Career Advice

Are summer schools for master’s students worth it?

Summer schools for master’s students can be valuable for a number of reasons. However, they also have drawbacks. Learn more about the benefits and downsides of summer schools for master’s students, and the ultimate question of whether they are worth attending.

What are summer schools for master’s students?

Summer schools are short intensive programmes for master’s students. They commonly take place during the summer months (though there are also winter schools). These programmes tend to take place over 2-3 weeks.

Summer schools for master’s students often have a thematic focus: A summer school can revolve around a particular topic or a specific discipline.

Summer schools that focus on a specific topic of interest may have an interdisciplinary outlook. Examples are summer schools that explore climate change, public policy making, or cancer research.

Summer schools that have a disciplinary focus often attract master’s students from different disciplines who are keen to develop their knowledge of a new discipline, which is not covered by their master’s programmes. Think of an introduction to maritime sciences, evolutionary biology or sociology.

Most summer schools are selective and application-based. As part of the application, summer schools often require interested master’s students to write a letter of motivation.

Benefits of summer schools for master’s students

Summer schools can be beneficial because they allow master’s students to dive into a specific topic, or explore a new discipline, in a relatively short amount of time.

Exploring a specific topic in-depth can help master students to supplement the curriculum of their degree programme.

For instance, some students may be interested in a specific topic that is only touched upon, or not addressed at all, as part of their studies.

Many master’s students also use summer schools to bolster their CVs. For instance, by participating in a summer programme at an Ivy League university.

Others follow summer school because they lack credits to graduate from their degree programme. Most summer schools allow participants to earn credits if they actively participate in the provided session and if they complete some course work, such as a research paper or group project.

International summer schools for master’s students

Many master’s students who follow a summer school opt for an international experience. Unless they are only after a few credits to graduate.

Some master’s programmes only take one year full-time to complete. This tough timeline makes it difficult to include a semester abroad. Hence, an international summer school provides master’s students with the opportunity to go abroad as part of their studies. Even if only for a short amount of time.

However, even in two-year master’s programmes, some students may decide to follow an international summer school. While summer schools tend to be expensive, they are often cheaper than studying abroad for a whole semester.

Pros and cons of summer schools for master’s students

Following summer school certainly has some advantages. At the same time, there are some substantial drawbacks to the existence of summer schools, turning them into a rather exclusive practice.

Pros

Some of the ‘pros’ of summer schools for master’s students are:

  • Knowledge acquisition. Summer schools provide master’s students with additional knowledge and skills in areas that may not be covered in their degree programmes.
  • Thesis advantages. Topic-specific summer schools can give master’s students a head start in their master theses trajectory, by introducing a topic in-depth.
  • Credits. Most summer schools provide master’s students with the ability to earn ECTS credits, American credits or any other equivalents.
  • International experience. Many master’s students use summer schools to go abroad for a few weeks.
  • University setting and networks. Summer schools allow master’s students to explore a different university setting and to make connections, which is valuable if they aim to pursue an academic career.

Cons

However, there are clear ‘cons’:

  • Costs. Summer schools for master’s students are very expensive. A programme for two or three weeks can range from several hundred to thousands of dollars/pounds/euros.
  • Little financial aid. There are very few scholarships or stipends for master’s students to attend summer school. Most summer schools have to be paid out of pocket by the students themselves. Or by their parents…
  • Unequal opportunities. Not only are many master’s students unable to pay summer school fees, but many depend on earning money during the summer to finance their education.
  • Lack of practical experience. Many summer schools stay at an entirely academic level, offering few practical skills or non-academic networks which are important to secure a job after graduation.

Are summer schools for master’s students worth it?

Whether summer school is worth it or not has to be, of course, an individual decision.

In some cases, summer school may allow master’s students to graduate in time. Thus, even if it is expensive, it may be less expensive than paying tuition fees for another semester to finish a master’s degree.

If a master’s student needs credits to finish his or her degree or receives a scholarship to attend, summer school is worth it. However, in general, extremely high fees and little practical experience tend to make summer schools for master’s students not worth their time.

In general, I am much more positive about summer schools for PhD students than for master’s students. The main difference is the extremely limited availability of financial aid (in the form of stipends, scholarships etc.) for master’s students to attend these programmes.

Many universities charge extremely high fees for summer schools and make a lot of money with them. Students from affluent backgrounds can use these summer schools to polish their CVs, contributing to an already unlevel playing field.

Besides these financial aspects, gaining practical experience as a master’s student during the summer may be more beneficial. For instance in the form of an internship.

Practical experiences are increasingly valued and can benefit one’s career, regardless of whether the aim is to pursue an academic carer or to leave academia after the master’s degree.

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