1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

UK student wanting to do PhD in the US

  1. Aug 26, 2014 #1
    So first I will lay out my background, I am about to start QFFF (Masters) at Imperial College in the UK, I graduated from my undergraduate degree with a strong first class honours which I believe is a 4.0 GPA in the US (top 10% of my class) and first class project (from which I will be getting at least one excellent academic reference) the project was a monte carlo study of various random walks. I intend on tailoring my masters research project towards lattice field theory research.

    Ok so I would like to say that after I finish my masters I want to take a year out (hopefully in the banking sector) for a few reasons... First and foremost I need to study for the GRE tests and I don't want that to interfere with my masters degree, secondly (possibly equally as important) PhD interviews in the UK happen around February, I am not sure when this happens in the US, but certainly in the UK I will have no idea how well I have done in my exams or research project by then. I would rather wait a year and go into interviews with 2 solid projects under my belt. Lastly I have a few financial burdens I want to take care of before living on the salary of a walmart cashier for god knows how many years of my life.

    Here are my questions,
    1) Is taking a year out as I described going to completely jeapordise my chances of getting into grad school?

    2) What are my chances of getting into somewhere like Princeton/Harvard/Stanford/MIT if I finish with a distinction vs a merit provided my second project is good? Keeping in mind I have no idea what universities have good groups in lattice QCD and the likes (I think Stanford and MIT?).

    3) How long is a PhD for a UK student with my background going to be in the US? I am under the impression that US PhD's are way longer than UK PhD's because the 1st couple of years are still examined? If a US PhD is going to take me 6+ years I may as well stay in the UK where I can get it done in 3.
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2014
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 26, 2014 #2


    Staff: Mentor

  4. Aug 26, 2014 #3
    Nope, grad programs in the UK don't require GRE or any standardised test for that matter. I'm open to considering other universities in the US but unless I am likely to have a chance at an Ivy league or stanford/MIT I'm likely to just stay in the UK out of convenience as there are still other good non-oxbridge Universities over here highly regarded in Europe.

    I'm really curious as to whether a UK masters student would spend the same amount of time in their PhD as a US undergrad student qualifying for grad school. Really would be nice to hear opinions from someone who knows a UK student that studied in the US. Also if someone could let me know of Universities with strong QCD researchers that would be ideal.
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2014
  5. Aug 27, 2014 #4
    Why not forget the bank, do a PhD in the UK, then get (reasonable) money doing a fellowship in the USA? At Imperial you should be able to get to know good UK researchers really well, making it easier to spot a good PhD supervisor.
  6. Aug 27, 2014 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    OP, I do not know how the UK masters would be regarded at US institutions, but I do know a number of people with German Diplom degrees and Russian Specialist degrees who joined US PhD programs (both kinds of degrees would conventionally be considered equivalent to the Masters). These people still had to go to lectures, do homework, and pass qualifying exams and similar stuff in the US PhD programs. Even in rather extreme cases----one of the Russians had her Specialist degree from the Moscow State University, with highest grades, and had already published three first author papers (in good journals) by the time she applied for the PhD program. She still needed to do a bunch of courses.

    So, chances are that even with your Masters they would still treat you exactly like an US graduate student. I would think twice about going through this ordeal. It might be a better option to just get your doctorate in Europe in three years and then go to the US for two years as a post doc. This would be shorter in total and advance you much further in terms of career development.
  7. Aug 27, 2014 #6
    Well bank or no bank it doesn't really matter, either way I already mentioned why I need to take a year out between masters and PhD in my original post and if I am going to take that year off regardless I see no reason as to why making some decent money during the process is a bad thing, and my main reason for wanting to study in the US is that my chances of getting into a good theory group are higher simply due there being a larger number of institutions available to me. Of course I will stay in the UK if I am accepted into a relevant theory group but there are only a handful in the UK pursuing the area of research I am interested in, you can count them on one hand..
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2014
  8. Aug 27, 2014 #7
    Thanks for the useful response, if anyone else has experiences that can be added to this it would be appreciated, this is probably the only thing that would deter me from PhD'ing in the US, but just to put it into perspective Imperial College is regarded as the 3rd best University in Europe after Oxbridge (and second best Theoretical Physics department after Cambridge), I was sort of hoping this would put me in a fairly good position, by the time my course is finished I will have covered advanced QFT, advanced GR, QED and strings/SUSY if I chose to but anyway it is what it is I guess.

    EDIT: Forgive my meaningless pretentious statement, what I meant to say was Imperial College is highly regarded by other institutions in Europe.
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2014
  9. Aug 27, 2014 #8
    What a ridiculous statement! You should be thinking about who would be a good person to pursue research with, not taking silly league tables seriously.

    I'd just like to say, as a UK citizen, that we don't all hold such narrow and parochial views. Please excuse my fellow citizen; put it down to youth and naivety. I'd stay in the UK for a while CMBH, you obviously have a lot of growing up to do before you can be trusted abroad.

    cgk is making a lot of sense. After several decades in UK universities I've never met a UK citizen who has taken a PhD in the states. Not to say it doesn't happen, but I think the barriers of graduate coursework, money, length of time, and GREs are probably something to do with it.
  10. Aug 27, 2014 #9
    Right, where did I say league tables matter for research? For all I know people reading this thread have never heard of ICL in their life... If the research group is relevant then that is where I will do research, but as far as i'm aware universities are biased towards potential candidates based on academic merit unfortunately, that might not be the case in the US but I know a fair few people have lost out on PhD positions to students from Cambridge and Oxford in the UK...

    Maybe I was wrong to say it in so many words, but the point I was trying to make is that Imperial College is relatively highly regarded at least by other institutions in Europe regardless of league tables... Therefore I would hope that this would hold some weight in the US but I have absolutely no idea, hence the thread.

    I'm also not entirely sure how such a petty unsubstantiated statement adds anything to the discussion? I'm simply here so I can make better informed decisions...
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2014
  11. Aug 27, 2014 #10
    You said, "Imperial College is regarded as the 3rd best University in Europe after Oxbridge." That's creating a league table, and a lot of laughter in Paris, Berlin, Zurich... Also, I'm sure Oxford and Cambridge will not like being lumped into one "Oxbridge". Still if you want to upset everyone, that's up to you, just keep on using the acronym and hope ICL don't work out "the real you".
  12. Aug 27, 2014 #11


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    There are obviously a lot of good students coming out of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial etc. However, you need to realize that most academics and researchers in the UK (and elsewhere) actively dislike league tables (and other attempts at ranking universities, such as the Research Excellence Framework); mainly because they are pretty much useless once you are past the undergraduate stage (i.e. they might be somewhat helpful for the student when choosing university, but doesn't tell you much how good that student is when he/she finishes). Hence, you need to be careful about statements like that.

    Also, as well as good students there are also plenty of not-so-good students coming out the Russell group universities, I have personally had second and third year summer students from places like Imperial that have been completely hopeless and I would never even consider supervising them; they were presumably good at passing exams but that is only a small part

    Your best bet for securing a good PhD position(at least in the in the UK) would be to do a good final year project, even if the person supervising that project can't or won't hire you he/she can recommend you to other people(my PhD students have all come from smaller universities, and were recommended to me).
    Recommendations and a goo project are usually much more important than which university you attended and how good your grades are (as long as you meet the formal requirements)
  13. Aug 27, 2014 #12
    Ok well thanks for the civil response, the whole process is of course a learning curve for me, moving past my possibly very inaccurate statement it seems that the general consensus is that UK students simply don't go to grad school in the US out of inconvenience? I mean aside from the GRE, the single main downfall is longer time spent before you complete your thesis? That's really the main thing I want to conclude in this thread, would still really like to hear from a UK physicist that went to the US.
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2014
  14. Aug 30, 2014 #13
    In the U.S. the programs are don't really split master's and PhD, it's just kinda all together. You have to pass the qualifiers and complete your PhD research. At most programs you also have to take a set of basic core courses. I think there are a few, perhaps Caltech, where they don't really have core courses and you can just take the quals and then move onto some advanced classes or do research.

    If you are going to have already completed multiple QFT and string theory courses, that sounds like a weird match for most U.S. programs since you've already taken more courses than many of the programs even offer, but maybe at some place like Caltech it could work out reasonably and you could just get into the research very quickly and not have to start from scratch so much as it were. (of course the quals there are quite tricky, you might do a year of semi-independent or group study for quals and then go into research if that all goes well).

    You should really contact a few departments and some grad students currently at the departments and sound things out carefully.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook