Studying abroad at the world’s top universities and experiencing new cultures in a foreign land has always been one of my biggest dreams for as long as I can remember. Fifteen years later, after four incredible undergraduate years at Institut Teknologi Bandung, I am fortunate enough to have spent the past three years of my life studying abroad, first at the University of Oxford in the UK, and currently at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, USA, both for a master’s in computer science specializing in artificial intelligence. As I aspire to continue for a PhD, I am faced with the question that has inevitably come up in many prospective students’ minds – “Should I apply to universities in the UK or US? Which country is better for studying abroad? Aren’t they just more or less the same? How are they different?”. While the answer ultimately depends on each individual circumstances and universities, I would like to share my first-hand experience as an Indonesian student in the two countries.
Academic Life. While the two countries might seem similar on the surface, their academic systems are extremely different. UK degrees are invariably shorter, with Bachelor, Master, and Doctoral degrees typically taking 3, 1, and 4 years, respectively, compared with 4, 2, and 5 years in the US counterparts. The UK academic evaluation might also be less familiar for Indonesian undergraduates, with a 0-100 grading scale and strict degree classifications (e.g. Above 70 is a Distinction/First Class Honours, hence the difference between 65 and 70 is extremely significant since they result in different classifications, while between 70 and 75 is inconsequential), as opposed to the more common 4.0-scale GPA in the US. While the shorter UK degree is better for those aspiring to quickly gain a Master’s degree and rejoin the workforce as soon as possible, I personally favor the US system. First, evaluations in the UK are typically conducted only once every term (or even once a year, depending on the university and degree level), thus resulting in more variance and much higher stress level around exam times as these are the sole basis of evaluation. In contrast, the US system takes into account class assignments, projects, and the class participation, with typically more than one exam per semester. Second, the UK Master’s degree is less suited for gaining invaluable experiences outside the classroom (after all, education is much more than just classroom experiences), such as research and internship experiences that are more feasible in the lengthier US Master’s degree.
Social Life. Oxford (and most other major cities and student towns in the UK) wins, hands down. Public transportation is typically much better in the UK, while getting around in many US cities often requires having a car, or having friends who do. In the UK it is difficult not to find a good pub within a mile of walking, which makes for an excellent place to enjoy some good time with friends. Extra points for Oxford for its historic vibes and places much older than my great-great-great-great grandfather; it is hard not to get excited to call the same place home as the likes of Tolkien, Stephen Hawking, Indira Gandhi, and Bill Clinton. The smaller size of the UK also means that it is easier to travel and explore other parts of the country, while driving from Pittsburgh to Chicago/New York will set you back with 7 hours of tedious driving or leaves you $300 poorer should you choose to fly. And no, that’s not even halfway across the country!
Job Prospects. Again this depends on the specific circumstances, but at least in computer science and technology-related fields, the US seems to have a clear upper hand. Most of the tech giants have their headquarter there, and the proximity to Silicon Valley certainly helps. International students in the US typically have an easier time securing internships and permanent jobs in the country through more favorable immigration laws, and outside the financial industry, the pay in the US is generally much better than the UK.
Scholarship Opportunities. From my experience, it is much easier to get a funding from US universities for PhD studies compared to the UK. Nearly all PhD offers in the STEM fields are fully funded by research/teaching assistantships from the university with fairly generous stipend and full tuition coverage, while university funding in the UK is much more complicated and the stipend amounts are typically lower. On the other hand, US tuition is generally much more expensive, which coupled with the strong dollars makes self-funding less practical.
All those being said, after living in two different countries and a research internship in Japan, one thing remains the same: I am extremely grateful to find such a warm, welcoming community of Indonesian scholars abroad in all the places I have been to. Throughout my interactions with many friends of different background and nationalities, I strongly believe that our tradition of kindness and hospitality sets us apart from others; it makes us Indonesian. I have had fellow Indonesian scholars offer me their one and only bike and primary means of transportation because they believe that I need it more as I was settling down in a new place. These are the same people who would selflessly help with moving in and carrying the heavy furniture around without a second thought, who would gladly offer a place to stay and a warm meal for their fellow countrymen in need, even those they never met before. I can only hope to return the favor by welcoming the next generation of Indonesian scholars, and I am confident that our scholars all over the world will one day bring long-awaited changes and help reform our country for a better future.
To those of you embarking on the same path of studying abroad, welcome to the journey, and last but definitely the least, enjoy your time there!
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