Applying to Grad School in Europe: A Guide for Canadians (and/or People Who Like Music and Science)

Things have been notably quiet on the blogging front, which is par for the course in PhD-land. But since I’m currently re-installing MATLAB, now is the perfect time to share a few thoughts on applying to and funding graduate school, right? This is something to which I conspired approximately eleven months ago and now it’s seasonally relevant again! Excellent.

Graduating from CambridgeThere is already a lot of really good information on choosing a topic, a city, a department, and a supervisor out there, so I am mainly going to address my own experience as a Canadian making it work in the UK. I also touch upon the unique situation of being someone with a bachelor’s degree in music looking at interdisciplinary or science-oriented programs. I should add that I did not apply to any American schools, and can’t speak to the GRE score or process. But it sounds miserable. So, 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 the Contents that I’ve framed much of my thoughts in financial terms. Please believe when I plead this in no way reflects my own views on the natural order of things, but rather is a consequence of the sad reality of austerity and late capitalism punishing the rest of us for not pursuing material gain over knowledge, art, the environment, personal betterment, etc. 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.

CONTENTS

  1. Paying for Your Course
  2. Someone Else Paying for Your Course
  3. Improve Your Odds of Someone Else Paying for Your Course
  4. The Importance of Being a Random Internet Person

  1. 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 as my partner sought employment. 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, which is medical school territory. 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, and at press time they are holding out against the commodification of higher education. So there’s still at least one nordic no-fees option for Canadian who like music 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 (Amsterdam Excellence Scholarships), 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 charges 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

You may have come across a lot of negativity about the academic career path, whether online or in supposedly helpful workshops arranged by comfortably tenured faculty members (yeah, thanks). I agree that 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. Yes, your student stipend probably won’t be enough to save money, but hopefully you don’t quantify your life using some financial metric. I’d rather be broke and studying something fascinating than making decent coin working a soul-destroying office job, which I have also done.

Anyways, my point is that 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. When you don’t have to worry about an immediate financial return, those dour Real Talks™ (“take it from me, a solidly-employed Assistant Professor, if you can do anything else… do it”) lose their edge, because the degree is an investment in your quality of life, not 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 any academic from any field can say to make me worry about my job security.

But I digress! 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 plunder, be granted lands by royal decree, and petition centuries’ worth of 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, and it can be 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 crapshoot – assuming that social biases are not at play in or against your favour, of course.

Having established that winning a major scholarship is somewhat 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 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 having a 96 average means triumphing over everyone with a 94 or 92 average. I would suggest that 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 skeptical of grades and I felt, as an undergrad, that I was sometimes just hoop-jumping. But I had committed early on to graduate school, so playing the grades game was simple to rationalise.
  • Extra-curriculars. This isn’t med school, so you don’t necessarily need to build an orphanage using recycled toothbrushes with profits going to malaria prevention. But there are really good, perfectly selfish reasons to volunteer beyond your grad school application: emotional rewards, you meet 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 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. As a jazz musician/human being, I have a personal stake in celebrating and promoting knowledge of African diasporic cultures, but organising concerts was also easily relatable to my academic interests, since I could personally advocate for the socio-cultural imperative for live musical practices and the need to broaden music/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’m now researching 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.

    To summarise, 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 more basic science might be able to help, and collected concrete talking points to discuss in my statements of significance, for example, how music therapists assist people with developmental disabilities, brain lesions, motor impairment, and so forth, 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 either as a volunteer or hopefully as a paid RA 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. These elements come with community support. It’s really important to remember that everyone is part of a larger network of mentors, teachers, parents, friends, and the people in between. 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. Both volunteering and work experience are very relevant here, especially if you weren’t particularly close with any one teacher in your undergrad – you might be able to ask a supervisor or your boss, instead.
  • 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 are often too quick to second-guess ourselves. Just remember that these categories are culturally constructed (i.e., not some god-given 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.

    In my case, I felt like I’d won the scholarship lottery when I discovered I had been awarded the Canada Cambridge Scholarship, which fully covered my tuition and living costs during my MPhil. When I attended an event hosted by the funding body, 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 Being a Random Internet Person

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 privileged backgrounds who don’t ever do this. One of my closest friends recently confessed to me he didn’t email anybody from his master’s programme before applying, and I found out my own husband didn’t do this, either.  These are both white men with parents who went to university, so I can therefore only imagine it’s even more unthinkable for many of us.

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 as some faceless nerd who wants to learn more about XYZ is practically second nature.

Looking back on my trajectory, the hugest breaks have come from Googling and emailing someone. This was the case when I was a high school-aged 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 gigs I’ve had (writing copy for a music charity, assisting music therapists, as guitar teacher), and definitely in approaching all my academic supervisors.

Most of the emails, regardless of the theme or topic, go something like:

Dear Formal Title,

I am AB and I am interested in C. I’m interested in your work concerning XYZ, and I was wondering if: I could get involved; Skype or email with you about Z; or, you might know of someone I could contact to learn more.

Thank you for your time,

Formal closing,

AB

In case you missed it, I subtly communicated that being polite counts, and some cultures take it extremely seriously (I have yet to master German formal titles).

I’m sure that for every ten emails I sent out, two or three elicited a reply (spray-and-pray is the recurring theme of this guide). Frequently, the only response you 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 being a complete Random Internet Person with no 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 my current position as a PhD student in cognitive neuroscience with that initial correspondence.

And it doesn’t always work out –  I got a place for my master’s at University of Amsterdam to study cognitive musicology, but I had also been emailing back and forth with an administrator from the Music Cognition Group, which is in their brain sciences division, and they 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.

These days, I am still that Random Internet Person, but it’s usually because I have a particular research problem and I’m looking for leads or new modes of collaboration. At UCL, this has meant that when I had a question about my physiological measure, I could look up and email an engineer who specialises in biological signals, who was kind enough to walk me through my data preprocessing. At Cambridge, I Randomly Internet Personed someone with an h-index of 83, and he generously sat and talked through my ideas with me. How gracious people can be amazes me every time, but then I remember the sporadic few occasions I have myself been contacted this way. It’s a great feeling and I want to help! Keenness is contagious.

Concluding Remarks

MATLAB is beyond installed now and I think I’ve more than exhausted my quasi-original contribution to Tips for Applying to Grad School, with the oddly specific target demographic of Canadians interested in music science who want to go abroad. I hope there’s something useful here for those who’ve read this far and do not fall into my intended audience, too. And it should go without saying, as per point #4, if you want to email me about any of this, be that Random Internet Person!

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