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Can someone explain grad school to a UK student.

  1. Jul 27, 2012 #1
    I am confused about the system of studying for a PhD in the US. I have just finished an undergraduate masters physics degree (4yrs), want to do research, but want to do it in the earth sciences (specifically, ocean and atmospheric science).

    If I were to apply in the US would I have to take more courses before doing a research project, or would I be able to go straight into research?

    I like the idea of being able to sample a range of topics before choosing a final PhD topic, is this what happens?

    Finally, what universities in the US have good research departments in ocean and atmospheric science?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 27, 2012 #2


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    I'm not familiar with relative rankings of departments, but you should go look up a bunch of them and look for the pages that describe their degree programs. Typically US PhD programs will have a set of required core classes, advanced electives, written and/or oral qualifying exams, and the dissertation. Many schools will have some process to apply for a waiver of one or more of the core class requirements.

    Students entering with a US batchelors degree will usually spend the first year or two taking classes and preparing for the candidacy exam. Part of the candidacy exam might involve work on an original research problem. This research may or may not be directly related to the dissertation topic.

    There's usually very little formal structure in matching students up with research advisors. If you're exceptionally well-prepared, it might be possible to find an advisor very early in the process. Many students use the time spent preparing for the qualifying exams to attend colloquia and other seminars to sample possible areas of research. Some time spent interacting with people in the department is also useful to help decide which faculty and research groups are going to be a good fit for you.
  4. Jul 31, 2012 #3
    Thanks for the response, very helpful. Is there some sort of body that ranks the research output of US universities by quality in different fields? Google gives me huge number of choices, but can't tell difference between them all.

    I'm getting the impression that a PhD has more formal structure and than it does in the UK and takes a bit longer if you start out with a US bachelors. Let me summarise what position I am in right now:

    * Have 1st class masters in physics. (MPhys as opposed to MSc)
    * Have research experience from 2 summer placements (physics and geophysics), one of which resulted in publication. The other has possibility of becoming small conference submission.
    * Have research experience from 2 undergrad projects (physics and atmospheric physics). Also possibility that the atmos. phys. project will be published.

    So I have some knowledge of the earth sciences. However, because UK PhDs are so specialised from the offset, I didn't feel I had enough knowledge to choose exactly where/what I should apply for here. This is why I want to apply to the US, where I got the impression that I could take courses in and around atmospheric/oceanic science before choosing to specialise.

    Would my background give me a good chance of getting into a top US school? And also importantly, would it be possible to get funding?
  5. Aug 1, 2012 #4
    Each school has its own structure, some more formal than others. But summarizing, a Ph.D. in the US consists of:
    • Passing a qualifying exam (or exams).
    • Writing a thesis.
    • Defending the thesis orally before a committee.

    Beyond this basic structure, schools vary quite a bit. Some require coursework, some don't. (The school I went to had courses to prepare students for the qualifying exams, but they were optional and ungraded. If a student wanted to sign up for the four qualifying exams on Day One, this was allowed. Ridiculed, but allowed. :smile:)

    As for sampling different fields, some schools allow or even encourage changes of advisor, others admit you to work with a particular professor and changing advisors is difficult. You really need to check with the particular school you are interested in to see what their policy is.

    On the funding side, most offers of admission to a Ph.D. come with funding. If you receive an offer that is unfunded, that is more than likely a polite way of saying "no".
  6. Aug 2, 2012 #5
    Thanks TMF,

    Is there any way of getting into a PhD without doing qualifying exams or advanced courses? For example if you already have an MSc from a European university.

    This does seem to beg the question of how to sort out advisers, but would it perhaps be possible to try and organise that while abroad? So for example could I try and talk to potential supervisor for a 2013 start over the course of this coming academic year?
  7. Aug 2, 2012 #6


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    You need to contact the physics departments of individual universities that you are interested in, to find out their policies on graduate admissions for people who already have a master's degree from abroad. Check their web sites first; there may be pages addressing this specifically. I think it is highly unlikely that you can bypass the qualifying exam. You may be able to bypass some or all coursework.
  8. Aug 2, 2012 #7


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    Especially if that student then failed all four exams!

  9. Aug 2, 2012 #8
    Course work *may* transfer, but you would have to talk to the particular school.

    *No* university lets you out of qualifying exams. That is how they certify that you have the knowledge that they believe a Ph.D. should have. If you have acquired that level of knowledge through an MSc, you shouldn't have any trouble with the exams. (As I said, there are definitely schools that allow you to sign up for these exams immediately. This is not usually suggested though, but it is possible.)

    Trying to talk to potential supervisors is a good idea. A short, polite email can't hurt anything.
  10. Aug 2, 2012 #9
    I'm sure that this has happened more than once! :smile:
  11. Aug 2, 2012 #10
    Check out www.phds.org - it's a good starting place to find PhD programs in the field you're interested in. Then look into what specific areas of research professors at these schools are involved in.

    You'll find help/information on physicsgre.com seeing as that website is geared towards admission to physics PhD programs. There have been some applicants from the UK and most weren't very successful. One example strikes to mind - he did Part III math at Cambridge and was in the top 10 of his graduating class (I think so) and was rejected at just about every program he applied to in the states. He stayed at Cambridge for the PhD, I believe. His application may have been weak in other areas though. I recall a less than stellar PGRE score (according to the people there, for foreigners, that should be a given) and not much in the way of research experience. (but I'm just going off memory of a post I saw a long time back)
  12. Aug 6, 2012 #11
    Thanks for all the advice. Since I am looking at atmospheric and ocean science it seems that only the general GRE is required. Is there a 'recommended book' for dealing with this exam?

    Thanks for the phds.org link Mepris, thats given me a clearer indication of what universities are good for what. University of California, and University of Maryland seem to crop up a lot in the top rankings. Though I'm put off Maryland since I've watched The Wire (is it really like that? ;) )
  13. Aug 7, 2012 #12
    I haven't been to Maryland (or anywhere in the US for that matter) but I'm guessing it's a pretty big place. From what I remember, the guy behind The Wire worked as a journalist in the Baltimore area. That's about all I know...

    Thank twofish and ParticleGrl for PhDs.org!
  14. Aug 7, 2012 #13
    Britain has quite a different culture at undergrad level. People generally won't try to spend every free moment getting research experience, like in US, or every free moment studying for a test, like in China.

    So they appear worse on paper, by the metrics the US uses. In Britain, though, doing well in Part III will put you on the shortlist for pretty much anything, because it proves you survived hard exams in a number of extremely difficult maths subjects simultaneously. So people are more willing to let their degree speak to their competence. I think the difference may be that universities here are more standardised, so you don't need a separate test to find out if someone with a bit of paper saying he as a certain grade in a physics degree actually knows any physics.

    By the time people find out what the US universities require for PhD entry, it's usually too late to do anything about it.
  15. Aug 7, 2012 #14
    The main physics program at the University of Maryland is located in the campus at College Park. College Park is generally nothing like what you saw in The Wire (that kind of stuff is primarily just the bad areas of Baltimore). It's a fairly affluent, white suburb on the outskirts of Washington, DC. Also, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is just a short drive away in Gaithersburg.

    The University of California is more like a large collection of loosely-connected universities spread across the state. They have some of the best universities in the country, and if you're interested in looking into their grad programs I would suggest you take a look at a bunch of them. There's a UC at Berkeley, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Irvine, Davis, etc.

    As for advice on the general GRE, I think the best thing to do would be to look on the GRE website, www.ets.org, for some sample questions. You have a degree in Physics already so the quantitative portion should be a breeze for you (the questions are mainly on basic algebra and geometry). The verbal and written sections can be more difficult for a physics person, but if you just build up your vocabulary of useless words and familiarize yourself with the question formats you should be fine. I bet you wouldn't need more than a couple days to prepare for the whole thing.
  16. Aug 8, 2012 #15
    I might have been exaggerating a little when I said The Wire put me off Baltimore. XD

    So a summary of advice in this thread:
    * Having a masters already is unlikely to let me off much of the first 2 years of coursework, but would probably make it easier.
    * I could try and take qualifying exams early but this is likely to lead to disaster.
    * To give myself the best chance I need to get a good GRE score. (analytical writing is the worrying part for me)
    * Contact the individual schools for more info.

    Fair enough. I was thinking too optimistically to begin with, but I am not put off. The main issue for me is time. 5yr PhD in USA vs. a 3yr PhD here. I loved the US when I was on holiday, but could I hack it for 5 years... hmm, will have to think on that one. Part of the reason for me applying abroad is for the 'adventure' factor but I don't want it to turn into a horrible slog!

    Some further questions:
    * Do you typically get guaranteed funding for the entire 5 years of grad school? I have american friends who have told me funding horror stories (albeit in the field of archaeology). I don't want to have to reapply for funding mid-way through.
    * How many different grad schools should one apply to? I notice that application fees can be as high as $100 for international students. I'm definitely not rich.
    * How important are referee connections really? Let me clarify this question. I was told that if your references are from someone unknown to the department that you are applying to, they are not considered very highly. For international students I guess this is much more likely to be the case. Is there anything I can do about this?
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2012
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