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Programs PhD in the UK vs US

  1. Aug 24, 2011 #1
    I'm about to start the fourth year of my undergraduate physics course at Cambridge in the UK at the end of which I will be awarded an M.Sci and B.A. Since I am confident that I want to continue in academia, I have started looking around for a PhD. Since, I'm not a British citizen (but I am EU so after doing my undergraduate here I will be eligible for the same funding that UK citizens are) I have nothing keeping me in the country and so I am also considering the US as a possible destination for a PhD. However, there are several aspects of the American PhD which make me question whether it is worth all the effort of applying there:

    1. Takes much longer than UK PhD (MIT says 3-7 years, avg 5.6 years, UK 3-4 years)
    2. Significant taught component in the US. After 4 years of intensive coursework in the UK I'm getting tired of example sheets and exams and I'm not too keen on doing an equivalent of another Master's course just because American colleges teach a limited amount of physics in their undergraduate colleges.
    3. All the additional tests expected from me such as GRE, IELTS (this could be possible waived since I'll have a degree from a UK institution, but US university websites only mention waiving if one is from a US university). As above, I'm tired of exams.

    My interests lie in ultra-cold atoms and optics in quantum computing and there people working in this area on both sides of the ocean. I have obtained a first in all my three years so far (my third year result being particularly high) so I reckon I have decent chance when applying to the top universities in the US (I'm not going to bother crossing the ocean for anything sub Ivy League, it's just not worth the effort and the cost).

    My question is: do people think that it is still worth applying to the US as well despite my concerns above? Given that I will graduate with a M.Sci would be possible to reduce the coursework and hence the time necessary to complete a PhD?

  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 24, 2011 #2
    I think the standard career boost is doing a post-doc in the US and exploit PhD students who think that ridiculous competition for "prestigious schools" and 60+ hours work/week are normal and acceptable, not doing a PhD there and be exploited yourself. Unless you find a PhD program that skips the coursework (I don't see a need for it in the fields you are interested in) I think a PhD in the US would be a waste of time for you.
  4. Aug 24, 2011 #3
    I agree, it seems somewhat better for you to get your PhD in the UK. However, given that you already did 4 years at Cambridge, it wouldn't be all that advisable to spend 3-4 more years there. Oxford seems to be the only other option with a great physics grad department so you may be severely limiting yourself on location diversity. Not a big problem (or even a problem at all), but just something to note.
  5. Aug 25, 2011 #4
    Imperial, Manchester, Durham and a few more.

    A PhD in the US will take 5 years, with 2 years of coursework, so you will be awarded another Master's during the programme. I was talking to a guy at Northwestern Uni in Illinois and he was saying that the standard pay is $26,000 a year with no tuition fees.

    I've met a lot of people who have done both B.A/PhD at Cambridge and move into academia, so it's a well-worn path. It will also save you 2 years. BUT America might be a fun place to spend the rest of your 20s, and as an academic you will be expected to experience and work in other institutions.

    You are going to need to make a big move eventually, and it might be the case that right now is a good time to do this as you are less settled in your environment.
  6. Aug 25, 2011 #5


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    This is incorrect. As a PhD student in the UK you work as a member of a research group the whole time, meaning it is the quality of the group and the supervisor that matters; which university you work at hardly matters at all (although it can of course be of some considerable practical importance for your personal life when you are not working).

    Hence, you should simply have a look around and see if you can find any good groups that work in the fields you are interested in; if you are lucky some of them might be looking for new PhD students.
  7. Aug 25, 2011 #6
    One thing all of you mentioned is the need to change location. How important is it really? The two directors of studies and a lot of my supervisors have spent their entire academic life in Cambridge (and only a fraction of them for family reasons). I realise that a lot of scientists are constantly on the move, but would I be at a significant disadvantage if I stayed in one place? I've already found potential PhD projects in Cambridge in which I'm interested and whilst I don't have anything keeping me here, I quite like the place and wouldn't mind staying for three more years.

    Edit: Thanks for all the replies so far. I'll only look for PhDs in the US that will skip coursework, this may involve me contacting the unis asking for this as I heard they do it occasionally as a special case.
  8. Aug 25, 2011 #7


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    There is no reason why you would need to change location. Staying at the same place seems to be more the norm than the exception in the UK (it is certainly true for most of the PhD students I've come across here, including my own student).
    After all, most researchers prefer to recruit people that have already shown an ability to do the work, meaning e.g. a final year project is a common way into a PhD.
    Hence, the only reason to move somewhere else would be if you can't find a suitable PhD position in Cambridge.

    Btw, the need to move around becomes relevant once you reach the post-doc stage; not before that.
  9. Aug 25, 2011 #8
    Thanks f95toli! It's good to know that changing location doesn't matter as much as I thought it did. I am actually planning on doing a fourth year project within the group I'm thinking of joining for the PhD. It now seems to me that I may end up staying in Cambridge if all goes well. I will apply elsewhere as well though, I don't like limiting my options for as long as possible.
  10. Aug 25, 2011 #9
    I'm talking about "generally considered" top 10 or 15 programs. Doing a PhD in Imperial or Manchester after a BA/MA from Cambridge seems like a bit of a downgrade in my opinion, but I could just be wrong since I'm a US student. Sure, the grad school doesn't necessarily matter, but I am talking in the general sense. Of course there are exceptions.

    And I never said anything wrong about the lack in location diversity. I'm just saying it's something to note.
  11. Aug 25, 2011 #10


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    But the there are no "grad schools" in the UK, at least not in the same way as in the US (although Imperial has their own system a bit similar to what you have in the US). When you start as a PhD here you get a desk, you get paid and you are expected to work in the lab from day one, and as a rule you do not need to do any coursework beyond courses in presentation techniques etc. You do not even necessarily work with any other PhD students.

    Hence, working in a good group in (small university X) with (well-known supervisor A), will always be better (career-wise that is) than doing a PhD at well known (university Y) with (mediocre supervisor B). There are some seriously good (and internationally well-known) research groups here in the UK at universities you've probably never heard of (the best university for physics research according to the 2008 RAE was Lancaster...).

    Moreover, Cambridge and Oxford obviously have some very good research groups in some fields, but not all their research is that great (partly because they've spread their resources a bit too thin, which is why they don't do that well in national rankings, Oxford isn't even in the top 10 in physics).
    Also, neither university does research in all areas of physics.
    (we collaborate a lot with Cambridge but hardly ever with Oxford, simply because the latter have no groups working in my area)

    Trust me, no one will ever care much about where you did your PhD, what they will want to know is in which group you did it and who your supervisor was (and of course what you published).
  12. Aug 25, 2011 #11
    That's a bit pedantic to describe the term "grad school", as I was talking in the general sense (it would be hard to be specific in an online website). Intuitively, it's better to go to a school with the best research group suited to you, and generally, higher "ranked" schools would have better research opportunities available (I'll repeat: in the general sense).
    Last edited: Aug 25, 2011
  13. Aug 26, 2011 #12


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    But again, you don't go to a "school" to get a PhD in the UK. Starting a PhD here essentially means going through the same process as when you applying for a job (with CVs, interviews etc); you are literally being hired by the person who will be your supervisor (the money for your salary and overhead is coming out of the research budget) and you will work with him/her from day one; and you immediately start working on the project you will eventually write your thesis on.

    Hence, whereas it makes sense to go to a "good school" in the US where you spend your first time doing coursework(meaning the quality of courses, lecturers etc matters) and you THEN pick a project (meaning it is good to be able to contact a variety of supervisors/groups); it does not matter at all here: there are no courses and you already know with whom and where you will be working, and you know more or less exactly what you will be doing.
    How good the other researchers/groups at your university are does not matter at all.

    The reason for why I keep going on about this is because many people seems to be unaware of how different the systems in the US and the UK (and the rest of Europe) are.
  14. Aug 26, 2011 #13
    Thank-you for this. People everywhere mistake their own system for the norm worldwide. It is good to have clear information for people wanting to understand education in other countries.
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