I know this is November, and some universities has opened the application for next year intake. But I hope I’m not too late posting this because I just managed to find spare time to write this down now.
So what I’m going to share now is my experience to get a place in graduate school in UK and LPDP (Indonesian government) scholarship. Please bear in mind that I am taking social science for my graduate degree (Master of Arts in Gender and Development to be exact) at Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex. So my stories MAY or may NOT apply in other school or other program.
Applying for master degree – social science in UK universities
First: Choosing program and university
This is the most important thing, because choosing the wrong program and wrong university sucks! (and I heard some of my friends moan about it already in their 2nd months of study). I know that you can do multiple masters in your life span, but you could get more benefit in taking all right masters instead of wasting one year of your life for taking the wrong one. And if you get LPDP scholarship like me, you have only one shot as they will not fund you for your second master if you plan to take another one.
So how to choose the right one?
- Know what you need
You basically need to study to prepare for your career, right? So choose program that could give you skills and knowledge that will be beneficial in your work. And how to know what skills and knowledge you need? Simply by having working experience first before you take your (even first) master. 2 years of working experience should be enough to tell you what is your real passion, what career you aspire to take, and what are qualifications needed for the position that you want. This is why I’m not agree to the idea of continuing master degree as soon as graduating from undergrad school.
Take me for example. I always want to work in development or non-profit sector. I know that job vacancies in this sector often requires you to have master degree AND at least 2-5 years of working experiences. So I know that jumping to master degree rightaway after finishing my undergrad will NOT give me what it takes to be development
Working in this sector for 2.5 years, be it as researcher or as a practitioner, gave me idea that I need to acquire a practical skills. I know that my passion is always about gender issues and that’s what I want to learn more. But out of many options – ranging from gender studies, gender and violence, women studies, gender and sexuality to gender and media – I chose gender and development for the pragmatic reason that I could use the lessons for my future work. And obviously I can also fulfill my passion as well.
- Ask around, don’t think too much about ranking!
This is also related to the first tips. Once you have working experience, and you built professional networks, you will hear from people in your field which school is a good one. Because each university has its own specialty.
In my case, maybe not many people hear about University of Sussex, let alone Institute of Development Studies, compared to Oxbridge. But if you are working in development sector, everyone knows – and I will quote my British boss here – “Sussex is the best place to study development”.
In general, compared to Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Manchester, etc., Sussex ranked below in 25th position or so. But remember that the very idea of ranking has some flaws too. For instance, it counts on how many research from each particular university used in global academia, which give more advantages to English-based universities as they use English on all research and thus easier to be used. Although in the most recent ranking by QS World, it is proven that Sussex ranked no. 1 in the world for development studies (woohoo!).
To give you real stories, I heard some complaints from students who are studying in one particular university in the top rank in UK. Complaints came due to the reason of being too theoretical, and having a professor who failed to moderate class discussion. Well, of course we could cast our blame on them by not researching the curriculum offered by the school and thus there’s a gap between expectation and reality there. But in comparison, I heard none complaint from the students to my school of IDS. We are all happy to be here because IDS teaches you very practical skills and the environment of full of very friendly people (teachers and staffs) will make your day happy everyday. Therefore, ranking doesn’t guarantee your satisfaction.
Wait, Sussex is no.1 here. So, it actually does!
- Dare to choose the non-mainstream
is the advice given to me by my thesis advisor back in undergrad school, she who knows best the way I work to the extend of trusting me enough to give me my first job
as soon as before I graduated. She knows that I am not the type of person who can just be left out by teachers without proper care. She said don’t choose the mainstream school – the ones that usually are in the top rank, very big, and thus have enormous amount of students.
She suggested me to think about two things when choosing school: 1) the professor – find the school where your most favorite academician work! So you can have chance to be close with them and certainly learn more from them; and 2) the city – find the school located in the city that suits you well. I chose Brighton because of that. The city that combine beach and national park at the same time would definitely help me to explore my travelling and running spirit. And when everybody hear that I will move to Brighton, they will like “ouhh that city really suits you!”
Second: Prepare your application
There are several things that you need to prepare for applying master degree in UK – for social science:
- Academic reference
As soon as my contract at my job last year ended, I immediately focus on this. Reason is, getting reference is very dependent on your luck and third parties (your ex-teachers or your boss) willingness to help.
Usually university will ask you to provide TWO (not one, but two) references from your academic past, which are your ex-tutors. Depending on university, some give you option to change 1 of the 2 into reference from employers. But here, I suggest the importance of having a deep and connected relations with your teachers in your university, as it is a long-term investment. As the system are now mostly online based, your referees will need to upload their letter to the system. All you need to do is input their email in the system, and the system will send them link to upload their reference letter. Depending on university, some will accept email or fax or manual upload in the case where the referee isn’t tech-savy.
I am very lucky to be very close with my thesis advisor, so she was my first referee. But choosing the second referee was the confusing one. My academic advisor, who also my boss for my second job, passed away several years ago. So I have to go back to my university, say hello to people in my department, make them remember myself again (although they did as I worked with them as teaching assistant before), and selected one teacher who knows me really well but at the same time has big influence. I asked head of postgrad program in my department to be my referee. I only have few classes taught by him back in the days, and in fact we were from two different concentration. But it’s just he was very nice and his high position could give good influence, that’s why I chose him.
Keeping eye on our referees are also challenging one, especially if your teachers are very busy and not easily reachable. I was very lucky that I had 3.5 months of joblessness that give me freedom to visit my university everyday. You just need to know the best strategy to approach your referees and make sure they submit the reference to the system or to you on time.
- 3.5 GPA
Alright, so GPA turns out to be important thing here, as many program – at least that I applied for – required GPA 3.5 out of 4. I am also very lucky (well, can’t say it’s luck coz I worked terribly hard for it!) that I pass this requirement. Hence, please make sure you have very good GPA as it opens bigger chance for you to continue your study.
As I applied for European institutions who need a proof of my English score, IELTS is their first recommendation, before TOELF. And I also heard that TOELF is harder than IELTS, especially by the fact that TOELF is computer-based which could be technically-troublesome. Thus, I chose to take IELTS.
I got 7.5 out of 9 for my IELTS. Most people will be like “WOW THAT’S SO HIGH!” while I think it’s quite standard score as most of my friends (in the same level of education and career) also got the same or higher score. In fact my target was 8 and I failed!
Anyways, how can I get that score? Simply by doing things I like most – studying!
Remember I said that I have 3.5 months of jobless? That gave me opportunity to focus on studying for IELTS. I didn’t take any special course which is more expensive than the test itself. I just learnt by myself. I got lotsa studying materials, and I just learnt from it. I spent AT LEAST (well, in theory) 2 hours per day for studying for 1 or 1.5 months. So they key is to keep stable pace on your study.
And bear in mind that the impossible thing sometimes does happen. I remember I thought getting 9 for any element isn’t possible. But when the result came out, I found 9 for my reading element! As it turned out, D-Day was easier than the practice.
Just a tip here: when you’re studying like I did, print the materials to give you the sense of the real test.
- Personal statement
This is most important thing. I have no reference or any evidence, but I just use my logic. What is the documents, among all which you send to the university, that could give them picture about who you are and your aspiration, to match it with the objective of the school itself? Yeps, it’s your personal statement! Other documents can’t do that, they can only help as evidence to support what you say on your personal statement.
I spent so much, if not too much, on this. I asked 5 friends, all of them did or are doing their master now, to check the content. After the content is correct, I asked 3 friends, 2 of them are English-native and 1 of them is Indonesian who studied in Singapore before, to check on grammar. In total, I did 5 times content revisions + 2 times grammar revisions for my personal statement.
My advice is: do that. Focus on writing the best essay as you could ever do. And don’t forget to find fresh eyes to check on your grammar. There’s no such thing as too good for personal statement.
- All other documents – translated
If you lucky to gain degree from reputable university as me, you would find a service to provide you translation of your academic certificate and your GPA records. If not, do find official translator nearby. The key at this moment is to be thorough as document collection is very boring.
Third – Believe!
Believe that you will get the best school! There’s no such thing as the best school in the world, there’s only the best school for you!
What I mean in the practical level is, if you are not accepted in your first option of university, then don’t be sad because that means they are not suitable for you. They don’t accept you not because you’re bad, but because they can’t be the one who give you certain skills or knowledge that you need for your future (again, based on your personal statement). So believe me, you will, somehow, get directed for the best school for you!
Applying for scholarship – LPDP
LPDP is government scholarship existed since several years ago to be given for master or doctoral program be it abroad or in Indonesia. Well the full story can be read here. It was my first option – in fact my only option – of funding for the pragmatic reason of it give you most money compared to other scholarship.
LPDP selection process is very tricky, as many critiqued its lack of clear indicators and scoring system, despite of its effort to always improve the selection process every term. The key is know what they want. My bestfriend who received it before told me that it’s very important to know what you want and be able to explain it when you are being interviewed. Interview process is the most fundamental here. And luckily, back to very first point of my tips above, I already have the answer for that.
When I joined their induction program (named PK or Persiapan Keberangkatan), it became clear to me that what they are looking for is candidates who can uphold value of LPDP. This is the very reason that they accepted me. In addition to the integrity and professionalism – which seems everybody does have – I can show the interviewers that I have the value of “service” especially when I told them that I am breadwinner in my family, and that my parents no longer working, and thus I will focus on taking care of my parents rather than finding a soulmate to marry with on my study. This is the value that urban youngsters rarely have I believe, and that’s what makes me special in the interviewers’ eyes.
So the very short suggestion from me is, take a peep on LPDP website to learn about their values, try to embody it during the interview by always link back your experiences / answers with LPDP value. Shows them that you the kind of person who has LPDP values in yourself.
I also realize that the score for interview matter more than the score of FGD. During the FGD, I met this one candidate who offer a detailed and practical solution to the problem presented (while I was only excelled in structuring my arguments to say yes or no). Yet the result said that the he didn’t get the scholarship. Recently, LPDP implements new selection process in which there will be writing test. I honestly can’t tell you much about this coz I didn’t have that last time. But focus on the interview should be helpful. Because what they are looking for is really person who has LPDP values, and you can only show that in your interview.
Well, that’s the end of my sharing and advice. I am very welcome with any questions regarding this topic. Just throw comments on the comment section or pop up to my personal-blog-ask-page, where I basically receive any questions even from stranger and answer that for the sake of public benefit.
And feel free to read my story about my experience studying in Brighton in my personal blog!
Good luck, and may the force be with ya!
Brighton, 5 Nov 15, 01.58 AM GMT