Graduate Study

Graduate education in the United States offers a unique opportunity for the international student. Programs of study leading to graduate degrees are available in more than 1,700 U.S. academic institutions. The most popular fields of study for international students in the U.S. are business and management, mathematics and computer sciences, and engineering.

Structure of Graduate Education

Structure of Graduate Education

Graduate study (or postgraduate study, as it is sometimes called – there is no difference between the two) generally follows the bachelor’s degree for those who are pursuing advanced academic programs. Graduate education can result in a variety of degrees. The most common include the master’s of arts (MA), science (MS), business administration (MBA), fine arts (MFA), law (LLM), social work (MSW), and specialist in education (EdS). The most common final or “terminal” degrees are doctorates in a variety of fields (PhD), education (EdD), law (JD), science (DSc), medicine (MD), and religion or divinity (DD).

Study at the graduate level is highly specialized, and admission is usually very selective. Some graduate degrees require work experience prior to beginning the degree, and some do not. Unlike undergraduate education, there is no general education requirement in graduate study. This may be an advantage to students who have completed undergraduate study in Bulgaria and are entering the United States education system at the graduate level.

Course work at the graduate level is demanding. Course work is measured in terms of credits, hours or units, generally reflecting the number of hours spent in the classroom and the amount of work involved. A typical undergraduate program includes 12-16 units each semester, and a typical graduate program includes 9-12. Grades are typically awarded on a scale of A-F with a B average as the minimum required for completion of the program.

In many master’s programs, students must write a thesis demonstrating an ability to comprehend, review, and apply professional research in the chosen field of study. A doctoral program includes the writing of a dissertation involving original research. This dissertation is a major step in the completion of the doctoral degree, and the candidate is expected to produce an original and significant contribution to his or her field of study.

Types of Institutions

Programs of study leading to graduate degrees are available in more than 1,700 U.S. academic institutions. Some of these institutions are small and offer degrees in one or two fields of study; some are very large and offer degrees in many fields. Universities offering programs leading to the doctorate are usually referred to as research universities. Others place more emphasis on research in, and teaching of, the application of knowledge rather than the theory of the subject.

Programs exist in both public and private universities. The term public and private refer to the way in which universities are financially supported. Since public universities obtain part of their support from the state in which they are located, the tuition they charge students is often lower than that charged by private institutions; further, public institutions generally charge lower tuition to state residents. Private institutions are supported by student tuition, investment income, research contracts, and private donations and usually charge the same tuition to all students. Except for financial considerations, the public or private nature of a university should not be a factor in selecting a graduate program. High quality programs exist in all kinds of institutions. Of more importance is the institution’s commitment to the graduate program. The institution’s commitment is found in its willingness to maintain a first-class faculty, and to provide excellent facilities, laboratories, computers and other equipment, and related items. Another important factor in many disciplines is the presence of strong supporting departments so that students can have access to scholars and courses in disciplines related to their own.

Since there is no national university system or federal ministry of education to dictate requirements, accreditation of an institution is of extreme importance to ensure quality of the institution and its programs.

Graduate Degrees

Graduate Degrees

Academic Master’s degrees are the most frequently awarded graduate degrees. It is possible to earn a master’s degree in one year, but more often it will take two to three years. In general, master’s degrees require that you complete six to eight courses, in addition to a project or thesis (a long research paper). Some institutions are only interested in doctoral candidates, although they may award a master’s to students who complete the coursework but do not go on to their doctoral work.

Professional Master’s degrees are designed to lead you from the first degree to a particular profession (e.g. business administration, journalism, social work). They usually require 36-48 credits and are unlikely to include a thesis option. It is very difficult to complete professional degrees in one year.

Doctoral degrees usually require at least three years beyond the bachelor’s, but are rarely completed in less than five or six years, as most students take on teaching or research assignments during their studies. Some doctoral programs include a master’s degree program, which students begin directly after the bachelor’s degree. The candidate then continues through course work and intermediate qualifying examinations. Other doctoral programs require the completion of a master’s degree before beginning doctoral studies. Students may also have to attain foreign language proficiency at this time. A dissertation (300-400 typed pages) of publishable quality work is then required, followed by an oral exam or “defense” to complete the degree.

Non-Degree Opportunities:

Special Student status/Non-degree status is given to students who want to take postgraduate courses for a term or year, but do not wish to enroll for a degree. Students are treated like first-year postgraduate students and will receive credits for their coursework, but no degree. As most universities do not have a formal Special Student admissions process, contact the university department to ask about Special Student possibilities and admissions procedures.

Visiting Fellow status is given to advanced doctoral candidates who have completed all coursework and who wish to pursue dissertation research at an American university, or for scholars who have a doctorate and would like to pursue further research in their field. Contact the university department to determine procedures.

Application Process

Application Process

If you are planning to study for your master’s or PhD in the U.S. then your first step is to read this time schedule for applying to American universities, which provides introductory information on admission requirements, how and when to apply, admissions tests, costs, financial aid, and visas.

Time Schedule for Applying to American Universities (for prospective graduates)

The recommended time scale below refers to the U.S. university term start date in August or September, but can be adapted to a January start date. Students may be able to complete the process in a much shorter time period.

13 - 15 months prior to enrolment (May - July)

Application Strategy:

Apply to 3-7 universities, as applying to 1-2 can be risky if you are rejected or no funding is available, while applying to many will increase your workload. Some people prefer to apply to all competitive schools, while others prefer to apply to a mix of more competitive schools and safer schools as they feel this will give them a greater chance of acceptance.

Identify Courses in Your Subject Area:

  • Use web-based search sites. Use general and subject-specific directories available at the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission.
  • Use search software available at the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission.
  • Talk to your tutors and lecturers and their U.S. contacts.
  • Read journals and key books to spot “movers and shakers” in your area.
  • Look at rankings, but note that these are subjective and often inaccurate.
  • Contact the university departments to discuss courses and funding.

Admissions Challenges

Be realistic about your chances of admission. Most departments can tell you the percentage of successful applicants (figures also available in Peterson’s Guide to Graduate Programs). Also look at any minimum test score criteria and discuss any concerns you have about your academic background with the department.


Each university sets its own tuition fees. Do not eliminate costly programs as they may offer financial aid to offset these costs.

Financial Aid

Confirm that funding is available to international students. Some universities will only give funding after the first term or year of study. Note that financial aid deadlines can be earlier than the university application deadlines.

Other Considerations

In choosing where you will be living for the next one to six years of your life, some other factors to consider are:

  • Location: climate varies enormously, as do urban and rural settings.
  • University Size: enrollment size can vary from 500 to 50,000, with some universities resembling small cities.
  • Number of International Students: do you feel a need to be with other international students?

Institutional Personality

some schools have a religious or ethnic affiliation or are single-sex only. Some schools are known as “commuter schools” with a lot of part-time students who may not be around much of the time.

13 - 14 months prior to enrolment (May - June)

Compile Your Funding Application Packages 

Now is the time to apply for financial aid. The most common source of funding for postgraduate study is the department in which you plan to study. If you have not already done so, contact them and ask what financial aid options are available for international students. Next, research non-university funding. Most financial aid applications will contain the following items:

  • Application forms: Email or mail the funding bodies for information and application forms. Forms and information may also be on-line.
  • References: You usually will need to provide two-to-three references from people who know you and your work well. You may be able to combine academic and personal references. Follow the instructions on the application forms.
  • Statement of purpose: You usually need to write a personal statement explaining why you are applying for the award and why the funding body should accept you.

Standardized Tests

Some funding applications will also require standardized test scores. See Testing for information on these tests.

11 - 12 months prior to enrolment (August - September)
Compile Your University Application Packages

Each of the following application components are equally important and you can counter a weak component (e.g. poor degree classification) with a stronger component (e.g. excellent standardized test scores and references).

  • Application form: Email or phone the U.S. university’s Director of Graduate Admissions for application forms and financial aid information. Forms and information may also be on-line. Also contact the department for information on courses and faculty. Give your name, address, nationality, qualifications, proposed degree subject and ideal start date.
  • Standardized tests: If your prospective U.S. university requires standardized test scores, now is the time to register for these tests.
  • Transcript: A transcript is an official record of your undergraduate classes, exam marks and grades on coursework. You will need an original transcript, on letterhead and signed by your university’s registrar, for each U.S. university or funding body application. A key to the grading system should be included.
  • References and Statement of Purpose: see above.
  • Non-refundable application fee: ranges from $30 to $170 per school.
8 - 9 months prior (November - December)

Take Standardized Test(s) 

Ensure that your scores reach the universities before their application deadlines

5 - 10 months prior (October - March)

Funding Application Deadlines

4 - 8 months prior (December - April)

University Application Deadlines

Missed the deadline? U.S. university deadlines are firm and you need to ensure that the full application pack has reached the university before the required date. Some universities will allow students to start in January instead of August. Many financial aid packages are distributed in August so there may be less chance of aid for January students.

Rolling Admissions

Some courses, particularly MBA programs, have rolling admissions, which means that applications will be accepted until spaces are full. Early application is still advisable. A priority date for admissions indicates that priority will be given to those submitting applications by that date, but later applications will be considered if space is available.

2-4 months prior to enrolment (April - June)

Acceptances and Rejections Arrive

Decide which university to attend, notify them and return official forms.


Most international students enter the U.S. on a non-immigrant student visa. Once you accept the offer from a U.S. university, the university will require you to show proof of funds for the first year before sending you either an I-20 or an IAP-66 government document. You can then apply for your visa – either an F-1 or a J-1, respectively. See the U.S. Embassy web site for visa details.

0 - 4 months prior

Prepare to go!



International graduate students have significantly more opportunities for financial assistance than their undergraduate counterparts.

Cost of Graduate Education

Each university sets its own tuition fees. Tuition for state universities ranges from $5,000-$23,000 and for private universities from $10,000-$47,000 for one academic year (10 months). Living costs vary tremendously. They can range between $9,000 and $19,000 per academic year.

Sources of Funding

U.S. universities are the primary funding source for approximately 39% of international graduate students (IIE Open Doors).

U.S. Universities

International graduate students who intend to enroll in a graduate program at a U.S. university should contact the graduate schools that interest them. They should ask the graduate school, the relevant department(s) and the university’s financial aid office about financial aid for international students.

University financial aid may be available through:

  • Scholarships or fellowships – can cover tuition and fees, living costs
  • Teaching/research assistantships – can cover the above costs, and you are required to work within the department for up to 20 hours per week
  • Loans – may require a U.S. citizen to co-sign the loan

Non-University Awards

Non-university awards may be available from bi-national exchange programs (the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission), foundations, corporations, governments, or individuals. The reasons for offering awards vary between funding bodies; awards may be categorized by eligibility criteria like nationality, subject area, gender, degree level, intended university or state. These awards are competitive and may cover full costs (unusual) or partial costs. Deadlines tend to be earlier than university application deadlines.

Types of Financial Aid

Grants and Scholarships: Graduate financial aid is different from undergraduate aid in that it is sometimes merit-based; that is, sometimes grants are given to students who the academic department is interested in having attend their program. Aid differs from field to field. Doctoral programs in science have much more grant money to offer than, say, musicology. Professional schools for the study of medicine, law, business, education, and dentistry rarely offer grant money and professional degree students should be prepared to borrow significant amounts.

In addition to the graduate schools themselves, there are a few grants and scholarships available to international graduate students, but finding them requires diligent research. The following are a few possibilities:

  • The Institute of International Education (IIE): administers the U.S. Fulbright program and manages more than 260 international education programs. The Fulbright Program awards approximately 8,000 grants annually (please read our Fulbright Grants page for further information).
  • The Rotary Foundation of Rotary International: provides grants to university students and teachers to act as “goodwill ambassadors” around the world. The Rotary Foundation also sponsors international exchange of business and professional people, and provides grants to improve the quality of life around the world.
  • The American Association of University Women Education Foundation: provides graduate fellowships to women with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree who are not citizens or permanent residents of the U.S.


Federally-backed loans are not available to international students. Few institutions offer loans to international graduate students because of the risks involved in repaying these loans. If available, U.S. banks may require a U.S. citizen to co-sign the loan.


During their first year of study, international students may work on campus in jobs that relate to their program of study. After their first year of study, students are eligible to work both on- and off-campus. International graduate students may be eligible to receive graduate assistantships.

Graduate assistantships can involve at least two types of funding:

  1. stipends
  2. tuition reductions or waivers

In most cases students receive a stipend, that is, a paycheck which is sometimes paid in one lump sum each semester and sometimes paid over a period of weeks or months. Additionally, there is often either a partial or full tuition waiver, or a partial or full tuition reduction. Practices vary widely from institution to institution, and even from academic department to academic department.

Graduate Teaching Assistantships: Most universities with large undergraduate programs employ graduate teaching assistants (TA’s). Students pursuing an advanced degree in a subject that is taught at the undergraduate level – for example, in the arts and sciences – have a good chance of securing a teaching assistantship. They will, however, usually have to demonstrate excellent proficiency in English.

Graduate Research Assistantships: Graduate research assistants (RA’s) receive financial support in return for assisting faculty with research projects. The bonus is that students are often able to work on research related to their own degrees, especially if they are hired by one of their professors/mentors.

Graduate Administrative Assistantships: Graduate administrative assistants perform tasks in administrative and support services. Often the tasks are related to their particular field of interest, so that, for example, education majors become involved with audiovisual materials, computer scientists work with programming for the university, music students help with children’s preparatory program, physical education majors staff basketball camps, etc. These positions usually require 10 to 20 hours of work each week in an administrative office of the university.

For More Information

As part of your search for undergraduate financial aid, please browse through the following books for more scholarship opportunities.

Scholarships, Grants and Prizes (Peterson’s)