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Programs Timescale of PhDs (UK vs the rest of the world!)

  1. Jun 14, 2010 #1
    I know this topic has been discussed before, but I wanted to get the opinions of those who have graduated outside the UK. (Also, there is usually some confusion over the UK and US educational systems, and this topic might clear it up.)

    In the UK it was usually the case where you went from a from a 3 year BSc to a 3 year PhD, and thus it was possible to gain your doctorate by the time you were 24. However, nowadays people seem to be moving towards a 4 year MSci (combined bachelors and masters) and then a 3.5 year PhD. So, I would say that in most cases it takes 7 - 7.5 years in the UK from starting and undergrad degree to gaining a PhD.

    In the US (and I am just going off what I have read) it takes around 4 years for a BSc and then around 5 - 7 years for a PhD. (Please let me know if this is incorrect). So, it takes on average around 3 years longer to graduate with a PhD in the US.

    I'm not too sure about Europe, but having spoke to a professor from Germany, he said that a BSc is usually 5 years, and a PhD is usually 3 years like the UK (so that's 8 years overall).

    Having looked at the scientific work coming out of the UK, and having spoke to a number of UK graduates who now have faculty positions in the US (although I have only spoke to a very small number), it doesn't seem as though those with UK PhDs are any worse off, or any less qualified.

    So, I was wondering what the opinion is of those completing PhDs in the US is? Is there a feeling that UK PhDs are too short, and that UK graduates are less qualified? Do you think the US system is too long, and that it could be shortened to reduce the teaching component and increase the research? Has anone on this board moved to the UK to undertake a PhD purely for the quicker timescale?

    Just curious! :smile:

    (If this is in the wrong forum, please feel free to move it!)
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 14, 2010 #2
    I can talk about the situation in Italy.
    You need 3 years to take BSc (but usually 4 or more are spent) 2 years for the MSc and 3 Years for the Phd. The main difference is that you cannot access PhD without having a Master.

  4. Jun 14, 2010 #3


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    Yes, that is typical, i.e. 9-11 years total, as compared to 7-7.5 in the UK.

    Part of the discrepancy probably comes from the fact that in the US, undergraduates start out at a lower level than in most other countries. The first year of undergraduate study is more like the last year of high school (or whatever it's called) elsewhere.

    Also, undergraduate coursework in the US usually includes a significant amount of "general education" courses, a year's worth or even more.

    Is some coursework that is commonly done at the graduate level in the US, commonly done at the advanced undergraduate level in the UK? For example, US graduate students usually take at least the following courses during their first and second years: classical mechanics at the level of Goldstein, quantum mechanics at the level of Merzbacher, electromagnetism at the level of Jackson. Are those part of graduate or undergraduate coursework in the UK?
  5. Jun 14, 2010 #4
    Another common miss that can be cleared up: 'in the UK' is not true. In Scotland a BSc with honours is 4 years, and an MSci is 5 years.
  6. Jun 14, 2010 #5
    They can be part of an 'undergraduate masters' MSci. The course I did had final year courses on Electrodynamics from Griffiths, Quantum Field Theory from Shaw & Mandl and Peskin & Schroeder, General Relativity from Schutz, a course on Pulsar astronomy and another on Plasma Theory & Diagnostics.
  7. Jun 14, 2010 #6
    My experience is in the U.S. system.

    It can vary dramatically. Typically the B.S. is a four-year degree. For some it takes 5 years.

    An M.S. usually takes another 2 years. An M.S. is not a requirement for a Ph.D.

    In a Ph.D. program starting from the B.S. the required time can vary from 3 years, on up. Some people seem to make a career of graduate school. A fairly typical number is 4 years.

    It took me 4 years after the M.S., but I switched disciplines from engineering to mathematics after the M.S.

    Some can do it more rapidly. I have a friend who received a Ph.D. in about 4 years -- starting from High School. He is somewhat exceptional. He would have received it sooner but the department thought they should take pity on the Dean and have receive a B.S. before the Ph.D. So he basically had to write 2 dissertations.

    I have another friend who just received a Ph.D. last December. He received his B.S. in 1972. There was a bit of a hiatus in between.

    There are no hard and fast rules.
  8. Jun 14, 2010 #7
    I'm from the UK but I am lead to believe that in the US not all of the modules/courses a degree specific, unlike in the UK where if you take a physics degree every course you do will be in physics, except perhaps for a management/personal development course. Correct me if I'm wrong.

    So I think in the US undergrads learn at a year or two behind, because of there non-specialisation???

  9. Jun 14, 2010 #8


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    Generally there is no coursework for a PhD in the UK (or at least there wasn't a few years ago).
    You might audit a masters level course if you needed to know some particular topic.
  10. Jun 14, 2010 #9
    You are correct in assuming that not all courses are degree specific.

    Students generally take classes across a fairly wide spectrum of subjects.

    So an undergraduate physics, mathematics or even major would take some mathematics courses from the Mathematics Department, probably chemistry from the Chemistry Department, physics from the Physics Department, maybe history from the History Department, some sort of English writing or literature from the English Department, maybe an economics class from the Economics Department, etc. I am not sure that causes them to be behind, and I rather think it depends on the individual student.

    It is fairly common for engineering students, for instance, to take no engineering classes until the second year in the university, and in that first year to take mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc. along with other students. In fact when I was in the university (quite a few years ago) no one actually declared a major field until their second (sophomore) year. There was an entire college, called Junior Division at that time, that was devoted entirely to freshmen. Only in the second year did students declare a specific major, and even then it was quite common for students to change a major once or even several times prior to graduation.

    One can change fields fairly late in the game. It it pretty common for a physics undergraduates to go to graduate school in mathematics, and vice versa. I was probably a fairly extreme example. I changed to mathematics from electrical engineering while in graduate school, after a master's degree in engineering. Except for the usual undergraduate mathematics classes that an engineer takes, I essentially never took an undergraduate mathematics class (actually just one semester beyond the normal calculus and introductory linear algebra class). That lack of undergraduate mathematics classes was not a problem -- but mathematics is somewhat unusual in that regard, since if you can understand logic and do the proofs the prerequisites are not important.

    I don't think I would go so far as to say that U.S. students are behind, or at least were behind. However, I have recently become aware that first year U.S. graduate students are apparently woefully unprepared in the area of analysis in mathematics, and I really don't understand that. I am told that they typically are not ready for measure theory, which is a bit of a puzzle as in my opinion there are no prerequisites at all for measure theory.

    In U.S. universities there are also some interdisciplinary degrees, that simply would not be possible without cooperation between departments. For instance the local university offers a combined Ph.D./M.D. in which the Ph.D. might be in chemistry or in biomedical engineering. There is also a Ph.D. offered in chemical physics, which is distinct from physical chemistry, that is a cooperative effort between the Chemistry Department and the Physics Department.

    In any case I think U.S. PhDs, from good institutions, are the equal of any in the world. After all,the Ph.D. is a research degree and the classes are only a means to an end. What is important is the research.
  11. Jun 15, 2010 #10


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    Those would be third year undergraduate courses in the Netherlands. In the first master year (theoretical physics), you then take e.g. quantum field theory, statistical field theory, general relativity.
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