplicity, we'll keep using 'postgraduate' on this page. Don't worry if you see American universities using the term 'graduate' instead though.
No pure research degrees
This is probably the most striking feature of higher education in the USA: almost all programmes include taught units and assessments.
This may surprise you if you're familiar with a system such as the UK's, in which Masters degrees can be either taught or research focussed.
Masters degrees (and PhDs) in the USA are much more structured. You'll still be expected to think and study independently, but you'll be assessed much more formally and consistently across your programme.
This means that you won't be able to study a standalone research Masters such as the MRes (Master of Research) or MPhil (Master of Philosophy) in the USA.
In fact, even PhD programmes in the USA normally include initial taught training and examinations before a student proceeds to the final ABD ('all but dissertation') stage and completes their thesis.
This approach has its advantages. You'll benefit from more organised training and will acquire a range of complementary skills alongside your academic degree. In fact, universities elsewhere are increasingly mimicking the American model, with a structured approach to postgraduate education.
As a Masters student in the USA you’ll be able to have it both ways. You'll experience a ‘modern’ approach to postgraduate study within a higher education system that has extensive experience delivering these comprehensive programmes.
Regular assessment and grading
A structured approach to postgraduate training also means that a US Masters degree often involves more continuous assessment.
Masters degrees in other countries often involve a smaller number of large assessments. You might only have one coursework essay to produce for each module, with other work such as seminar preparation and discussion not contributing to your final grade.
In the USA this system is reversed. You'll be set more regular tasks, ranging from in-class examinations on core knowledge to shorter coursework essays. Marks for these will be converted into a Grade Point Average (GPA), reflecting progress across your course.
Don’t worry about losing the opportunity to dig in and undertake more substantial academic work either. Your Masters will almost certainly conclude with a substantial independent dissertation. This will be your chance to really apply the knowledge and skills you’ve developed as a postgraduate.
If you’re approaching the prospect of postgraduate study in the USA for the first time, the sheer range of options on offer can appear a bit daunting.
Don't worry though. The US higher education system is easier to understand once you can distinguish between the different types of American higher education institution and the kinds of programmes they typically offer.
Unlike countries such as the UK where colleges tend to be pre-tertiary-level institutions, Americans often use the term ‘college’ as an equivalent term for ‘university’; so, ‘going to university’ becomes ‘going to college’.
However, ‘college’ is more often used in this way to refer to undergraduate education. With some notable exceptions, institutions that refer to themselves as colleges are usually smaller, with a focus on a few subject areas. They may not always offer postgraduate programmes.
There are two common types of higher education college in the US:
- Community colleges only offer undergraduate programmes (many of which are associate’s degrees, preparing students for Bachelors level study).
- Liberal arts colleges may have postgraduate programmes awarding Masters degrees and even PhDs, but the majority focus on undergraduate education through a combined liberal arts and science curriculum.
To be classed as a university in the USA, an institution normally has to include a certain number of faculties or schools. Some of these will focus on specific subjects. Others will focus on a particular level of teaching.
In fact, it's common for a large American university to include dedicated undergraduate colleges as well as more advanced graduate schools.
Whatever their make-up, universities are where most academic research happens in the USA. This means they also have the expertise and facilities to deliver advanced degrees such as Masters and PhD qualifications.
Individual universities in the USA may be either public or private, depending on their funding status.
- Public universities in the USA are funded and administered as part of state university systems rather than the federal government. They tend to be large and often very prestigious institutions, sometimes operating across a network of sites in different major cities (in which case individual campuses may also specialise in particular academic fields). Most US states maintain a single state university system, but some operate more than one. Because they are supported by state funding, fees at public universities are usually lower than those at private universities.
- Private universities in the USA are not funded by the state, but neither are they necessarily run on a commercial (for-profit) basis. Instead they sustain their research and teaching activity through external investment (from charities or other organisations), and with the revenues they raise from tuition fees. Private universities are often more expensive than state universities, but most will also offer scholarships and other funding packages to help encourage and support students – including international postgraduates.
Graduate schools are the academic centres responsible for training students at Masters and PhD level in the USA. In fact, American students may speak of going from ‘college’ to ‘graduate school’ (or ‘grad school’).
Graduate schools often exist as part of larger universities. They draw on their institution's facilities and expertise, but focus on the delivery of advanced degrees through graduate programmes.
An individual American university may have more than one graduate school, specialising in different subject areas.
Graduate schools focussing on professional training may also be given titles that reflect this. Common examples include business schools, medical schools and law schools.
Such schools are sometimes referred to in the abstract as ‘professional schools’ to distinguish them from academically orientated ‘graduate schools’.
American university organisations
The US higher education system is home to various organisations and groups of universities, some of which are internationally famous.
You've probably heard of the Ivy League, for example (though you might be surprised to learn that this prestigious grouping was originally formed as a sporting association).
It can be worth knowing a little about organisations like this as you investigate postgraduate study in the USA.
The Ivy League
We may as well start with the big one. The Ivy League is probably the most famous university association in the world. Its name is shorthand for academic excellence and student prestige.
The Ivy League members are:
- Brown University (established in 1764)
- Columbia University (established in 1754)
- Cornell University (established in 1865)
- Dartmouth College(established in 1769)
- Harvard University (established in 1636)
- University of Pennsylvania (established in 1740)
- Princeton University (established in 1746)
- Yale University (established in 1701)
Seven of these universities pre-date the formation of the USA itself, with their origins in colonial colleges established during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Today the Ivy League is associated with academic renown. It functions similarly to the UK's Russell Group, or the Australian Group of Eight: an association of a country's most elite and selective universities.
But, unlike those other groups, the Ivy League doesn't admit members based on their quality. In fact, it doesn't admit new members at all.
Ivy League universities do have plenty to be proud of (fourteen of their graduates have gone on to be US presidents). They're also very selective, admitting around 10% of the students who apply to them.
But they aren't the be-all and end-all of elite US education. Many of the country's top universities aren't even members.
The private nature of the Ivy League has led some top public universities in the US to be referred to as 'Public Ivies'.
The Public Ivies aren't a formal association (and their 'membership' is completely unofficial). But the term is still a meaningful mark of respect.
It effectively means that a public university is regarded as being of Ivy League quality – a significant accolade!
The Association of American Universities (AAU)
The Association of American Universities is a membership organisation comprising leading public and private North American research universities. (It includes 60 US institutions as well as two in Canada).
In practice the AAU is similar to the UK’s Russell Group. Membership serves as a badge of quality and allows universities to collectively lobby on higher education issues.
The AAU includes seven of the eight Ivy League members as well as numerous other prestigious public and private institutions.
The Carnegie Classification of American Universities
The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education is a well-established system for categorising American higher education providers.
It is based on the number of programmes they offer at different levels, and the dominance of different subject areas in their research and training activity.
This means that the Carnegie Classification can be useful for international students trying to distinguish between several unfamiliar American institutions. (Though it isn't a postgraduate ranking table).
The Basic Classification groups institutions according to the level and size of their degree programmes.
Where a university offers postgraduate programmes, you can also use its Graduate Instructional Program Classification to see which disciplines predominate in its provision.
American university cities
Just as you’d expect from a country with a population of 325 million, America has a huge range of towns and cities to choose from for your Masters. Whether you’re looking for a heaving metropolis or an intimate college town, chances are you’ll be able to find your perfect fit somewhere among America’s 50 diverse states.
This is just a small selection of some of the more popular options for international postgraduates in the USA:
Masters degrees in the USA serve a similar purpose to those in other countries. They are postgraduate (or 'graduate') degrees, following a related undergraduate course. Some offer the chance to study an academic subject in more depth. Others provide advanced technical or professional training.
The main differences between postgraduate qualifications in the USA and their international equivalents are structural.
Studying for an American Masters degree will usually involve enrolling in an institution’s graduate programme.
You'll work towards your degree, with regular assessments and training tasks. But you'll often also receive more general training. This will make you a well-rounded graduate, with a range of transferable skills complementing your subject expertise.
How long is a Masters degree in the USA?
A Masters degree at an American university usually takes around two years of full-time study to complete (though some courses are shorter).
This is longer than in some other countries (such as the UK) but reflects the greater emphasis on structured training and regular assessment on a US graduate programme.
In most cases, the greater length of your degree will be offset by the additional development opportunities and transferable skills you acquire during it.
Possession of an American Masters degree may also shorten the amount of time required to achieve a PhD in the same field.
What's it like to study a Masters degree in the USA?
In some ways, American Masters degrees are a lot like those in other countries. You'll study at a more advanced level and be expected to think and study more independently.
But, as we've made clear throughout this guide, you'll also have a much more structured experience than some other international postgraduates. Assessments will be more frequent and you'll be encouraged (or required) to undertake supplementary training.
Your day to day experience will depend on the type of graduate programme you enrol on and what its intended outcomes are.
It's helpful to divide these into two broad categories: academic programmes and professional programmes.
Academic Masters programmes are similar to traditional taught Masters degrees in other countries. They focus upon broad subject areas and conclude with a substantial research task and the submission of an associated thesis.
However, they tend to be less specialised than their international equivalents.
Instead of narrowing their field of study, American Masters students continue to develop a more comprehensive knowledge of their discipline at an advanced level.
This makes sense given the nature of undergraduate education in the USA, which allows students to study a diverse range of subjects before finally declaring a one to ‘major’ in.
For students progressing from such a system, selecting a Masters degree in a broad subject area is itself a form of specialisation.
In most cases, students on academic Masters programmes choose from a range of modules. (These may be referred to as ‘courses’ or ‘classes’).
Modules delivering core disciplinary knowledge or methodological training are usually mandatory. Others will be ‘elective’ – giving you the freedom to shape parts of your degree according to your own interests.
The opportunity to pursue your specific interests in greater depth comes at the dissertation stage of an American academic Masters programme.
This is similar to the equivalent task in countries such as the UK: involving a significant independent research project, supervised by a scholar with relevant expertise.
Professional Masters programmes do as their name suggests. They provide the vocational skills and technical training required for particular professional careers.
Many are accredited, allowing graduates to work in regulated careers. (Though, as an international student you should bear in mind that US professional accreditation won't necessarily be recognised overseas).
Professional Masters programmes are likely to have fewer elective modules than academic programmes. Instead you will be required to complete a stricter syllabus of core training. This ensures that students graduate with the specific competencies stipulated by a profession (and its accreditors).
These programmes are often offered by specialist graduate schools with appropriate titles. MBA programmes, for example are normally delivered by dedicated business schools. Law programmes, meanwhile, are offered by law schools (and so on).
Such schools often have their own external partnerships with businesses and other professional organisations. The presence of these can have a significant impact on the content of a Masters – and enhance its prestige.
Whereas academic Masters programmes conclude with a dissertation, professional Masters programmes usually replace this with a formal internship in a relevant company or other organisation.
How are US Masters degrees assessed and graded?
Masters degrees in the USA are usually organised into modules. Some will be mandatory and some will be elective. Your final grade will be determined by a weighted combination of the grades you receive across these individual units (including any dissertation project or internship).
This is similar to the system used in other higher education systems around the world. But what makes the USA unique is its emphasis on continuous assessment and its use of a Grade Point Average (GPA) system (see below).
Masters programmes in countries such as the UK are more likely to assess students at the conclusion of modules. The USA, on the other hand, favours regular evaluation and feedback.
Exact assessment practices will vary between subject areas and courses. You can usually expect to be set a series of routine coursework tasks in addition to more substantive assignments. Some graduate programmes may also base part of your grade on your participation in group sessions.
What is a Grade Point Average?
Most Masters degrees and graduate programmes in the USA use a Grade Point Average (GPA) system to reflect student performance.
Put simply, a Grade Point Average is the weighted average of all the grades you have received so far on your course. The weight of each mark will depend on its significance within your course. This usually corresponds with the number of hours of study it is held to represent.
Maintaining a strong GPA can be important if you receive funding for your Masters degree. Scholarships may set performance requirements for financial support to continue or renew during your course.
Converting a UK Masters grade to a US GPA
At some point, either before or after your Masters in the USA, you'll need to convert a foreign grade into a GPA. Or convert a GPA into a foreign grade.
Universities will normally be able to help you do this. Particularly if you need to provide a GPA equivalent as part of your application.
The table below provides an approximate guide to the equivalence between Masters grades in the UK and US GPA scores.