Case Studies is an ongoing series on Scholar Escolar where foreigners who have taken the graduate school plunge in Spain share their experiences. Today’s case study focuses on Grayson, from the US, who did a Master’s in Applied English Linguistics in Madrid. 

Name: Grayson

Place of Origin: Arizona, USA

Time in Spain: 9 years, 4 months (and counting…)

Degree Program: 

Master’s in Applied English Linguistics, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, 2 years (part time)

Academic Background: 

When I was a kid, I always dreamed of becoming a science-fiction writer for a living. However, the experiences of my self-employed journalist father, while educational, also showed me at a young age that my dream was rather impractical. So I chose to study journalism in college with the hope of eventually becoming a full-time reporter at a major national newspaper or magazine. This was back in 2004, long before Facebook had become everyone’s go-to stop for news and when most people’s attention spans hadn’t been reduced to between 160 and 320 characters.

Then came the game-changer: My fall 2007 study abroad semester in Spain through a direct exchange program between Arizona State University and the Universidad de Alicante. It was a life-altering experience and perhaps after gazing upon the beautiful snow-capped mountains of Granada, I decided that no matter what I did with my life, one of my goals was to come back someday to live in Spain.

Professional Background: 

It had never occurred to me to be a teacher. Ever. Not even as a last resort. When I was a young adult (and only child), little kids annoyed me and even when we went out to eat, I would politely ask my parents if we could change tables anytime I caught sight of a cranky baby. I think I would have preferred slaving away in retail or the food service industry for the rest of my life.

Then, in 2008, just before graduating from ASU, I found out about the auxiliares program through the Spanish Ministry of Education. I didn’t think really think about what it might entail. All I cared about was living out my dream by going back to Spain. I quickly realized I had to be a little practical, though…the idea of being isolated in a small town in Andalucia didn’t appeal to me, so I requested a placement in Madrid and I got it.

I spent two years as a language assistant, reading out of textbooks, planning presentations about random British and American holidays, drilling kids on the same Trinity exam questions to death and trying to encourage kids to express themselves through drama in English. I genuinely hated the work at first, but then when I realized it was a job just like any other and I had to take it seriously, my performance as a teacher (as well as my relationships with my co-teachers) improved quite a bit. I also learned how to connect with children and be more empathic, something that it took years of prejudice to overcome, but I did it!

Then, I spent two years as an auxiliar with UCETAM, which was far less structured and extremely chaotic. I was my school’s only assistant and I was responsible for planning lessons for all pre-school and primary grades, plus a few extra sessions of art and physical education in English. It was extremely stressful and it was also a bit of a reality check about how much time and effort I would really have to invest if I wanted to continue being an English teacher in school. So I decided that maybe I should consider other options.

What made you decide to go to graduate school in Spain? 

I knew that there was no way I was going to return to the States anytime soon and even if I did, I would first have to save up money for several years to avoid piling more onto my undergrad debt load.

So in Spain, I had to be realistic about my job prospects and knew that staying in the English teaching sector was my best bet. So I started looking into master’s programs to become a secondary school English teacher and general English linguistics degrees.

Why did you pick that particular program?

A few colleagues had recommended the applied English linguistics master at the UAM. I also liked the idea of getting my feet wet at the higher education level to broaden my future career prospects to the areas of doctoral research and perhaps even university teaching. Either way, I needed to get my master’s first.

What was the application process like?

It was fairly straightforward in comparison to the nightmare of gathering endless stacks of paperwork for my NIE and later Spanish citizenship. I just had to present official copies and sworn translations of my college degree and academic transcript, with the Apostille of the Hague, along with copies of my passport and NIE, and the application form itself. If I remember correctly, I also had to submit both my CV and a brief personal statement. I was told by a university functionary at the time that I had to get my Bachelor’s degree convalidated through the Spanish Ministry of Education prior to admission, but then I learned I could have waited to do it until I was about to complete the master.

Then, I had to conduct an interview with the coordinator of the master, which was more like just a brief chat to check my English level and see if my academic and professional background was apt for the master (I was a native speaker and an ESL teacher, so yes!). A few weeks later, I was in!

What language were the classes in?

All classes were taught entirely in English. Some of the teachers were British and Australian while others were Spanish. All of them were seminar format, with a focus on group work and debates based on assigned readings.

Of course, as was to be expected, I had to conduct quite a bit of online research outside of class and pore through quite a few professional linguistics journals for projects and essays. I also took advantage of my day job to gain access to real English language learners and English teaching materials for a few papers.

How much was tuition? What about cost of living?

The grand flaw in my plan was to study the Master part-time, to avoid exhausting myself while teaching 25 hours a week as an UCETAM assistant. My first year, 2011-12, it would have cost around €1,500 (about $1,800) for the whole degree, but then I took a year off due to personal circumstances. When I returned to the Autonoma in fall 2013, the Comunidad de Madrid had already doubled tuition across the board for many degree programs and the English Applied Linguistics program now cost me more than €3,000  just to complete my remaining classes and thesis.

Luckily, I had some money saved up from my full-time job in a different concertado school and the private classes I had been giving at the time.

Would you recommend your program?

I would recommend it in general because most professors were extremely approachable and knowledgeable about their respective specialties. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the Spanish education system is very different from the American system and as a result, the curriculum and some classes are far less structured than many Americans might be accustomed to. On the bright side, deadlines are also a bit more flexible.

On a personal note, I wish I had learned to balance my studies, my full-time teaching job, and my personal life earlier. Early on, I proposed studying the teaching of spelling to EFL students, then quickly gave up on the idea when my early research lead to a dead end. My second idea was more ambitious: to study the English production of bilingual children, but I was worried I wouldn’t have enough time to conduct a proper study and write the thesis before the September evaluation period. In the end, I decided to go back to my journalism roots and take advantage of a close relationship with my corpus linguistics professor to pursue a corpus-based analysis of newspaper coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the hope of identifying hidden biases.


What are you doing now?

After all these years, I’m still an EFL teacher and nowadays I work in a private school in Aravaca. I’m starting to take the first steps into making a transition to a new career. I’m hoping to find something in either international education/study abroad programs or communication.

Thanks Grayson! If you would like to know more about this degree program or his experiences, you can find Grayson on LinkedIn.

 If you have gone to graduate school in Spain (or know somebody who did) and would like to have your story included in the Case Studies series, let me know! Previous contributors include a Master’s degree in Digital Marketing Management and International Studies.

(Photo: Grayson)


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