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Programs PhD in UK

  1. Apr 5, 2008 #1
    Hi, I'm interested in doing my PhD in physics in the UK... I've heard it can be shorter (4 years?) than in the US, is this true? Also, how difficult is it to get into Oxford or Cambridge for a PhD coming from the US? I'm in undergrad at Cornell U at the moment.
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  3. Apr 5, 2008 #2
    The time taken to get a PhD in the UK depends on the student. The idea of a PhD is that you contribute something to the field of research you work in, once you have done this and proven yourself worthy of a doctorate then the university can decide to give you one. Four years or even potentially less is certainly feasible for a PhD in the UK.

    The first difficulty with studying for a PhD at Oxbridge is being admitted. That obviously depends on previous qualifications and how much demand there is for places in a given field.
  4. Apr 5, 2008 #3


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    UK PhD students are nominally registered for a period of 3 years, but many people have to finish writing up after their 3 years have officially finished. The time reduction (down to three years) is at least partly due to the fact that generally you're set to work on research from day one, rather than taking classes for the bulk of one or two years first (although you may still have to attend some lectures depending on your background and the supervisor's preferences).

    If you are planning to pay your tuition and living expenses out of your own pocket rather than obtaining a studentship/scholarship, then you may still have a realistic shot at getting in for September 2008. If not, you may well have missed the boat this year, but it's still worth a try. My experience is that - in practice - you really need your applications in before December for most studentships.

    I would also recommend that before you send your application you email potential supervisors and talk to them about how you may be able to work together. When you send in that application, I'd send a copy of it direct to your intended supervisor as well as to wherever it says to send it on the form. A flexible approach to filling in application forms is expected - for example, despite them often asking for a research proposal, it seems customary to write only the vaguest of descriptions: e.g. "Observational astronomy", "Theoretical astrophsyics", "Photonics", etc, unless the project has a specific name which they indicate.

    Regards to how difficult it is to get in: your mileage may vary. A potential supervisor at Cambridge decided it was worth interviewing me straight after my less than spectacular undergrad degree on the basis of some other bits and pieces that I'd done. Oxford said I qualified for admission there too, even though my undergrad grades were such that a mid-ranking university rejected me without even an interview. For Oxford and Cambridge, who see so many academically well qualified people, I think a lot must depend on extracurricular activities and how they see your potential.

    A master's degree and some work experience certainly helps, as well. This year, having been doing a masters and having had some work experience, I was offered every PhD studentship I applied for. Better undergrad grades would have certainly helped though.

    You may also find www.findaphd.com useful at this stage in the year as some departments put their unfilled PhD places on there.
  5. Apr 5, 2008 #4
    As others have hinted at, the reason the PhD time is shorter in the UK is that a PhD is primarily a research-based degree. Much of the courses we take the first one or two years as a PhD student here are done over there at the "undergraduate" level, I believe. Either that or people obtain a masters first.
  6. Apr 5, 2008 #5
    In my field, Electronic Engineering, you study as an undergraduate to get an MEng. In my courses' case I do two years the same as a BEng Student and then similar modules in the third year and a further fourth year. From there I can go straight into research as a PhD student. It different between universities and courses.
  7. Apr 5, 2008 #6
    Since PHD in the UK is completely research oriented with no classes would students coming from a BS from the US need a sort of middle step in between US BS to UK PHD?
    ie, somewhere along the line you need to take those graduate classes right?
    I may be wrong but is it just that a BS in the UK consists of more classes than that in the US so there is no need for the extra classes in the PHD work?
  8. Apr 5, 2008 #7

    Vanadium 50

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    One other thing to keep in mind is that the 3-year rule (now 4-year rule) can pose a disadvantage when looking for postdocs, as your potential supervisor will be asking him or herself, "how much did (s)he learn in 3 or 4 years and how much will I have to teach him/her?"

    I don't want to give you the idea that it's impossible to get a postdoc with a UK PhD; that's not true. However, there is a downside to getting a degree so quickly that you should be aware of.
  9. Apr 5, 2008 #8
    At the end of the day A PhD is like any other university qualification - you come out of it with a piece of paper and some knowledge but that's about it. When you get a job you always have to be introduced to the job. All degrees and PhD's are about showing an ability to learn in a subject and other than basic skills are rarely about learning now to do something....at least the majority of my professors think that - one even told us he learnt everything he knows now after university. It's all jumping though hoops. (Sorry if that is not a US friendly saying)
  10. Apr 6, 2008 #9


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    As far as I know 3 years is not that common anymore. Also, 4 years IS the usual length in most of the world and will -as far as I understand- be the normal length in Europe (including Russia and Ukraine) after the Bologna Accords have been fully implemented.
    Hence, a 4 year PhD will hardly be a disadvantage since that it will be the norm pretty soon.
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