The right type of American degree can unlock amazing opportunities for Indian students. Here’s how to choose which level of study is best for you.
A degree from an American university can open the doors to the variety of careers. Photograph courtesy Barnard College
Scientist, economist, architect, programmer, engineer, artist, anthropologist—with a degree from an American university, Indian students can pursue a huge variety of fascinating careers and professions. But how do you choose the right degree path to help you achieve your dreams?
Picking between a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science, Master of Business Administration or Doctor of Fine Arts may seem daunting, but there are plenty of people and resources to help select the right path.
Many students know from an early age what career path they wish to pursue—but many do not. If you’re looking for undergraduate education in the United States, Barnard College’s Director of Recruitment and Selection Ruby Bhattacharya says that being undecided is not an issue for many institutions.
“While there are U.S. universities that do ask for applicants to identify which program they intend to pursue, among the most selective universities in the U.S., it is actually more likely that applicants are not admitted under a specific major,” she says. “Students are admitted to the college or university itself and then finalize their academic plans within the first year or two of enrollment. This is one of the many ways undergraduate university admissions differs from graduate admissions.”
Majors like computer science, engineering, business, economics and psychology are extremely popular with students from India, says University of San Francisco’s Director of International Admission Pranav Pradhan. “I strongly advise students to keep an open mind when choosing a major,” he says. “Factors like their skill set, academic interest and career goals should be primary factors when selecting a program.”
If you’re enrolling to earn an undergraduate degree, remember that it’s okay to explore—and to make mistakes. “One of the biggest strengths of the U.S. education system is the flexibility that it offers,” says Pradhan. If a course of study is not working out, students can meet with their academic advisers and professors as a first step; if needed, they often have the flexibility to change majors or even transfer to another institution.
Once Indian students have bachelor’s degrees, Pradhan says that many choose to pursue master’s programs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. “Programs like computer science and data science tend to be the top choice,” he says. “Also, interdisciplinary and techno-managerial programs are becoming increasingly popular.”
Abhyuday Pai, admissions ambassador at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, says that specialized master’s degrees are a key step in building thriving careers. “Even if you are the smartest amongst the lot, at some point you will need to have your knowledge base backed by a solid degree,” he says. “I sincerely advise that students have a higher degree after their bachelor’s. Not only is it a great way to expand your knowledge base, but it is an amazing opportunity to network and explore other fields of interest.”
Choosing a master’s degree gives students the unique opportunity to pursue topics far more focused than undergraduate study allows. Increasingly popular areas like artificial intelligence, data science, cyber security, computational biology, and robotics and mechatronics are all stand-alone master’s programs at many universities, Pai says.
Many students find inspiration in non-STEM fields, and master’s degrees offer similar opportunities to go deep into a variety of specialties. Architecture and design are particularly popular master’s programs amongst Indian students, says Niky Chokshi, recruitment advisor–India, graduate admissions, Arizona State University Arizona State alone offers over 450 master’s and other graduate certificate opportunities, she describes. These programs cover subjects as diverse as business administration, global health, human resources management, social work, education, fine arts, music and many more.
For some students, a master’s will not be enough, and a doctoral degree is the way to go. While earning a doctorate can require several years more study and the completion of a rigorous thesis project, the rewards can be significant. According to a 2021 article published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Graduate School, students who earn doctoral degrees can make new discoveries through research, become world experts in their fields, broaden career opportunities to include both academic and professional possibilities, and increase salaries. Doctoral programs require a high level of commitment, though, and should not be pursued unless students have focused passions they wish to devote years to pursuing.
Learning and choosing
When it comes to choosing the program in which to earn your degree, the options can feel endless and confusing, Pai says. So students should focus on what fascinates them and go from there. “Invest your time and effort in finding the one thing that you could keep learning about throughout your career,” says Pai. “That is your passion. Passion is simply the ability to never stop learning about a topic that interests you.”
Once you’ve identified what fascinates you most, he continues, choose a degree and university that fits your dedication for the subject.
The experts all caution against choosing a program or degree just because of its ranking, reputation or prestige—or letting your parents pressure you to do so. “Those factors do not ensure that a college or university will offer the kind of opportunities or experiences you as an individual need to succeed,” says Bhattacharya. “All rankings published in the United States are done so by for-profit entities, not the government. They cannot speak to whether or not the university will be a good fit for you and your needs as you seek to grow and learn in the United States.”
“Reflect on what you need to succeed and ensure you are the one doing research,” she continues. “If you have questions, you should be the one reaching out to the university admissions office directly. We are here to help you as the official sources of information for admission. Remember that we are considering you for admission, not your parents.”
If students need guidance when deciding which level of degree program to apply for, Chokshi affirms that students should reach out directly to university admissions representatives, whose job it is to offer advice and guidance. “Often students turn to online forums where they tend to internalize information that may not be the most accurate, nor the most up-to-date,” she says. Contacting your local EducationUSA office can also be a great source of help.
Regardless of the pressures students face when making higher education choices, maintaining perspective is key. “Take many deep breaths,” says Bhattacharya, “and take the time to be excited about the adventure this next chapter of your life has in store for you.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.