Thanks to a plethora of coaching centres, educational consultants and counsellors, and academic mentoring firms in the country, most students are pretty clear about how to go about when preparing to enrol for an undergraduate program. However, that’s not always the case when it comes to pursuing a master’s program. With the wide variety of course options available at the master’s level, many students, while being spoilt for choice, are also not sure how to choose the right one for them.

To make their life easier, Friday asked Shyamala Elango, director of Inner Universe, a Dubai-based educational consultancy, and Alka Malik, managing director of Ascentria, a leading test-prep centre based in Dubai, to answer a few FAQs on what to keep in mind when pursuing higher education.

Excerpts from the interviews:

What should a student keep in mind when considering a master’s program?

Shyamala Elango

A master’s degree is not a rite of passage. Therefore, its pursuit needs to be thoughtful and must lead to a body of skills and knowledge to help achieve your professional goals/career aspirations.

While the overarching theme could enhance employability and marketability of skills for most applicants, the route has to be personalised to gain maximum value. Understanding the types of graduate programs and what they can do for you can be a good starting point.

A specialist master’s: Designed to equip you with advanced technical skills and career opportunities for a range of industries, a specialised master’s offers the perfect upgrade option. Often delivered in partnership with industry experts, these programs provide a blend of academic and professional experiences. This can be further filtered by categories to provide the customised experience you are looking for.

Augmenting skills: For instance, a master’s in finance and risk management, in social psychology, or in artificial intelligence is perfect flow-ons for those with a relevant bachelor’s degree. Of late, a master’s in business analytics has become increasingly popular.

The crossovers: Often intersecting two academic disciplines, these programs provide technical expertise in more than one academic field. An example is a master’s in sports management or in corporate law. The former combines the tenets of international management with the experience of some of the world’s most innovative sports companies in the marketplace allowing you to acquire the knowledge and maturity that resonates with the sports industry’s evolution.

Complementing skills: Some master’s degrees are gaining popularity due to their ability to combine technical expertise gained in the undergraduate industry with complementary skills from the world of business. Graduate programs in Technology Management or a specialty in Information Systems are classic examples of courses that align the technical expertise with the vision and mission of the business. Likewise, a graduate program in media management takes into account the high-stakes ecosystem that demands more than technical expertise in digital, social and traditional media. They also require an understanding of business – the commercialisation of media and the laws they are expected to conform to.

Shyamala says Europe, Singapore and Australia are some of the emerging academic destinations
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Super specialties: Programs such as master’s in Diplomacy for roles in governance or international relations or in Entrepreneurship to grow your family business can be niche specialties preparing you for your responsibilities beyond the program.

Considering global challenges: Specialist master’s in climate change and sustainable business are examples of emerging trends in graduate programs providing interdisciplinary skills to understand sustainability through the economics of business and create lasting social and environmental impact. As the pandemic compels students and providers to move from staple favourites, this is the perfect time to invest in such distinctive options to create your competitive advantage. Thus, whether you want to play decision-making roles in a technical capacity or lead projects/businesses/people or be part of policy change for the new world – a specialist master’s can come in handy.

A conversion master’s: designed to help remove the wrinkles of an undergraduate degree that perhaps did not sit well with your interests or skills, or perhaps you are a late bloomer – this program will create pathways for you to branch out into another profession. Often referred to as graduate diplomas or master’s conversion programs, they recruit students from any background, allowing you to seamlessly shift between academic tracks within a compact time/ curriculum framework. They are available for entry into a wide variety of fields, including psychology, law or information technology.

An MBA: designed for leadership, these programs allow you to make the leap from a practitioner to a leader within your industry or provide you with the networking opportunities for entrepreneurship or create pathways for switching careers/ roles. Again, there are many types of MBAs – the full time, the executive and online options. Choose the one that matches your needs and profile in terms of work experience.

Alka Malik

The main factor is the motivation, whether it is to enhance the skill level, complement current technical skills with complementary management skills, do something constructive during a break in employment, etc. Once you decide on the program, other key factors are the same as that for a UG application:

• Be realistic about our own interests and skills

• Accreditation and ranking of the university/course

• Course structure and the modules within the program, as similar courses could have different focus areas

• Resources offered by the university/program, which includes the faculty

• Placements of alumni

• Cost and scholarships/funding available

Who can consider taking a break after UG and pursuing an internship/work experience before enrolling for a master’s?

Shyamala

By virtue of their curriculum, some undergraduate majors – like those in biological sciences, psychology or medicine – will need a back-to-back master’s to be equipped for professional placement and recognition. However, many undergraduate degrees – like engineering, computer science, marketing, media – are structured to make graduates work-ready. For such students, opting for work opportunities and internships will give them the chance to sample professional settings, re-evaluate their willingness and readiness, and even push the reset button if they find they have made a wrong choice in their UG. A master’s program must be decided with the outcomes you want to have.

Alka

In most parts of the world, universities do not accept students without at least of couple of years work experience for a master’s program. They believe, and rightly so, that students are able to relate to real-life issues better than those with just theoretical knowledge. The notable exception is in the medical field where an MBBS is followed with a specialisation, and then super specialisation.

A major advantage of getting some work experience before a master’s is that students get a chance to review their career choice. Many students often apply for UG courses without a deep consideration of their own interests. They might opt merely because it’s a popular one, following a friend’s suggestion, or to fulfil their parents’ aspirations. Working in that field could provide greater exposure and can often determine whether their choice was correct and one they want to pursue wholeheartedly. The master’s then provides an opportunity to enhance that skill further, or to help chart a different path.

What do universities look for when choosing students for their master’s programs?

Shyamala

Universities have a set of parameters:

Academic background: Do you have the academic credentials/competency to carry on their graduate program’s rigors? A specialist master’s will require a relevant background, while the conversion programs will expect you to have a bachelor’s degree.

GMAT/GRE scores: Many universities use scores from standardised tests to evaluate intellectual capabilities and reasoning skills. Such scores also allow them to rank your position on a global grid.

Work experience: An MBA, unlike an academic program, is designed to equip you with a suite of professional skills. Therefore, work experience becomes a critical factor in recruitment for an MBA program. Sometimes a low GPA can be compensated by impressive work performance, and community leadership could earn you a spot at top B schools.

Quantitative skills: Many MBAs/master’s programs also require demonstration of quantitative skills. So, if you have not fared too well in the quantitative subjects in your UG program, you are advised to do additional courses to demonstrate your proficiency.

Soft skills: Your resume should highlight examples of leadership, communication and teamwork. The universities would like to see instances where you overcame obstacles, learned from adversity. For your leadership roles, always quantify results/outcomes for each of your experiences.

Evidence of personal growth: Universities look for transferable skills through your career progression, time at each organisation and accomplishments.

Character: Whether it is your civic character showcasing your engagement with your community or the environment, your intellectual character born out of curiosity and wonderment, your performance character measure by your grit and resilience, or your moral character-defining your value system, ‘character’ has become an important metric in the admission rooms.

Then there are some unique preferences like for instance, the European universities are keen to know the number of languages you speak.

Alka

According to the ACS International Schools Report, university admissions officers have listed 10 key attributes that they seek in student applications, likely similar for most good universities internationally:

1. Propensity to complete degree

2. Evidence of passion for chosen subject

3. Good written English

4. Evidence of positive attitude towards study

5. Evidence of ability to think/work independently

6. Confidence with basic maths

7. Ability to persevere and complete tasks

8. Good presentation skills

9. Ability to work well in groups

10. Intercultural awareness

Admissions to premier universities in India, such as IITs, are based primarily on the ranking in their admissions examination.

5 pointers master’s program students should consider

Shyamala

1. Evaluate the curriculum structure – how often are lectures complemented by other opportunities – internships/industry practicums and mentorship/pro bono engagement/clinics? Experiential learning need not always follow the 22 months of study followed by a three-month industry project. Some universities offer a year of practicum after a year of study. This gives rise to what is now fondly becoming known as ‘credegrees’ – degrees by academic institutions packaged with industry credentials.

2. Choose a delivery that resonates best with your requirement, i.e. through research, coursework or a blend.

3. Class size. It translates into a deeper feeling of community, allowing you to forge stronger bonds with faculty and classmates.

4. Location: This can be a good indicator of the dominant industries in the area that match your goals (for instance, Vanderbilt – Healthcare, MSU – Supply Chain, Rice – energy). Checking for alumni engagement will ensure greater networking opportunities.

5. Destination: Based on your academic profile (where you can expect to get the highest yield in terms of application to acceptance) costs and postgraduate employment prospects.

Alka

1. Introspect and select the course of your interest.

2. Seek a well-ranked accredited program.

3. Flexibility: Courses that offer options in subjects/modules would be better than a rigid program.

4. Placements: A detailed examination of the campus placements and companies who have been offering placements.

5. Cost: The entire cost of the program, hidden expenses, cost of living, etc., must be factored in, as well as opportunities for on-campus jobs, scholarships, etc.

What are the preferred destinations students are choosing for master’s programs?

Shyamala

The US for its largest volume of providers/options for MBA and other graduate programs, particularly technology related. The prestigious M7 business schools are here.

In the UK, the one-year master’s has become popular due to the value gained within a shorter time. The two-year graduate programs come backended with a paid work placement for a year.

Canada: An ecosystem with a robust offering of tech-based programs in machine learning and cybersecurity on the one hand, with programs in risk management, financial literacy, and globally recognised full-time MBAs on the other.

Alka

Premier institutes in India, such as IITs and AIIMS, are still extremely high on the list for many Indians for the quality of education, high brand equity and extremely economical fees.

Internationally, while the US, UK and Singapore are still popular, some European countries such as Germany for technical courses and smaller European nations for medical programs are gaining popularity.

Canada and Australia: Due to greater residency options.

What are the emerging/lesser-known academic destinations?

Shyamala

Europe, for business education, culinary and hospitality management; Singapore, for its high-quality education and reputation for retaining talent; Australia, for some top bracket MBA programs, plenty of conversion options, and highly regarded specialist master’s in health sciences and social sciences; and Ireland, a growing hub of business, technology and healthcare.

Other Asian destinations: China, India and Hong Kong.

Do university rankings matter? If not, what does?

Shyamala

Rankings are usually done on multiple parameters – campus culture, curriculum and career outcomes. While the rankings indicate the popularity of the schools, there are some concerns. Methodologies are not uniform, resulting in inconsistencies between ranking bodies. Some of the data for ranking is obtained through student surveys, while others directly from the institution’s responses, creating imbalances on the ranking tables. Often, the ranking does not tell the whole story. For example, a smaller pool of students drives higher percentages in employability outcomes. The algorithms also convert the body of statistics to a single score that we, the consumers, judge the schools by.

However, rankings can help you get started and can identify some excellent programs and their unique characteristics. Through further research based on the rankings, you can learn that UVA Darden has the best alumni engagement or that the Rotterdam School of Business has 99 per cent international students. Use it wisely; never make rankings the sole determinant of your college list. What matters more is you and what you want out of the program.

Alka

The answer is yes and no. University rankings are usually based on the following main criteria: academic reputation, employer reputation, faculty/student ratio, citations per faculty, international faculty ratio, and international student ratio. Generally, a good university would rank quite high, which would benefit the student.

When choosing a master’s program, one Alka advises to look closely at the entire cost of the program, including hidden expenses, as well as opportunities for on-campus jobs and scholarships
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A notable exception is good Indian universities that are largely attended by and primarily taught by Indian nationals. This automatically adversely impacts the last two ranking factors. However, even the highest-ranked universities internationally have the highest respect for the good Indian institutes and welcome our students.

What are the various funding options available for students?

Shyamala

A mixture of scholarships and grants (research-based programs). In countries such as the US, graduate students are also offered teaching assistantships and research assistantships.

Alka Malik

• Government schemes: Many students are unaware of higher education funding schemes provided to them by their countries. Some even offer a 100 per cent scholarship.

• College grants: These are merit and need based.

• On-campus jobs: Several colleges offer teaching assistant positions, or other on-campus jobs for students to earn while they learn.

• Employer-sponsored education: Some employers fund, to varying degrees, higher education for outstanding employees. They may come with certain conditions.

• Research grants

What are the emerging courses/subjects?

Shyamala

• Cryptocurrency management

• Teaching for a new world

• Healthcare analytics

• Environmental economics

• Sustainability construction/smart homes

• Renewable energy storage

• Personalised medicine and organ chips manufacture

• Social justice

• Migration lawyers

• Educational technologies

5 pointers students/parents should consider when preparing applications for UG and PG courses

Shyamala

• It is all about you: Do not lose track of who you are or what you want.

• Check eligibility and suitability for the program: ensure that you satisfy all the requirements for the programs/schools you are applying to.

• Choose a list that includes aspirational and safety schools: a good mix could yield high returns giving you a choice at the end of the cycle.

• Keep track of deadlines and timelines: manage your applications and materials to give yourself plenty of time to revise and refine. Early applications in the UG and rounds one and two for graduate applications often yield the best results for international students.

• Choose your recommenders wisely: pick those who know you well and can advocate for you instead of relying on titles and position. A good recommendation can, many a time, explain the wrinkles on your application without raising eyebrows or can endorse your qualities without glorifying you.

Alka

Deeply introspect to determine your true strengths and weaknesses, and seek courses suited to your abilities. Aim for accredited universities and courses. Prefer courses that offer choices. Review placements history. And, of course, the total cost of the program.

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