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Oxford's DPhil in the CMT group or MIT's graduate program

  1. Feb 24, 2015 #1
    Hi all. I have never posted anything in PhysicsForums, but I am a long time follower.

    I was lucky enough to get admitted to both the MIT's graduate program in Physics and to the DPhil in Theoretical Physics at Oxford in the condensed matter theory group. I am unsure which programme to choose. I am planning to pursue a PhD in the hard condensed matter theory.

    For both programmes funding is not an issue. From MIT I received a fellowship, whereas for Oxford they have not specified yet the source of funding, but as far as I understand, if you get admitted they will fully fund you (I am an EU student).

    I familiarised myself with research in both groups and at this stage of my education I honestly do not like one more over another. Both programmes offer graduate classes, but from a quick check it looks like the Oxford one might be slightly more mathematically rigorous (you can take classes from their masters program in Mathematical and Theoretical Physics). (https://mmathphys.physics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/coursestructure.pdf , http://student.mit.edu/catalog/m8b.html). At the same time MIT offers cross-registration for courses at Harvard.

    The other difference between the US and UK is the length of the program - 5 vs 3 years.

    I wanted to ask if anyone had any experience or suggestions about any of the two programmes. Thank you for your help.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 24, 2015 #2


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    I don't know enough about the programs to be able to comment on the contents.
    However, I DO know the fact that PhD programs in the UK are often (albeit not always) only 3 years is usually seen as a problem, when it is time to look for a post-doc you will be competing on an international market so you will inevitable be compared to PhD students who have graduated from 4 or even 5 year long programs.
    3 years is not a very long time. and since it often takes at least 2 years to gain enough experience to do good original work this only leaves a few months before it is time to start writing up (which in the UK takes a long time, since a typical thesis is 100+ pages)

    My point is that the "extra" 2 years at MIT should be seen as an advantage, not a drawback.
  4. Feb 25, 2015 #3
    Thank you. That was very helpful. I have not looked at it from that point of view.
  5. Feb 25, 2015 #4
    I am in a 4 year full time job PhD country. I always believed getting a PhD from a top school like Oxford would improve my resume. Especially on the international market.

    If Oxford can make you write a quality PhD thesis in 3 years, isn't that also better? You can get 3 years of PhD research and a 2 year postdoc out in the same time it takes you to do an MIT PhD(does that involve taking classes?)

    Of course the most important thing is who will be your supervisor/co-author. Publications speak for themselves.
  6. Feb 25, 2015 #5


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    But can they? It is not a secret that the vast majority of scientists in the UK are unhappy about the 3 year PhD programs, it is simply not competitive. A few years ago it wasn't a big problem because it was always possible to get an extension meaning many PhD students (I suspect the majority) ended up doing about 4 years anyway. However, more recently EPSRC has become much more stringent and essentially penalized the university if the student does not finish on time .
    Also, note that there are a lot of PhD students in the UK who attend 4 year programs. All the new centres for doctoral training are 4 years (albeit with the first year being more of a training year) and many EngD students spend 4 or even 4.5 years on their PhDs (this is true for a couple of students in the group I belong to, their EngD PhD is essentially a PhD in atomic physics). There are also students that for one reason or another get an extension even before starting, this can e.g. because they only have BSc and need time to attend some MSc level courses (i.e. sort of of an informal MSc year). The latter is true for one of my current students.

    Again, the market for post-doc positions is international and that is true even in the UK; even a good PhD from Oxford (which btw is not quite as impressive as it sounds, it is a good university but they are also big and "produce" a lot of PhD students) will not necessarily be any better than a good PhD from a university in another country, and the applicants from abroad will sometimes have 1-2 years more experience than you ( I was -as it happens- one of those foreign applicants when I first moved to the UK 10 years ago, I had a 5 year PhD in Sweden). Note that I have been on interview panel looking for post-docs and have interviewed candidates with DPhils from Oxford (albeit in experimental physics), so I have seen this from "both" sides.
  7. Feb 25, 2015 #6

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    I have no experience with Oxford, so I can't comment on that side of things.

    However, I did my PhD in hard condensed matter at MIT. I would mention three things:
    1) Personally, I quite enjoyed MIT. I found it to be a very vibrant and collaborative environment. There is a rich interaction between condensed matter and high energy and also many excellent experimentalists. Boston is a fun city despite the bad winter weather.
    2) Regarding courses, at least when I was there one could take any class at MIT that one wanted. I don't know if the core physics offerings are more or less rigorous than at Oxford, but if there is an area, e.g. differential geometry, Hilbert spaces, etc., that you would like to see treated more rigorously that is possible. I also took advantage of the courses at Harvard.
    3) Finally, a crude observation. MIT seems to be producing many very high quality people right now. A significant fraction of the people on the faculty market this year come from MIT. You don't want to obsess too early about jobs, but at some point you'll have to face these realities and its just a fact that in the US the name MIT helps a lot.

    Again, none of this should be construed as anything negative about Oxford. I have almost no knowledge of that place besides the many important people who work there.
  8. Feb 25, 2015 #7
    Can I please ask you about the process of PhD supervisor assignment? I was given to understand that the advantage of the PhD programme in UK is that you know who your supervisor is from the very beginning as compared to the US, where it is likely that several students would apply to be supervised by the same academic and hence some might end up not exactly with whom they planned initially to work with. Was it like that at MIT?
  9. Feb 26, 2015 #8

    Physics Monkey

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    My understanding of the MIT process when I was there is that you are admitted to the department as a whole but also to a particular cluster of groups, e.g. condensed matter theory or high energy theory. Within condensed matter theory, say, the faculty make sure that they have enough spots to fit everyone who indicated condensed matter theory as their interest on the application. However, it is true as far I know that you are not assigned a priori to a particular faculty member.

    In my experience a large fraction of people ended up with someone they wanted to work with, but I can't claim it was 100%. In fact, I know a few people (department wide) who had some trouble finding a research group they resonated with, although to be fair I don't think this was necessarily because there weren't any slots where they wanted to be.

    So to summarize, if you're doing theory and you really want to go in on day one and have a fixed research supervisor then MIT might not be the place for you (although I don't think it would hurt to ask the person you want to work with at MIT).

    In my case it turned out to be good that I wasn't tied to someone just starting out. I was given a research project at the end of the first year, but I ended up switching research supervisors and even for a while tried to defect into neuroscience and high energy physics. The department was quite supportive during my uncertain beginnings so for me it worked out. But I appreciate that if you know what you want to do and if Oxford can guarantee you the spot you want then Oxford might make a better choice.
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