Studying abroad: A good idea….sometimes

On the surface, it sounds good: Take some time off from getting your law degree or your MBA to study overseas. It’s culturally enriching, right? What could be more appealing?

Not necessarily a good idea, experts say.

“I recommend it for undergraduates,” says Heike Spahn of AdmissionsConsultants, a lawyer and former Assistant Dean at University of Chicago Law School who followed that pattern herself. “But if you’re going overseas in your first year or second year of law school, that’s a time when you might want to be more involved in and not so remote from your job search.”

Matt Whitaker interrupted his own MBA work at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business to study overseas in Korea. And the experience? Overall, he gives it an A+.

“I was living in another culture. I learned about that part of the world. It probably cost me less than living in Chicago. I loved every minute of it,” recalls Whitaker who now owns a payment processing company in Arlington, Virginia.

Before rushing out to sign up to study abroad, however, consider another warning — from Rod Garcia, director of MBA admissions at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“The reality that is not commonly spoken is that many of these MBA exchange programs occur during a second year of study. That’s a time when most students are looking for jobs. When they’re abroad, that limits their opportunities.”

For law school students who want to work overseas, Spahn says, there are probably good reasons to consider it. “But it (the option) has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis for each individual,” she says.

She definitely does not recommend studying abroad for long periods of time, and warns that would be-lawyers and grad students should beware of regarding such study as a refreshing break or a chance to kick back and party.

Whitaker readily agrees that students going overseas need to take into consideration their own job prospects. “I was fortunate in that, in my case, I already had an offer from a consulting company. I knew consulting was something I wanted to do, and I knew I had a job when I returned from Korea,” he says.

Whitaker also points out that when he studied overseas a decade ago, communications were not as prevalent. “So perhaps students had to work harder back then to maintain contact while looking for a job,” he says. He speculates it might be easier these days to stay in touch because of e-mails and other electronic innovations.

There are many practical matters involved in studying overseas, such as passports and visas required in different countries. Even health inoculations can be an issue if you’re going somewhere off the beaten track. Then, there’s the often encountered culture shock of living in a foreign country. But none of that is overwhelming to students, whether they are undergraduate, MBA candidates or half way through their law school curriculum.

When it comes to undergraduate students, however, most educators give a blanket endorsement to the practice or ask “Why not consider studying abroad?”

“The benefits of studying abroad are immeasurable and will allow doors of opportunities to fly open considering your academic, cultural, professional and social itineraries,” writes Melissa Sentley at the travel site.

“Experience overseas makes you more independent, provides personal growth and gives you an appreciation of cultural differences — all while enhancing your resume. Prospective employers, along with graduate schools and scholarship committees, realize how valuable international experience is,” she writes.

But doors flying open? Not so fast for law school students and MBA candidates, warn others.

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