Before You Accept: 7 Questions to Ask Your Graduate Program as an International Student

Jan 02, 2024
Asian female graduate student sits at desk deep in thought.
Taking five minutes to ask a question before you accept an offer may save you innumerable hours of unexpected stress down the line.

By Chichi Tsai

Studying abroad at the graduate school level can be an exhilarating academic and professional challenge. It can be thrilling to receive offers to work with respected professors at institutions you’ve dreamed of. But –before you accept– make sure you’re aware of the nuances of the international student graduate experience and understand how your program will support you. Taking five minutes to ask a question before accepting an offer may save you innumerable hours of unexpected stress down the line. 

I surveyed 4 different international graduate students in the US on the best questions to ask before you commit to a program. Here are the questions they suggested, as well as some explanations for why they think these questions shouldn’t be ignored.

1. What is the university or professor’s policy on vacation or extended leave?

Flying home internationally can be expensive and time-consuming. Though a good work-life balance is essential for any graduate student, international students often have to navigate changing visa entry rules in both their home and study countries, plan ahead to ensure they will be home for important holidays or events, and account for fluctuating international flights costs on their student budget. Some fellowships expect students to stay for summer programming or may only offer week-long breaks. Other professors prefer their research assistants not to take too much consecutive time off from the lab or don’t allow remote work across time zones as a policy.

Whether you’re planning to take an extended break home to attend a family wedding or are anxious about options in case of a loved one’s medical emergency – ensuring that your host program is flexible and aligns with your expectations for extended days off should not be overlooked. Some degrees can take several years to complete. Knowing that your institution will support your relationship with your life in your passport country –whatever that may look like– can be invaluable. 

2. Does the program have guaranteed funding for international students?

Many graduate programs in the US, especially in STEM disciplines, rely partially on grants from national organizations such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, the National Air and Space Administration, or the Department of Defense to fund graduate students stipends. These funds can sometimes be specifically earmarked for US citizens and cannot be used to pay for research work by foreign nationals. 

Before accepting a program offer, please ensure the program gives you a clear explanation of where your funding will come from. Sometimes, an offer to hire you as a research assistant as part of your funding package can fall through simply because the professor needed to have noticed your international student status when interpreting grant funding rules. You are your best advocate. Make sure that when you accept a program offer, the funding you rely on to complete your degree will be there.

3. What opportunities will there be to complete internships or jobs during the program?

Depending on the country of the host institution and on your visa status, there may be restrictions on what kinds of internships, fieldwork, or summer jobs you can complete during your program. 

For example, in the US, students on an F1 visa can complete off-campus internships before graduation only if it’s associated with their program of study through authorization programs like Curricular Practical Training (CPT). If you’re keen on getting practical professional experience to complement your academic study, ask your program contact about courses that require internships or allow them for credit. Some institutions will allow you to design for-credit courses around an internship experience that will satisfy the authorization requirements. In contrast, others may be stricter and not approve of any outside internships as part of your degree. 

Note that in these cases, your program administrators may not always have all the answers. However, don’t panic! Your international student’s office can help you understand employment regulations and if your Designated School Official will authorize CPT. They are there to support you and guide you through this process.

For students outside the US, be sure to understand what work authorization you will require to take on jobs and professional opportunities during your time of study. Speak to international alums and current students to ask about what support and flexibility they had to take on internships during the program.

4. Does the university give any support for international students to find housing?

There may be many resources to help out international graduate students at your host university. For students unfamiliar with local housing networks or rental rules, having guidance to resources and information can help make one stressful part of the international move much, much easier. Depending on the school, there may even be smaller funds to help international students acclimate to their new surroundings, such as microgrants for winter boots purchases or a donated winter coat closet. Not all institutions will have them, but it doesn’t hurt to ask!

5. If the program only funds 9 months, what are the options for supplemental funding in the summer?

Universities may expect students to find their own paid work during the summer if funding is designed around a 9-month academic year. However, depending on your host country’s employment laws and visa status, you may not have the option to work outside the host institution for pay. What options are there for paid research positions or supplemental funding for international students? It’s best to understand what to expect when planning out your financial future in a multi-year program.  

6. What funds does the program offer for professional development?

A huge draw of going to a graduate program outside your passport country is the opportunity to develop yourself professionally in a different cultural context and job market. Ask the university what funding international students can apply for to attend academic conferences, job fairs, and additional certifications or training. 

7. What support do international students get when applying for jobs and professional training?

Navigating the job market as an international student can come with its own unique challenges. From regional differences in how resumes are formatted, cultural norms in interviewing, and networking etiquette, to understanding how to read job postings and advocate for yourself as a worker with specific employment authorization – it can be difficult to find your footing without a support network and resources to start you off.

Your institution’s career development center might help you with interview and job application etiquette, while the international students’ office may help you familiarize yourself with specific visa and employment rules. Your alumni network may also provide additional guidance and supplemental resources to help you start networking professionally with those in your field in addition to your graduate program.

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Chichi Tsai headshot in desertChichi Tsai is a writer, editor, and aspiring publishing professional. A third-culture kid, she has studied and lived in Taiwan, Indonesia, Russia, and the US.  She earned a B.A. in English with a minor in Education from Smith College, where she was Features Editor of The Sophian and won the Helen Kate Furness Prize. Her passion for books and writing has led her to internships with Handspun Literary Agency, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, W. W. Norton, and ProFellow.

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