Tips for Canadians Applying to Grad School in Europe
Here's my attempt to collate the advice I've shared privately about going to graduate school in Europe from a Canadian perspective. There is already a lot of really good information out there on choosing a topic, a city, a department, and a supervisor, so I am mainly going to address some of the logistical difficulties that I experienced. I also touch upon the unique situation of being someone who changed disciplines between their bachelor's and master's degrees. The programmes I mention are all focused on the intersection between music and cognitive science, but similar schemes exist across disciplines. Hence, here are some topics that I've been asked about, and some that people rarely bring up to me, but that I think are really important.
I realise from compiling the Contents that I've framed much of this in financial terms. Please believe when I plead this in no way reflects my own views on the natural importance of things, but rather is a consequence of the sad reality of austerity and late capitalism. If you're feeling TL;DR, scroll to #4, wherein I discuss what I think is the single most helpful strategy that shockingly few people actually seem to do.
- Paying for Your Course
- Someone Else Paying for Your Course
- Improve Your Odds of Someone Else Paying for Your Course
- The Importance of Reaching Out
- Paying for Your Course
If you're thinking about graduate school abroad, money is going to be a deciding factor for a lot of people. I'm not even sure what the upper limit of a Canada Student Loan will cover. I had secured my funding, as I will explain shortly, but I also applied for a loan to help cover the flight, moving costs, and food-eating needs, given I would be moving with my partner. The Ontario government offered me $500 (CANADIAN!), so not sure I'd count that as a success. If you can show dire need, perhaps they'll give you a loan to cover tuition and living expenses, but that would be close to $70,000 CDN per year for graduate school in the UK. For someone in my position, that level of debt would be crippling, so the option was off the table.
But not all "abroad" is equal! There are no tuition fees in some European countries, even for international students. I was about to recommend that people interested in interdisciplinary music and cognitive science take a look at Finland's University of Jyväskylä, but it now appears that Finland has unfortunately begun to charge overseas students. And the interdisciplinary Music, Mind & Technology programme I had in mind is suspended! Norway, however, does have this very intriguing Music, Communication and Technology master's at University of Oslo, meaning there's still at least one Nordic no-fees option for Canadians who would like to study music and science.
One drawback, at least with the now non-extant Finnish course, was that there were no cost of living scholarships or stipends available to international students. Since you wouldn't have been paying tuition, this is not a bad trade-off, but if you had stayed in Canada, you likely would have received some combination of teaching assistantships and awards that would have covered your food and housing. You presumably don't want to be a barista 60/40 while you unravel the mysteries of the mind, and this will probably still result in some substantial debt, so weigh the potential advantages of doing your degree abroad against how you'll carry your loan forward.
Other places charge relatively affordable fees (i.e., <€5,000) and do offer at least the opportunity to cover tuition and potentially more, via scholarships or bursaries. Germany and France are two such possibilities that come to mind. This may depend on your comfort speaking German or French in an academic setting, but bear in mind that an increasing number of graduate courses are taught in English, so language might not even be a problem for you. Doing a PhD in Germany, as far as I know, remains tuition-free. Master's courses range from a few thousand euros a year, unless you're following up on your undergraduate from a German university, in which case it's also free.
One of the places I applied, the cognitive musicology master's at University of Amsterdam, charges €15,000 for the course. University of Amsterdam does offer scholarships for international students, so I would suggest it's worth applying! Especially since there are so few courses specifically devoted to music cognition worldwide.
On that note, we can close this section off with the UK, where several of the other music science speciality programs are located. These include Goldsmiths University's Music, Mind and Brain MSc, University of Sheffield's MA in Music Psychology (both institutions I applied to), University of York's MA Music in Music Psychology (I'm not personally familiar with this course, but it sounds really interesting), and University of Cambridge's MPhil in Music Studies in Music and Science (where I eventually ended up). Sadly, costs for overseas students are absurdly high here: my course at Cambridge charged just under £25,000, or more than $40,000 CAD, in tuition alone for international students. Yes, there is a premium associated with Cambridge, but the University of Sheffield is still over $30,000 CAD for one full-time year of postgraduate studies. But don't lose hope, because this brings us to the next section:
2. Someone Else Paying for Your Course
Depending on what your economic prospects are after graduation, going into the kind of debt we just discussed is probably a bad idea, since the average Canadian postdoc salary is in the mid-$40,000s CAD. But if you can do it for free, this changes things. Finding a scholarship or paid position that covers your degree is hugely freeing: not just because you've obviously escaped a massive debt burden, but because that very debt burden not-so-indirectly commodifies your graduate school experience, in that you have to worry about an immediate financial return. A free or close to free degree is an investment in your quality of life, and it doesn't hinge entirely upon your outlook in the job market. And I sincerely believe that whatever it is you're doing, if you do good work, it will be transferable. Also, I went to jazz school, so there's nothing anyone at this point can say to make me worry about my job security.
Let's return to the universities of Cambridge and Sheffield. We noted that tuition is $10,000 CAD less at the latter, but here's the thing: Cambridge has a massive amount of funding available. It's competitive, but there's an actual possibility that your degree will be completely paid for. In contrast, although I was really impressed by what I'd heard about Sheffield, and had some lovely email interactions with the faculty there, I recall that the most scholarship funding they could offer for a taught postgraduate course was 50% off of tuition. At Goldsmiths, internal opportunities amounted to either a 30% or £2,500 tuition waiver. This is still a vast amount of money for most students, and it's an honour to be selected, and so I don't want to imply that these awards should be overlooked - you might have some money saved in the bank, so a partial scholarship could make all the difference. It's just that old, familiar places like Oxbridge have had so much time to hoard, be granted lands, and petition centuries' worth of their alumni for donations, that they can offer multiple fully funded graduate places, and it's something to weigh when you consider where to focus your efforts.
There are also outside schemes, including the Commonwealth Scholarships and the Canadian Centennial Scholarship Fund. I applied for the former during my PhD search, but due to some technical issues with my supporting documents, I was disqualified, so I don't know how well a music science-oriented application would do against, say, a cancer-curing or fossil fuel-replacing application. I do get the sense there is a large public-good component to this competition. The Centennial award appears to be more of a bursary, as it's only for continuing Canadian students based in the UK who can demonstrate unmet financial need. Finally, there's the Chevening Scholarship, supported by the UK government, which covers full costs for a master's degree and is intended to support "future leaders, influencers, and decision-makers". I did not make it past the first round for this one, so I can't offer too many solutions here!
3. Improve Your Odds of Someone Else Paying for Your Course
Applying to graduate school takes a lot of time and money for application fees, and it is also emotionally taxing. Scholarships and requests for bursaries can feel icky and unpleasant, in that you are knowingly putting yourself out there to be directly compared with others. This vulnerability is a lot more manageable if you internalise the fact that it's largely a lottery. I'm going to cover what I think will confer your best chances, but as someone who has had success in funding my graduate education, I'm serious: don't take the process personally, don't read too much into rejection, and don't assume that failure to secure one award (or ten awards) is indicative of your future success. Once you've got a basically good package together as a candidate, it's a bit of a crapshoot.
Having established that winning a major scholarship is often a case of spray-and-pray, there are some factors you can try to adjust.
- Good grades. This is self-evident and if you're considering graduate school, you're probably well into your bachelor's degree, or already finished, so your grades might already be decided. I've heard anecdotally that admissions committees assign more weight to your upper years, so if you spent most of your 100-level courses either high and/or not present, you probably still have a chance. However, if you carry a B+ (80s) or so average throughout your degree, this isn't to your competitive advantage. You're so close to 90, and once you've hit a certain threshold, I don't think you need a 96 average to triumph over everyone with a 94 or 92 average. You don't want to give the selection committee an easy reason to disqualify you early on, so if you're questioning whether your grades are high enough, it might be worth taking an extra year of undergraduate coursework, killing it, and boosting yourself up to that higher level. I am sympathetic to those who are sceptical of grades and I sometimes felt, as an undergrad, that I was just hoop-jumping. But I had hoped early on to attend graduate school, so playing the grades game felt like just what I had to do.
- Extra-curriculars. There are really good, perfectly selfish reasons to volunteer besides trying to fill out your grad school application: positive emotions, you usually meet really nice people, it feels good to be helpful and wanted, you are reminded there's an entire world outside of your egocentric ambitions, etc. That being said, if you follow your interests, volunteering is also likely to complement your CV. For example, before I applied for my master's degree, I spent two years as a member of Guelph Black Heritage Society, where I helped plan and carry out community programming centred around the black Canadian experience, mostly featuring a lot of great music. It felt good to contribute towards celebrating and promoting knowledge of African diasporic cultures, but organising concerts was also easily relatable to my academic interests, since I could advocate for the socio-cultural imperative for live musical practices and the need to broaden music and psychology scholarship beyond European contexts. Later, during my master's degree, I volunteered with the Cambridge chapter of the British Lung Foundation's Singing for Breathing initiative, which offers therapeutic singing and exercises in a group setting for people living with chronic pulmonary conditions. I absolutely loved this experience, which mostly entailed serving delightful people tea and then learning old pop tunes and folk music of the British Isles with them. Perhaps not so coincidentally, I researched respiration and how it is coordinated in rhythmic behaviour in my PhD. At the time, I really valued those two hours a week where I did not associate with anyone from the University and the only thing I needed to worry about was how to not make a milky tea. In short, you will enjoy volunteering for its own sake, but it's also a great opportunity to show a selection committee that you're at least mildly organised, you see the bigger picture, and you can identify applicable benefits of what may be an otherwise abstract-sounding interest.
- Work experience. After my undergraduate degree in music, I wasn't sure what to do next. I ended up travelling around a bit, and then I found a job working for a music therapy practice. I didn't enjoy the administrative work very much, but I met some inspiring clinicians, saw how basic science might be able to help, and collected concrete talking points to discuss in my statements of significance. For example, I thought about how music therapists assist people, and how little we understand about if, how, and why these interventions are effective. Increasingly sure I wanted to do research in this area, I then moved on to work as a Research Assistant in the Grahn Lab at Western University. I will write more about this in the final section, but needless to say, this was hugely formative in my scientific trajectory and I would strongly recommend getting some research experience before applying to graduate school.
- Letters of reference. Many people who strive for graduate school and feel emboldened to apply for funding come from positions of privilege, whether it be a particular ethnic, financial, or class background. In theory, not having letters of reference from important-sounding people shouldn't hold prospective applicants back, but it's a huge barrier, especially for those from non-traditional academic backgrounds. An emphasis on connections and networking is one of many reasons why academia is an impure meritocracy, and I do think that the private recommendation system helps to perpetuate social inequality in higher education. Almost everyone, however, is part of a larger network of mentors, teachers, parents, friends, and the people in between. What about a letter from your high school counsellor or church pastor? A personal, earnest letter from someone you trust means something, and most applications I completed asked for both personal and professional references. If you're missing one of the latter, volunteering and work experience are very relevant here, particularly if you weren't close with any one teacher in your undergrad - you might be able to ask a supervisor or your boss, instead. Letters of reference mean a lot, and it's good to think about who you would like to ask to write on your behalf, and what kind of a letter your actions, interests, and habits may inspire.
- A compelling case for your project. I've included some information in this guide that's tailored for those interested in interdisciplinary music and science studies. For any applicant, it can be daunting to negotiate where you fit and what you are qualified to do, but when you straddle two historically distant disciplines, we can be quick to second-guess ourselves. Just remember that these categories are culturally constructed (i.e., not some fact of nature), and you can make a good case for why your topic is not only scientifically or musicologically valid, but worthy of material investment. This becomes highly pertinent when you're applying for scholarships, and you might even be able to use it for your advantage. You want your project to stand out, and coming at a traditional problem with a fresh, new perspective is one way to do so. Its unorthodox character can be a plus, because a sympathetic audience may recognise that it can be difficult to fund non-traditional projects, and want to send support where it's most needed. When I attended an event hosted by the funders of my scholarship, I had the unusual opportunity of speaking with a member of the selection committee about my application. He told me that all the candidates were exceptional students with good letters of recommendation and lots of community work. What set me apart, he said, was that I had nowhere else to go! I had a music degree, I was experienced as an RA but lacked a formal scientific qualification, and I wanted to transition to a research track in neuroscience. In my personal statement, I explained that the course at Cambridge was one of the few places in the world, let alone Canada, where I could bridge my background with future objectives, and so they decided to fund me. In this lucky twist, not really fitting in anywhere worked to my benefit.
4. The Importance of Reaching out
If I had to cut everything down to what I believe is one seriously helpful thing, it would be the art of cold emailing. I acknowledge there is an inherent privilege in feeling comfortable with contacting strangers, especially stranger-experts, but I'm also really surprised by how many people I know from non-marginalised backgrounds who don't ever do this. One of my closest friends confessed to me he didn't email anybody from his master's course before applying, and his dad is a professor! I can therefore only imagine it's even more unthinkable for many.
Part of the reason why this doesn't seem to bother me, I think, is because I already had the weird background of having been unschooled. I'm used to having to explain myself, ask for an exception, and count on people giving me the benefit of the doubt, and so putting myself forward had to become second nature.
Most of my career thus far has entailed Googling ideas or questions I'm excited about, identifying someone knowledgeable or advocating in those areas, and then emailing them. This was the case when I was a high school student and needed the instructor's permission before taking a linguistics course (which set me on a path for cognitive science), with many of the day jobs I've had (writing copy for a music charity, assisting music therapists, as a guitar teacher), and definitely in approaching all of my academic supervisors.
I'm sure that for every ten emails I sent out, two or three elicited a reply (spray-and-pray is clearly the recurring theme of this guide). Frequently, the only response you might get is "sorry, I can't help", but sometimes that person might know of someone else who can. This is how I got it touch with Dr. Jessica Grahn, who kindly welcomed me into her lab as a volunteer, despite having zero experience. When I finished my BMus, I didn't even know her field, the neuroscience of music, existed. It took a few people to send me her way, but I credit much to that initial correspondence.
And it doesn't always work out-one psychology department I had hoped to apply to wouldn't so much as look at my CV or consider my application outright, since I did not have a BSc. At the time, this was a frustrating experience, but I've since met so many qualified and objectively successful scientists with non-science undergraduate degrees, all I can say is don't take it personally! Just keep trying.
To conclude, I hope it goes without saying that, as per point #4, if you want to email me about any of this, make sure you reach out! And keep persisting, there's a place for you out there.