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Career in Europe vs US (Comparison of academic cultures)

  1. Jun 1, 2015 #1
    Where to pursuit academic career as a (non-EU and non-US citizen) physicist?

    Europe and US have major social, cultural, intellectual, demographic and academic differences. There are pro's and con's for each of course and I am very struggling to decide. I thought that some experienced people on physicsforums may help me to decide.

    US universities have much more funds, their budgets are not even comparable with the budgets in best European universities. (e.g. Harvard $35B, Yale $23B and Stanford $21B, whereas ETH Zurich $1.5B, KIT $0.9B and LMU $1.6B) I compared best US and best European universities. Many average US universities have still higher budgets than best European universities. I could not understand such big differences in the budgets of US and European universities. This is a clear advantage when it comes to making projects with or without industry.

    Many US universities are much higher in rankings. Even you could not find a job in top ones, you may still be in a university with good ranking. But in Europe, only few universities are ranked good. Although I know rankings are not always consistent, they give an idea at least.

    Language is another issue. Although some well-known universities in Europe have courses in English, undergraduate courses are not in English and university expects you to know country's language if they will hire you permanently. It can be seen as an obstacle.

    Cost of living is another thing. What do you think about the salary/cost of living ratios in Europe and in US Rural and in US Urban?

    Some of (actually 3 of) my friends went to US (universities in top 30) for PhD and they all left their PhD unfinished and turned back to the country. Their common complain was about the working conditions of PhD students and the extreme levels of academic competition. They told me that their life became only consist of their PhD and sleeping and related basic human needs. They told that due to academic rivalry and tight deadlines of projects, social life of PhD students and even young professors were zero. On the other hand, my friends in Europe says that they leave at 17.00pm, they have many time to spend on their hobbies and they are using their working time very effectively. Are these contrasts between European and US academic culture really that big or my friends are exaggerating? What do you think?

    I love physics, I love my job and I don't feel like studying because I enjoy my job. But on the other hand, I have many other things to do besides my job for example I also make music in a semi-professional way. I am writing also. These things also take a lot of time and I don't want to give them up. Thinking that, actually academic competition and expectations in US is a little bit scared me. But I am feeling myself closer to US because they are more open to foreigners, language is English and some other reasons that I mentioned earlier.

    I am doing my PhD right now, and I may go to a university in Europe or US as a visiting scientist during my PhD. I have not many shots. Due to personal reasons I may not be able to go and try both and then decide. That's why, I want to choose wisely where to go. After finishing my PhD I want to go there and do my post-doc and if it is possible and if I like, I want to stay and live there. I may have one shot. Where should I go? Europe or US, or Canada?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 2, 2015 #2
    I am from Austria and graduated about 20 years ago; my experiences are related to the Austrian / German culture:

    Yes, it seems we have worked less, more like in a 9-5 job. Having had a supervisor who loved the American culture, this was an issue of ongoing discussions though :-) Perhaps the reason is that working towards your PhD was 'a job' - we weren't called 'graduate students'. From a legal and contractual perspective, you were an employee with social insurance and all - just one whose contract was time-limited.

    As for ranking: Ranking of academic institutions was not a thing. You'd rather pick a specific team and professor but it was not like specific universities were considered first tier. Perhaps a consequence of 'free education for everyone' and education being considered a service provided by the government to anybody?

    But I think differences are less and less pronounced as I feel our academic systems and culture become more and more 'international' - especially after changes introduced by the so-called Bologna process. We had no bachelor degrees here until recently, so the first degree - and pre-requisite for working towards a PhD - was a 5-years master's degree. There were no 'general eduction' classes, only STEM classes right from the start. You specialized earlier when working towards that master's degree, so that as a PhD candidate you were only working on a research project (hardly any classes). Then the former master's degrees have been split in two - 3 years bachelor's and 2 year's master' degrees, and curricula have been redesigned for allowing more 'permeability'. Before, you could not switch 'majors' that easily.

    Language was not be an issue for PhD students - even back then many colleagues did not speak German, and the few, very specialized classes we took were given by guest professors who did not speak German either. But AFAIK you have to take more classes today as a PhD student, so take that with a grain of salt.
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