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Is the physics education system in the USA more hardcore/rigorous than in the UK?

  1. Oct 9, 2011 #1
    I read stuff on this website all the time where people have given accounts of how they've had to study 80 hours a week or whatever to get an A or to maintain the GPA required for the top grade. Also, I'm aware that a PhD takes much longer to complete across the pond than it does over here in the UK (3 years here).

    I'm a new PhD student and I did graduate my physics degree with 1.1 classification, but I only just scraped it, and the only time I ever found myself studying relentlessly would be the 4 weeks or so leading up to the exam period. I'd pretty much coast through the semester then I'd kill myself going flat out in the revision period. I can't help but get the impression that I'm an inferior graduate compared to those who post on this site. Is there really much difference between the 2 systems?
    Does the American system grow stronger physicists than the British one currently does?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 9, 2011 #2
    Keep in mind that students in the UK specialize far more and far earlier than do students in the US. Students in the UK enter University with a firm background in basic physics and mathematics and spend their "academic career" studying (mostly) only subjects related to their major. American freshmen generally have far less education in physics and mathematics (and so spend most of the their first year studying these things), and have to take a number of electives unrelated to their major. This naturally adds to the time required to get a degree (an undergraduate degree, at least). I'm less sure about phD programs, but keep in mind that the requirements are ultimately the same in both countries (i.e. produce a piece of original research).
  4. Oct 9, 2011 #3
    There's also a relevant difference in the studying culture of both places. Over here in the US courses are organized and graded by some combinations of tests, homeworks and a final exam, while in the UK I think most if not all of your grade is based on a final exam, so naturally the way you study is different in both places. In the US people have to constantly be on top of their classes otherwise they'll do poorly on their homeworks and midterms. When the time for finals come, people increase their study time but not by much since they already were doing a lot of studying throughout the semester. UK-based systems are much more examination oriented so people have a tendency to not do much during the semester and just go all out a few weeks before the exams. At the end I'd say the US students have to work a bit harder just because they constantly have homework (which counts towards their grade) due, although not necessarily better prepared because if the UK students can ace a comprehensive final exam, it shows that they've learned the material equally as well.

    As for the UK degrees taking lesser time, I think that's because a high school graduate entering an undergrad program in Math or Physics in the UK is usually much better prepared. For example if someone does A-Levels in Mathematics, Further Mathematics and Physics, they already know most of the material US students would learn in their freshman year. This along with the lack of gen ed requirements make for a shorter undergrad degree. I don't know why the graduate degree is shorter though, and it's certainly an interesting question.
    Last edited: Oct 9, 2011
  5. Oct 9, 2011 #4
    Well, I'm an American who studied in Cambridge for a year (materials science). And at least from that experience, it seemed that the philosophy is to cover a ridiculous amount of material very fast, and pat yourself on the back for how much more you cover than other universities. But students are students no matter where you go, so of course they are not capable of learning at a significantly different rate. You may end up being able to answer select questions in these advanced areas, but it is not the equivalent of learning all the background in a thorough way.
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